dark house, empty bowl: on leaving the world for a novel (and making it back alive)


My novel sold almost a year ago. Since then, it has gone through two or three rounds of revisions and two rounds of line editing. At the end of last month, I drove down to the Hay and Feed store to pick up my copyedited manuscript (UPS doesn’t deliver this far back in the canyon) and spent the next two weeks making my final changes.

For the first day or two, I treated the copyedits casually. After all, the book was already written. The problems that had confounded me in earlier revisions, I had safely solved. All I had to do now was sit back, relax, and strike out an occasional adverb with my pencil.

But on the third day, it hit me: this was my last chance to make changes larger than a word or punctuation mark here and there. After this, any weak scene would be weak forever. Any lame line of dialogue would have its lame self stamped onto paper thousands of times when the book went to the printer. Any garbled almost-truth would stay that way forever, straining for meaning and falling short.

Over a long revision process, it can start to feel like you have infinite chances to get things right. That, even if you don’t nail that chapter on this round, the answer will surely bubble up by the time the manuscript comes back to you again. This is not to say that I didn’t strive to get things right on every previous revision; but there’s something about a finish line that makes you question even the scenes you had previously considered strong, and the paragraphs you had gotten used to skimming over without really reading, so convinced were you that they were in the clear.

From that point on, casual went out the window. For the next ten days, I hardly left the rickety card table I’d set up in the neighbors’ spare room. I went in and out through the back door, avoiding the patio where my friends sat talking in the shade, pre-empting human interactions with averted eyes and a rushed hello. Eating was an annoyance I profoundly resented. Similarly conversations longer than a few words. I felt keenly that this was my last chance to say something true with this novel; my last chance to take as many “almosts” as still remained and push them until they were there.

In my determination to put everything I had into this last chance, I lost my sense of taste and smell. If you asked me which clothes I was wearing, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. If you asked me which plants had blossomed by the back door I barged in and out of several times a day, I wouldn’t have been able to guess. My body hurt, and by the eighth or ninth day a profound exhaustion made it harder to work for longer than an hour at a time, although I was wary of straying more than a few feet from the stack of paper on my desk.

I did find the truths I was pushing for—a few of them, anyway—but a few that really mattered. I dropped off the manuscript at the UPS counter in the nearest biggish town and we drove on to San Francisco. As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, my mind was still on the manuscript, running through the new sentences I’d written the previous day. But the moment I stepped out of the car, something inside me shattered. There were flowers everywhere. The wind was cool. The air smelled of eucalyptus. I stood on the sidewalk and cried.

*

There’s something violent about attempting something that requires your whole being, whether it’s finishing a novel or fixing a car the morning before they tow it away—to use up everything you have in its service, to focus on the task with such intensity that the “you” who is sitting at the table is a light-starved animal denied the experience of its own senses. It’s hard to come back into the world after cutting yourself off from it so completely, wrenching to realize how painful the separation had been. It’s like coming home to realize the dog has been locked inside for three days without food or water: pure anguish as you fumble desperately for something to feed it.

As writers, we are constantly mining our own experiences—not just events and emotions, but the subtle experiences of our senses, the smells and sights and sounds. But there are times when the act of writing demands that we cut ourselves off from the very things that allow us to write in the first place, and when that happens, something is depleted that needs to be replenished in a real, physical, bodily sense. We can’t live in our heads, drawing on a tired archive of sensory information collected months or years ago. We need to live in the world, in the flowers and wind and eucalyptus, encountering them directly moment by moment. This is the only way the animal of the self will survive when our art calls us away for days or weeks. This is the only way to ensure it will still be alive when we come home.

Comments

  1. How well I remember this stage, all the way to, ahm, just a few months ago...
    The way I dealt with it is to finally accept that it will not ever be perfect. What is?
    But that's me and mine. Your book will be.

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    1. the crazy thing is, even when a page or sentence *feels* perfect, I read it again a month later and think of something to change. it's good thing Harper is making me turn this thing in or I would keep on editing it forever...

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  2. Thanks for sharing this. I have been putting off going back and changing a few things in my ms, and now I think I might be scared to fall down that rabbit hole!

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    1. oh no! don't let it scare you off. good luck with your rabbit hole if and when you choose to go down it :)

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    2. I'm diving in today. Look out, rabbits!

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  3. I have just gone through a mini-version of this, scrambling over the first fifty pages of my ms to show to my agent for the first time. But it felt like I had so much riding on it, so much of my hopes, that I shut out the people closest to me for about a week.

    It's done now, but more will follow. Thank you for this beautiful bit of perspective.

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    1. good luck with new manuscript! it's so strange writing something, knowing your agent or editor is going to read it and evaluate it on some level. it freaks me out a little. I'm still trying to figure out how to work in this context.

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  4. Gut-wrenching and beautiful at the same time. Just like the best of soul-bearing honest writing.

    I'm looking forward to reading your novel even moreso after reading this.

    -- Tom

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    1. thanks Tom! whenever I don't write on this blog for a long time, stuff just piles up. maybe the long breaks are good for something after all :)

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  5. Gorgeous. I have chills reading this.

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    1. oh, hello! I thought the cover for THE MOCKINGBIRDS was so beautiful I e-mailed it to my editor as an example of best YA covers. would love to know what you're working on now!

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  6. This is beautiful. Can't wait to read the book - which i'm sure contains more than truths.

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    1. hopefully there is a plot in there somewhere too :) but luckily, the plot was all sorted out before the insano copyedits.

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  7. So ironic that to write accurately about the senses - to really let our characters LIVE - we have to descend so wholly into our own minds that we can't.
    At least for a little while.
    So glad you're through the woods. :)

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    1. I know! it's beautifully twisted how that works. but it *does* work, which is some consolation.

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  8. This is scary and beautiful -- and thank you.

    I realize I haven't felt anything like this in a long time, and it very easily could be what's been interfering with my writing lately. I am feeling busy and just living in my regular world too much. I need to give my writing world the attention it deserves, even if I have to get scary-lost in it for awhile.

    Amy

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  9. Well said! Unable to sleep as I get closer to my deadline, I feel exhausted and take a nap after crossing the finish line.

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  10. Truth, this. SO MUCH TRUTH.

    The manic need to fester over a single scene/paragraph/sentence/WORD... for hours, days, it is a particular madness. Knowing that once the book is out in the wild it is no longer ours, it no longer belongs to us ...the need to get it right before it flies the coop, the mantra in my head that good is the enemy of great...it's consuming.

    I'm glad you're through it and back with this world.

    <3,
    Lola

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  11. This is beautifully written. I love when writers write about their process. Can't wait to hear how it goes for you!

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  12. So glad the Golden Gate and the eucalyptus were there when you were ready to embrace them.

    My recommendation: once you pass the point of being able to make changes, do not read your ARC. Hug it, hold it, photograph it, give it away (I want one!), have someone ELSE give it a finally check for glitches, but stay away. Because man, the instant you crack it open, even just to research something for another book, the little 'if onlys' will start to leak out of the pages. I revised and revised and read-aloud until I ran out of life and breath, but I still can't get through a single chapter without seeing something I wish I could change.

    Like you, if the publisher hadn't taken it away, I'd still be revising :)

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  13. I missed this the first time around. Gorgeous and moving and so so true.

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