This is what happens AFTER you write the next book.
You have days of euphoria. No one save for a few people who you love and trust and who probably love you a little too much to objectively read the drafts of your next book, are even aware that you have finally completed the new manuscript.
Those first days can best be compared to some really good flirting with a make-out session – light make-out – the one where you have EVERYTHING to look forward to and you know it and enjoy the feeling.
When you cannot stand it a moment longer, you consummate the relationship by reading the manuscript yet again, the one that you have been working on for a year, the one you have (or so you thought) picked apart with a fine tooth comb, because you are not amiss to criticism and re-writes – as a matter of fact you actually enjoy pulling it all apart and putting it back together – and that is when you see IT. The thing that was bugging you, that you just couldn’t figure out, the thing you would have changed if you had caught it in the first 100 readings. So you e-mail your agent and you tell her to disregard an entire paragraph, no, on second thought, the page, no wait, maybe that chapter. Ah, whatever, maybe even that character.
You’ve done it. You have slept with the object of your affection and let’s just say there is no basking in this afterglow. This is the kind of sex where you realize it’s a mistake before the last grunt and then everything gets real quiet. Horror movie quiet.
What’s wrong here is that you have done this before and so you figured, like that damn bike riding analogy, you would get back on the computer and do it all again. You already had what you imagined to be a fully fleshed out idea for the next book while you were editing your first book – so there were a few plot points and sub plots to work out – but you basically had IT, right?
You had it until you pulled apart all three hundred and eighty pages (too long, WAY too long, you now see) and they are strewn all over your office. Everything is BAD. The only character you even like is a minor one but the rest are just a lot of whining annoying creations of your mind (what DOES your mind look like anyhow? A preschool for adults)? This makes you shiver in disgust. You don’t even need to hear from your agent – you know this is one great big pile of stink.
E-mail to agent: disregard the entire book. Shred it. I’m starting over. Then you begin to eat. You fall into a total funk. You are an AAA Super Bitch to everyone in your family and your friends think you left town without a forwarding address. Forget your “virtual” family – you have abandoned everyone.
When your sweatpants are too tight you start to take long walks and on those walks you play the old game of what –if. The entire book changes. You salvage no characters save the setting. You begin again. You try and tell yourself that you hear the whispers of another set of characters. You even tell other people this phrase thinking it makes you sound like a working writer. Meanwhile, you are still visiting book groups, plugging away at everything promotional for the book you DID manage to publish. You listen to people gush over the characters in that book and all the while you think: I WILL NEVER DO THIS AGAIN. When they earnestly ask if you have another book coming out you stammer through some nonsense. In a panic you leave every single book group with the thought: THIS WAS A FLUKE.
The second try manuscript: This book has major flaws in plot and pacing but the words look really pretty on the page. You can craft a sentence like nobody’s business. Except the sentences don’t make a cohesive book. You send it anyway to your agent because you are in love with the writing.
This time there isn’t that celebratory rush, no flirting occurs and even your most loyal readers are finding it hard to believe a major plot point. I don’t have to explain to you what I mean when I say the book was three hundred plus pages of SWISS CHEESE.
When your agent calls you say: I know, before she even gets past the pleasantries. You go back and forth a bit. She is a wise and insightful woman, a careful editor, she knows what makes a story tick and she knows how to get that story out of you. You and she have been through a lot. A book you both loved that sold and then didn’t and then the subsequent success of the following book leading to your first major sale. She tells you to figure out what the real story is you are trying to tell and before she hangs up the phone she tells you she believes in you. She knows you can do it.
You lack that same confidence. You take to your couch where you watch The Food Network, and multiple episodes of The Gilmore Girls. On alternate days you have elaborate fantasies where you live in Stars Hollow and you are pals with Lorelai and Rory or you are best friends with Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa and work as her helper in her stunning Hamptons kitchen. This is the only creative part of your brain that is working.
You go to the library and come home with a stack of books. It takes about a week but you chuck three quarters of them across the room until you get to the bottom of the pile. There is a book of short stories so exquisitely rendered you cry after the first reading. On the second reading you are taking notes on structure, on the third, voice, on the fourth, story. You don’t even think about what you are doing anymore. A first line comes into your head. You know who is speaking. You know the story and you know who wants to tell the story and it begins all over again just like that.
Months and months fly by, you are consumed by the book and the characters and your fingers are flying across the keyboard and you get that same feeling you had the first time when you got it right: it’s like taking dictation. Your characters know what they want and how to say it and you are the conduit. When you have to engage in real life because you have children and a husband you are scribbling notes constantly – you have wads of notes all over the house, in the kitchen and the bathroom in every pocket of every sweater and jacket, stuck to door-frames and the dog leash. When you walk the dog you talk to her about the book. You appear insane. Your clothes are spotted and your hair is wild. You are in it and there is no turning back and suddenly everything is making sense again.
You tighten, you polish, you read and re-read and you become a very selfish person this time – but you have to be – the work demands that and when it is finally ready to send out into the world you feel differently than before. You have taken some narrative chances but you think it pays off. You will be able to defend it if necessary. With dread you approach the manuscript again after you have sent it out to the agent. You re-read it. You take your time. You get to the end and you cry.
And you think, for the first time in a long time: it doesn’t suck. And you wait, calmly, quietly, dare I say, even happily? You wait. And this time it’s okay.