Friday, February 29, 2008

I Hope My Baby Isn't Ugly

You know the feeling. You’ve driven twenty minutes. You’re stuck at a light because the person in front of you hasn’t figured out it isn’t getting any greener, the drivers behind you are honking, you’re ten minutes late for your appointment, it feels like someone’s tightening a vise around your head…

And then you think you left the stove on. Or the iron. Or (heaven help you) a space heater. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be on. And you have to decide whether you’ll turn around and check, just to be safe, or keep going.

You can play the day’s events over in your mind a million times, and it isn’t going to help much. Why? Because so many of our actions are almost instinctive, second nature. How many times would you guess you’ve turned off the stove? Or the iron? So many, you’ve lost count. And when you try to recall whether or not you turned off the stove you can recall the action. What’s often less certain is whether or not you’re remembering this morning or some other morning.

I presently live out in the country, so I’m extremely paranoid about such things. It’s a thirty-five minute drive to the edge of the city, and if I’m running errands chances are it will be almost an hour for me to drive home from wherever I am. A few years ago, I had my office in the basement, so I regularly used a space heater. And I lost count of the number of times I left the house and had that nagging doubt… Did I turn it off?

For all the times I turned around and checked, only once had I actually left it on, but you better believe that every time I had a niggling doubt after that I turned my Rodeo around.

The problem is when you’re running late, when you’ve crossed some magical line that whispers back to the voice of doubt: it’s too late now. I’ve had those times when I’ve just had to swallow the doubt and hope I didn’t forgot to turn everything off.

Writers go through something similar to this all the time. We have thoughts that occur to us while we’re driving, in the shower, drifting off to sleep, enjoying a quiet dinner out with our partner… And we hope we’ll remember them later, when we’re at our desk. It’s an amazing thing when you have a sudden flash of inspiration, a light bulb moment. There’s nothing better than when you’re working on a manuscript and you have one of those at your desk.

Unfortunately, the curse of the creative process is that even when you aren’t working, your brain is still processing ideas. I remember this from reading ME AND MY LITTLE BRAIN as a kid. I was a big fan of The Great Brain series, and in this book, the Great Brain is off to school and his younger brother is trying to follow in his footsteps. He has a problem, and remembers what his older brother told him…

That if you think about it when you fall asleep you’ll often wake up with the answer.

As adults, we know there’s as much chance of waking up with a headache or feeling bone tired or setting your mind racing and never sleeping at all, but the general logic is sound: Our subconscious continues processing things even after our conscious brain has shifted gears. That’s why we suddenly blurt out stupid things in the middle of conversations that don’t have anything to do with the person we’re talking to, but connect to something we were doing three days ago.

Right now, I’m in the home stretch of editing THE FRAILTY OF FLESH. My job is to catch all the pesky typos that have managed to sneak through the first round, to tighten up the language, and to look for any inconsistencies in the story, or things that weren’t tied off. I keep plenty of paper handy. I keep a notepad in my purse in case something occurs to me when I’m not at home. I even keep paper and a pen by my bed, in case I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea - and yes, I’ve made notes in the dark many time. They’re only slightly less legible than my usual scrawl.

The problem is, you think about things so much you can actually think you made the changes, but didn’t. You’re juggling dozens of corrections, additions, alterations… And the mind plays tricks. It’s easy to think you’ve made them, and it’s easy enough to forget.

For FRAILTY, that isn’t such a critical problem right now. We’re a long way from final edits. What I’m actually doing right now is what my editor and I call a dust-up. He’s given me the green light on the manuscript, and as long as I don’t make any major changes to the storyline, I’m allowed to go over it on my own and look for all the things I want to strengthen, tighten, correct. It’s an extra layer of editing that increases the likelihood I’ll be completely satisfied with the final copy.

Well, for about five minutes anyway. I know of authors who take a red pen to their book after it has been published. I’m not quite that bad, but it really is amazing how long you can debate whether or not you should use ‘replied’ or ‘responded’ on page 227…

Right now, I have the advantage of time on my side with FRAILTY. However, within months that will be gone. I will reach a point where I have to hope I have caught every change and let the book go.

I imagine it’s like coming to terms with the fact that your baby has grown up and is moving away to attend university. You hope you’ve been a good parent, that you’ve taught them all the things they need to know to survive on their own…

As an author, you believe you’ve given the book your all. Now, you want that stamp of approval that says your hard work paid off.

You do not want to hear that your baby is ugly.

I found out last night one of the first reviews of WHAT BURNS WITHIN will be out next week. On the one hand, it’s nice to know the reviews are coming…

But that part of me that waits until I’m halfway to Calgary to wonder whether or not I turned off the iron is now obsessing about the book that’s out of my hands.

I’m trying to remind myself that it’s out of my control, a review is just a review… and since I review books myself I know reviews are at least partly subjective. However, the reviews are the first responses you get to your work, and it’s hard not to be nervous.

(None of which is helped by my partner offhandedly commenting about the fact that Tain - who is Native - was suddenly white for twenty pages in the middle of the book, or that fifty pages were missing from the ARC. Those of you wondering where we get our murderous impulses now understand! I really hate the fact that he has a perfect dead-pan delivery sometimes.)

The one good thing about this is that it motivates you to work even harder on the next book…

And the bad thing is, every time a reader tells you they’re starting your book you go through the same roller coaster of emotion and worry, because every reader is their own judge of whether or not your book succeeds.

No matter what the reviews say.

(For some reason, I felt inspired to add this... Enjoy.)


Chris said...

Sometimes, I think my entire existence is wondering whether I locked the door, or have all my credit cards, or whatnot. And like you said, it's a vicious cycle -- am I remembering locking the door this morning, or am I remembering having done it YESTERDAY? Such is the curse of an obsessive compulsive streak.

As for the writing, I NEVER leave a thought for later if I can avoid it. Consequently, I have thousands of Post-its, scribbled-on receipts, and random e-mails scattered about the house. To be honest, they may be about as useful as not writing anything down at all, because it's damn near impossible to keep track of what I have and haven't written down...

Sandra Ruttan said...

I like to get right on the changes if I can (hence my negligence here lately) but it isn't always possible. In fact, I need to go change one last thing on Frailty right now, then it's done...