Thursday, September 10, 2009
The waiting is the hardest part...
(Wrote this for the Sept. Shedunnit, the Sisters in Crime newsletter, and thought I'd share here:)
“The first things writers want – and this sounds so basic, but you’d be surprised how unbasic is is in the publishing world – is a quick response. Once they’ve finished a new manuscript and put it in the mail, they exist in a state of suspended emotional and psychic animation until they hear from their editor, and it’s cruelty to animals to keep them waiting.” – Robert Gottlieb, The Paris Review Interviews
Recently, I completed a manuscript for the second book in my Dulcie Schwartz series. It was a difficult birth, seeing as how for some reason I can no longer recall, I’d told my editor that I could easily turn it in within four months. I’d figured out, I think, that if I wrote a mere 2,000 words a day, I’d churn out enough copy and to spare for a cozy-length mystery by my deadline, and still have, oh weeks, to revise the thing.
Did I have a plot at that point? No. Did I have new secondary characters, a crime, a motive, or even a theme? No. Did I have other work – editing, a class to teach, a ghostwriting project? Yes. But you know what? The hardest part of writing what will now be “Grey Matters” (slated for Dec. ‘09 UK publication with Severn House, thank you very much) wasn’t meeting my own, somewhat ridiculous deadline. Nor was it even climbing over the growing pile of discarded papers, opened books, and journal articles that I scrambled through for research. Or even the heartfelt apologies to friends and family members who were either ignored or burdened with impossible tasks (“Of course you were supposed to shop and make dinner – how could I take time to tell you? I’m writing!”). The hardest part by far was the seven weeks following my agent sending the beast off to my editor. It was that month in a half during which I vacillated from “It’s the best thing I’ve ever written” to “it’s utter crap,” from “Well, at least it’s better than the first book” to “does a ghost cat even make sense?” with increasing rapidity. That waiting was relieved, briefly, when my agent sent out a tentative query and we found out that the editor hadn’t received the manuscript. (She must have figured that I simply hadn’t met my own deadline.) We then re-sent it and had a final two-plus weeks, during which I was alternately weepy and brittle, proud and prone to utter despair.
Why is the waiting, to paraphrase Tom Petty, the hardest part? I think largely it’s because for all our isolation, we writers are communication junkies. We want feedback. We deal with our hours alone, muttering things like “minimum lethal dosage,” because they are necessary in order to make the crazy worlds inside our heads into something that we can share. And when they are made as real as we can make them, we want those outside our heads to rush in, walk around, spot the bodies, and scream. When theydon’t, we are disappointed. We feel abandoned. And we slowly go nuts.
Friends, with all the best intentions, tell us to “enjoy the time off.” Like that was possible. They couldn’t see that fun for a writer is synonymous with being hip-deep in a new project, where an overheard comment or a street sign makes you start scribbling notes. When we interrupt family dinners to ask about the force needed to drive a fork through someone’s eye. This is what fun is for us, for me, anyway, and I don’t want time off.
There’s a cure for the ills of waiting. It’s known as starting another project. Because as soon as we get involved in a new story, the old one loses its grip. It becames stale, yesterday’s news. And that has the double benefit of giving us distance, which helps when that manuscript comes back and we need to be gimlet eyed to root out all the errors and awkward bits that we so blithely read over the first thirty-eight times.
Usually, I can do this, too. In fact, while I was waiting on my latest Theda Krakow mystery (Probable Claws), I’d drafted a new work, with a hard-boiled animal psychic. So, at first, when Grey Matters> went off, I went back to that “pet noir,” revising that one more time before handing it to the agent. But then that went out, too, and I was not only exhausted, I was at loose ends. Should I attempt another Dulcie or another pet noir? Return to the dark rock-and-roll mystery that I’ve been kicking around for two years now? Try to write something that didn’t feature cats? Pen an article for Shedunnit?
The latter seemed like a good idea, the methadone that would wean me from the shakes and the cravings. But while I dithered and tarried, picking up books (like those Paris Review interviews) and putting them down again, I had news. My editor had accepted “Grey Matters,” and I had to get to work on revisions. No word on the other project yet, but that’s okay. I’ve got a deadline again. A project. And so of course, I immediately got to work on this. Just keep those deadlines coming, folks. Anything less is cruelty to animals, and you know how I feel about that.