Friday, June 16, 2017

The third book

The second book is supposed to be the tough one. Fraught with pressure and uncertainty, with the glow of first publication wearing off, it’s a notoriously difficult hurdle ... and yet it wasn’t that way for me. My second novel (Try Not to Breathe) was, and still is, one of the pieces of writing I’m proudest of. And it was, if not easy, less difficult to write than most of my other work.

For me, the third book carried all the baggage and trouble that the sophomore effort usually does. I despaired over every editorial letter. Many nights I left the computer thinking, “I quit; it’s over,” only to try again the next day. For that reason, for a long time I saw a shadow over that book. Remembering the struggle, I thought of it as lesser than its siblings. 

And then, at some point, I reread Until It Hurts to Stop. And I loved it. I reconnected with the characters, with the theme that had driven me to write it in the first place. My behind-the-scenes anguish was not on the page. The pages reflected only the outcome of the editorial decisions, not the doubts and debates that happened before those choices were made.

It reminded me that people don’t see what you leave on the cutting-room floor. They don’t see the endless drafts, the revision letters, the raw notes. A scene that took you a month to write may be gulped down by the reader in a few minutes. Its smoothness is possible only because of the trouble you took; it’s the product that counts. The reader doesn’t know that your dog died during the writing of Chapter Five, or that your kid had the flu and you wrote Chapter Eleven on no sleep, or that you rewrote Chapter Three seventeen times. The reader never saw the two characters you deleted and the twenty pages you lopped off at the end. 

The story—thank goodness—has a life apart from all that, a self-contained existence between its covers. It has been polished to its best form.