The original painting for the cover of Whetstone
It's been a busy week in my household. For most of the country it's vacation week and the time I do my most intense work. It's the time that I am either editing wholeheartedly or have just completed publishing a new novel. This year I have just finished book two of a three part series and, as usual, it has been intense. Until I had one of my books published I never imagined what was involved in putting out a novel.
Like many aspiring writers I imagined that the real work of a novel was the heartfelt words that an impassioned author put to paper. How romantic. There, in the dark of night or tucked away in a cozy cafe, all that was needed was plenty of inspiration and a decent laptop. Not quite.
Without that author there would certainly not be a book, but now I see that when I pick up a novel there is much, much more in my hand. I think of it as something akin to a fresh green bean upon my dinner plate. In today's world we take a ride to the supermarket, grab a bag of fresh vegetables and, after some simple preparation, serve it on a plate to be quickly gobbled up or pushed aside. But for a moment stop and think about all the time and effort spent planting, growing and pruning that bean before it hit the market shelves. Before a book is in your hand, it too has been loved and cared for, groomed and cultivated.
Somewhere in the mind of the writer is that first idea. Like a tiny seed, it needs good soil. Sometimes it dies, and sometimes it continues to grow. It must soften, like the bean. The idea must take shape and definition before it begins to sprout. After being soaked in the dark of the mind and enriched carefully in a sea of imagination, it begins to send out a tendril. It might linger in the darkness, soaking for a few minutes or for a lifetime, but until the moment that the pen hits the paper it remains no more than a concept, a tiny bean that has yet to break through to the sunlight.
It begins with one word, and then a sentence. Sometimes it pours out, sending out stems and leaves rapidly. Other times it creeps forward cautiously, laying out its tale slowly. In the mind of the writer it grows in three dimensions. It becomes alive, independent, an entity unto itself. In the average novel there are 500,000 words. That's a lot of beans. They can't be scattered willy-nilly across the page. Grammar has rules that have to be followed which is not always an easy task while your imagination is shooting out words and ideas, caught up in the emotion of the moment. Words may pour out like gibberish in an anxious rush to "get it on paper", but at some point they must make sense to a potential reader.
Once it's written, every word must be read. And reread. And reread again. I read them while I write them, and again right after I have written them. And then I reread them yet again if I step away, to remind myself where I am in my story and then again to settle back into my writing pace. If I make changes I read the words again. Once I type "The End" I read every word again three to five times, tweaking and arranging all the time. And then the actual editing begins.
Now is the time to put on my big girl panties and maybe a bit of armor. My publisher asked me once if I cried while I write and truthfully, I often do. He told me a good writer cries twice: once when writing and once while editing. He also said editors frequently quit and walk off the job. If it's done right, editing is brutal. There can be no nice guy holding the red pen.
That lovely sprout of words, so perfectly eloquent, written with heart and soul, when read by another person suddenly sounds awkward and nonsensical. Now all of those words that once made beautiful and perfect sense leave you scratching your head. We read what we think we see, but when an editor sits down with your words he reads what's really there. He catches the second "the" in "Paris in the the spring". My editor now reads my work out loud. It's the way we hear repetitive words, awkward phrasing and things that sound, well, just plain bad. I can hear, when read aloud by another person, when my stories sound maudlin, slow or just plain stupid. When that happens, and it does, I have to let go of my sweet tender bean plant, to tolerate the pruning and endure the shears. When I wrote only for my own eyes I'd be proud and full of myself, even imagining the compliments of friends were true reviews. Now that I write for the world it is a very different story.
I know I am not alone. Mark Twain, Capote and many other well known authors have groaned about editing. Editors and publishers worldwide tell familiar stories of writers having thrown their manuscripts out the window under the duress of editing. I had never before imagined the impact and the work involved.
But then, when that little bean emerges from the twining, twisting, arranging and pruning, it can be a work of art. Done well it tells the story plainly and speaks to the reader clearly. It's no longer bogged down with good intentions and eloquent, but non-nonsensical rambling. It simply says what it always meant to say. Now the words are ready for the world.
And then comes the packaging. You may not, as they say, be able to tell a book by its cover, but it sure helps. I am fortunate to have a cover designer that knows my mind and is brimming with ideas. But for myself, I have one real rule. When I see my book would I buy it? Is it like a thousand others. or does it say "me" and stand out? If the cover would not tempt me to pick it up off the shelf it doesn't go onto my book.
My carefully crafted bean stalk needs to be packaged and formatted, then converted and formatted again. Yes, we live in a modern age where novels no longer must be typed from handwritten pages and corrected with white-out, but plenty of work still remains. Even in a quickly-moving, technological world each novel still needs layout work. Each cover design must fit. And, there must always be room for that UPC label.
And then it arrives. In a heavy box on the hefty shoulder of the delivery man is that first box of books. It makes no difference if it is my first novel or the tenth, it is my book. My tiny seed that started in my imagination has grown and thrived, and finally has blossomed. It is a collection of my words, my experiences, my research and my heart.