Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Returning to the World

Yes, I know. It's been January since I last wrote anything here -- but the reason might help you with your own writing.

Simply put, I can only produce so many words in a day, a week, a month . . . and I chose to use my words over the past three months to create a novel. Towards the end of the project, I was writing 3,000 words a day -- a period I called my 'barn-runner' phase. (Barn runners are horses who quicken their pace, sometimes dramatically, once they realize they're heading towards home.) When I saw that the end of my ride was near, I galloped towards "The End," and it felt pretty darned good.

Before the barn-runner phase, though, comes a detachment from the world; it happens every time I get deep into a book project. Whether I'm writing fiction or nonfiction, when I start working on a new manuscript I'm not very committed to it. I'm just playing around, trying different things out, and during this period I'm perfectly able to remain engaged in all the other aspects of my life. But gradually I find myself becoming more and more obsessed with the project, more and more distracted by it, and this distraction leads me to abandon less important activities one by one until finally I'm spending all my time either writing or enjoying my family.

As with anything in life, it's all about priorities.

The great thing in my household, though, is that when I'm in the immersion phase -- the period when, you might say, I'm having a passionate love affair with my book project to the exclusion of all else -- my husband and kids handle the chores and errands that keep our home running smoothly. They want me to be able to focus on my project, and they know that when I'm finished they'll have my undivided attention again (until I fall in love with some other project!). In the early years of my career, when my kids were little, this wasn't the case; I had to hold back some of that passion so I could still get other things done. And I was able to make this work -- but the results were not as good as they are now. (Or at least, that's what my husband tells me. He thinks my most recent books, especially this last one, are my best.)

But getting back to my immersion in a project -- there's a final phase you should know about, the completion phase. This used to be a tough one for me; for years I had a real problem letting go of a project once it was time to move on. Even after an editor would practically rip the manuscript out of my hands, I would continue to think about it during the day and dream about it during the night. Then I hit on a way to "close the book" on a project: use a vacation as a way to transition back to the real world. So when I get to the point where the book feels finished, I print off a copy and do the final proofread at a beach motel that's long been a favorite of mine. The sounds and smells of the nearby ocean signal to my mind that I really am on vacation, not at work, and so I find myself reading my book as though it was someone else's, some novel I picked up at an airport to take with me on a trip, and when I'm done reading it I really do feel done.

Of course, this doesn't mean the manuscript won't need other changes, as my agent and editors have their say. I know a book isn't really done until it's in print and therefore can't be changed anymore. But the love affair is definitely over by the end of my vacation; I'll never again be so smitten with that particular manuscript that it has the power to pull me away from the real world. Instead, I'll be considering the book the way an editor would, with a critical eye and detached emotions.

And speaking of editors, I don't have one for this book yet, because my agent couldn't sell the manuscript until it was finished. This is what happens when you're writing in a genre you've never tried before. If you're working on something similar to what you've already done, then you can usually get a contract before you've started the manuscript, based simply on your prior sales figures etc. So now I'm in the position of a first-time author, waiting to hear whether my book will indeed be published -- and you might want to hear how I'm dealing with this uncertainty:

I just started writing a new novel. We're still at the getting-to-know-you phase, but I'm hoping this relationship will blossom into yet another passionate affair.

It's a good thing my husband is the tolerant sort!