If there is one thing writing has taught me, it’s how to let go. It’s not an easy lesson, and out of all the lessons of the past few years, it’s the one I struggle with most—probably because it’s just so important. It affects every stage of the writing process and has value in other areas of my life.
I haven’t blogged much this month. I’ve been busy writing a book! It’s nearly done and I’m going to post a teaser for it next week and blog about the process of writing it. The knockdown, drag about fight I had with my copy edits for Block and Strike yesterday prompted this post. I wrote Block and Strike over two years ago. I revised it last year and rewrote a significant portion of it this year. Right now, it’s that book. The one I’ve invested a lot of self into. And yesterday, I finally had to let it go.
Letting go doesn’t just happen at the end of a book’s life. It’s something you need to practice at every stage. Here are my thoughts on the process.
Letting go during the drafting phase of your novel (novella, short story, essay, wonderfully impressive thesis and/or the theory of everything) might seem either obvious or curious. It’s a draft, why would you need to let go? Because it’s a draft.
Writers: how many of you have read over the previous day’s chapter/scene, decided to rewrite it and then faced the rest of the day having already invested two hours to achieve a word count of five. Or zero. Or negative 336? Yeah, my hand is raised and I know I’m not alone. This is how it works for some. They edit as they go and they produce a pretty clean draft. It’s not the optimal method for me, however. I know this and yet I still do it.
Sometimes it’s necessary. You’ve finished the day’s drafting and you go off to mow the lawn or do something equally mindless and that niggling sensation that what you’ve written was close, but not quite, blossoms into a fully-petaled flower of no. It’s all wrong, but after leaving lovely clean lines on an acre of grass, you know how to make it right.
Make notes! If you’ve got the words in you, do the edits. Or like I do, sit down the next morning and edit the scene, knowing you’re not going to reach your goal that week. That’s okay, by the way. It’s your goal. You can change it. Again, some writers could just leave some detailed comments at this point and push forward. Sometimes I do that, too. But if it’s a game changing scene and rewriting it will help direct the rest of the book, rewrite the damn scene.
In every other instance, however, let it go. Make those notes and let it go. No one should ever submit a first draft. You’re going to be revising the book anyway. So save it. Move forward.
I could get really kinky here. You know what, though? That would be perfect because, to my understanding, submission is about trust and letting go. At some point, you have to trust yourself enough to put that piece of your heart and soul out there and let someone else see it, appreciate it and, um, do things to it. Some of it will hurt and some of it will feel very, very good… after the stinging part.
Getting yourself to the point of submission is f*cking hard. It’s terrifying. If D/s isn’t your thing, imagine preparing a tax return and then feeding it through a paper shredder. That’s what submitting your manuscript will feel like. You’re going to give it someone who is going to render it into so many unrelated strips of paper and then ask you to put it back together again.
The knowledge that it will be better than it was before (better… stronger… faster) is what will get you through this stage, and this is where the trust comes in. You need to trust your partner in this, your agent/editor/critique partner. You also need to trust yourself. You got this far, you can take it all the way. So… let go.
Editing for Publication
Well, you’ve done it. You’ve committed yourself to publishing this book. If you haven’t signed with a publisher and accepted their advance, you’ve committed funds to the editing phase. The paper shredder is at work and you’re splicing your manuscript back together.
I really tried to think of another kinky metaphor for this one, but my brain when to the circus instead. Editing for publication is like training for the trapeze. High wires, aerial flips and no net. No. Net. The performance date is set and tickets are sold. You have no choice but to practice and practice and practice, hoping you won’t fall right when the spotlight hits you.
Falling without a net is painful and messy. Thankfully, in publishing, it’s not going to kill you. (It’ll just feel like it is…)
In terms of editing, the practicing is going through your ms every round, clutching your head, your stomach, passing children and pets, and contemplating the drop from a second story window as you realise you have used the word “took” 337 times in only 336 pages. And that everyone’s lips are doing things. All the things. All your characters are reaching for things—and they’re nodding, snorting and shaking their heads while they do it. All at the same time. You read this damn book fifteen times before you submitted it. But it’s not perfect yet. It needs development and the words must be massaged and then a grammar Nazi is going to leave trails of red on every page.
But guess what, that’s not the hard part. Every round of edits is an exercise in patience, but it’s an exercise. You start at the beginning and work your way through to the end. The hard part is learning when to stop going back to the beginning. When to let go.
No book is going to be perfect. Ever. It might be 99.999999 percent there, but that last fraction of a percent is beyond human grasp. It’s like trying to reach the speed of light. Until the aliens hand us a magic box, we’re only ever going to get to 99.999999 percent. And the magic box is going to be a trick, anyway. It’ll show us how to fold space or something. Not exceed the speed of light.
What we have to do with our books is… not look for the magic box. Instead, we have to get to good enough. We have to get to that point where we stop looking for things to fix. If you have children, think of it as a child. Love it for who it is. If you have pets, well—you know all about imperfect. If all you have are these words, love them for what they are: your best effort at this point in time. Your heart, your soul. It’s a story you needed to tell and you told it.
Now let it go.
Oh, man. If you haven’t let it go by now, you’re only going to hurt yourself. Let’s revisit my submission metaphor. Some of this kinky stuff isn’t supposed to hurt. It’s not about pain, it’s about trust and letting go, remember? If you can’t do these things, if you get all tense and tight and whatever, well, it’s going to hurt and no one is going to have a good time. Seriously.
Your readers won’t get a good vibe from you because you’re going to resent each and every one of them for reading the book you couldn’t let go of. And you’re not going to hear the good stuff, or maybe you will, but you’ll disregard it while looking for the bad stuff. For the reader who hates it. For the reviewer who thinks you can’t write—who counted very instance of the word “took” and put the final figure in their review.
Don’t do it. Just… don’t. Once that book is out of your hands, it’s done. Start writing the next one—yes, you too can hop on the wheel of despair for a second spin! Or do like I’ve been doing for the past twelve months—be writing one book while another is in edits. It’s a game I call, “I’m still sane. Really.”
Point is, when someone buys and reads a book you’ve written, either to count the number of times you referred to your characters lips or just because they like your stories, it’s no longer your book. It’s theirs. You don’t own it anymore. The experience within those pages belongs to the reader. A number of authors have blogged about this, usually in sharing how to deal with reviews—negative, positive or indifferent. However you cope with that phase of the book’s life (notice I’m calling it ‘the book’ now, not ‘your book’), my particular brand of advice holds true.
Let it go.
So, why am I sharing my thoughts on the process? Because yesterday, I really needed to read this post. I needed to remember these steps—and that I’m neither a trapeze artist nor a sub. (I’m the ringmaster and don’t you forget it.) I ran search after search, marking up the manuscript of Block and Strike, wishing for nearly eight hours straight that I could rewrite the whole book. By four in the afternoon, I’d pretty much convinced myself it was the worst drivel I’d ever committed to pixel memory and that everyone who read it would think I was at best a hack, at worst deluded. I imagined reviewers slamming me for, well, everything and that I’d never outsell my advance because no one was going to buy this book.
I do this every time. Seriously. EVERY. TIME. Ask my co-writer, Jenn. Ask my husband. Ask Hank, who is perched on the side of my desk giving me a very unimpressed look. Block and Strike will be my eleventh published book. Eleventh! And I’m still running searches on stupid crutch words while my stomach flips and folds. And yet, when it’s done, I go back to writing another book.
I’m obviously insane.
Explaining why I write, why I keep writing, is another blog post entirely, though. Here, I just want to talk about letting go. Yesterday, at 4:34 pm EST, I let go. I sent Block and Strike back to the copy editor. That’s it, it’s done. Proofreading will catch the last few missing words (if any) or niggling grammar errors, but for all intents and purposes, this book is done. It’s both liberating and very frightening. It’s a stage I love and hate. It’s—I can’t go kinky here, sorry. It’s the moment when Indy’s dad is holding him over the edge of the crevasse and the grail is almost within reach. Elsa just plunged to her death, even while Indy was telling her to let go. Now it’s his turn and he wants it so badly, but he just can’t get there.
The grail is his idea of perfection. That’s what the quest is about. Finding this holy relic, which is somehow going to make him a better man, the world a better place. But, really, it’s just a cup. It’s got a great story attached to it—one that’s changed so many times, it’s part myth, part mystery and part faith. But it’s just a cup. A very special cup.
It’s not worth dying for.
So… yeah. Dramatic as it sounds, that’s what letting go is about. At some point, you have to get back to living and working and looking forward to the next adventure.
Okay, if you’ve got this far, you have to watch this clip. Trust me. There’s a little something extra at the end. 🙂