You’re never done with a book. In many ways it’s like a relative you haven’t seen in years come to visit. Indefinitely. At first, it’s great, it’s like meeting someone brand new, you have stories to tell each other, catching up. You go out, you party, you show them around.
But time passes, they don’t leave, you still have to deal with them. Not that it’s exactly unpleasant or unwelcome, but the longer it takes for them to get to the point of actually going to visit someone else the less tolerant you are of having to deal with them every single day.
It’s an imprecise simile at best, but it gives an idea.
I’ll be finished today with the penultimate draft of my new novel. That’s right, penultimate. I know I will have one more draft to do before I can send it to my agent, something I had wanted to do last year. This one is taking much longer than I first anticipated. But, as I waste time writing these very words, my other computer has the new scene I realized last night I needed up on the screen, needing to be finished. It’s a short scene, maybe a thousand words, but crucial. And final. When I am done, the book will be largely in its finished form. All that follows will be the picking of nits, necessary and aggravating, like cleaning the house thoroughly after that relative has left.
Of course, you can shut the door on the relative—might be a cold thing to do, but really you can. It just takes resolve and you can cut them off. There is no law that says you must put up with anyone that way, not even a relative.
A book is different, though. You’re never really done with it, even after you get it published.
The question came up in conversation with a friend last night, Do I Like It?
I always reach a point in a big project like this where I can’t stand it anymore. Another day, another paragraph, another revision—bah! I want it done, I want it ready, I want it out the door! My brain is anxious to start something new, I’m tired of this, I’m starting to second-and-third-guess myself, doubt that it’s worth a damn…
But yeah, I like it. It now has a shape and a cohesion, I know what it’s about, I know the characters, I know what I want it to do. My friend asked if it could be considered a thriller and I had to answer, cautiously, that no, it’s not really paced that way. Besides, thrillers seem by definition to contain many highly improbable plot twists—which is like unto a dangerous road full of switchbacks and sharp curves. As long as you’re driving along at top speed and just paying attention to getting to the end alive, it’s exhilarating. But does it make sense?
No, this is more staid in the sense that I went for maximum plausibility. There is one unlikelihood at the center of the plot, which I figure you can always get away with (one that is), but I proceeded on the assumption that I was writing to match both historical veracity and human truth. So I’m hoping it plays well to the mystery, historical crowds.
This will be the first time I actually finished this stage of a book on New Year’s Eve, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a bit of a recap.
In many ways 2007 sucked. But it sucked less than 2006 and it was frankly magnificent compared to 2005, so I figure as long as you can count the year an improvement overall, you had a good year. We had a good year.
The major success was in my Missouri Center for the Book efforts. I joined this board in 2002, started organizing programming for them, and in 2005 they made me president. I shan’t go into detail, but the MCB was in something of a shambles. No money, no direction, talk had begun of shutting it down, people were depressed, etc. There were many problems. I had absolutely no idea how to fix it. I decided my job was to stand in the middle of the room and throw spaghetti. See what stuck. After a lot of work, MCB is on the cusp of being a major player in the arts in Missouri. This has been made possible largely by the decision of our governor to establish a state poet laureate and name us as the organization responsible for the program. Everything we’ve done in the last two and a half years suddenly clicked into place and we’re off. Instead of walking out in 2008 like I’d considered, I’ll serve another full year as president to make sure everything hangs together. (I still, frankly, don’t quite know what I’m doing. It’s like writing a novel, though…you just make things up along the way and then see to it they fit with everything else.)
Second thing for me personally this year was actually finishing this book. I now believe in it. I think it will be okay.
Third thing, I did my first teaching gig in a workshop, during a Missouri Writers Guild conference, and discovered that I loved it. A couple of my students actually went on to sell their first short stories this past year and that really made me feel good. I find I would like to do that again.
What has till this year been a source of amusement for me is becoming an annoyance.
The shock many people experience after they get to know me initially (more than a little, that is, deeper than casual superficiality) comes when they learn that I have no college. (One friend of my opined that I must have at least a masters degree. When I said no, he jumped straight to Ph.D. Such assessment warms my heart, but…)
For many reasons I did not—ever—attend college. The closest I came was the six weeks I spent at Clarion in 1988. Some of the reasons for this are principled, but in all honesty I just didn’t want to. I hated school. Disliked just about all of it. Most of my education took place in spite of my teachers, and a lot of it outside the confines of the classroom. At the time (I graduated high school in 1973) my attitude was, Why would I voluntarily submit myself to four more years of something I’m ecstatic to get away from?
In all honesty, at the time I thought my career would be in photography—which my high school supported not at all. I was self-taught, I got a job in the business right out of school, and ended up working in one end of the industry or another since. Had I not rediscovered my love of writing, I probably would be running my own studio or something today. I did not, in my view, need any college to do what I already knew how to do.
Such is the linear, face-value assessment of a teen-ager who doesn’t understand the Way The World Works. (Several years ago a friend’s oldest son was arguing with him about the need to go to college. He thought it was a waste of time, and did little to prepare one for the “real world”. He dragged me into it as an example of someone who had done all right without. But I was changing my attitude by then and I told him “You’re absolutely right. There’s nothing you can learn in college that you can’t learn on your own. But the fact is, unless you go to college, They won’t let you play with the cool toys.” It’s all about the game. I know degreed people pulling in sixty-plus Gs a year who can’t read one of my books. Doesn’t matter—they have the day pass.)
Anyway, I now am looking at the fact that unless I do something extraordinarily clever or impressive, I’m not able to get a job at a university teaching what I know how to do. I checked into the requirements for the basics, and the cost and time are prohibitive— even if I had the interest to sustain me through two years of classes I don’t think I need.
Which leads to the clever and extraordinary part. Okay, I have spent the last few years actually Doing Something that will look very cool on a resume. So be it. I’ll use it. Plus, I’m still writing books. Not publishing right now, but…
When I’m in the midst of a book project, my mind is in many ways slush. If it doesn’t concern the book, it gets short notice. It’s hard to do career planning when you are fatally distracted. But my mind is clearing now that I see the end in sight. I have ideas. Stay tuned.
What’s that you ask? The photography? Yes, go to the Art link here and you’ll see a number of my photographs. Yes, I should be doing something with them. I’m on it.
The thing is—and the reason all this is becoming acute just now—is that the Old Way of doing photography, at least commercially, is disappearing. I’m an analogue practitioner, not digital. I work barely 20 hours a week in my day job at a lab, doing multiple tasks, because 80 to 90% of our business is now digital.
I do not own a digital camera.
This coming year, this will change. I intend to learn (again) and start doing Something with my images. Again, stay tuned.
The books? Well, don’t be sad, folks, really, when I tell you that when I deliver this one—called, by the way, The Spanish Bride—I’m not starting another novel. Not till one of the three that will then be circulating sells. I’m going to try to remember how to write short stories, but I need to do something that actually makes money. And for whatever reason, my work, while respected, is not seen as something profitable. At least, apparently. I don’t really believe that, but it doesn’t matter what I believe, it’s what the publishers believe. So…I’ve written three novels in the last four years now. (Three and half, really, but that’s another matter.) I’m tired and none of them have sold. I need to rest from this, let the batteries recharge.
(We’ll see if this actually happens. I’ve declared such down periods in the past, only to find that a month or so later I was itching to start a new book.)
I’m toying with doing a web-based novel. I’m about to start doing book reviews for our local major newspaper. I’m looking into a gallery to show some photographs.
And we’ve planned our first real vacation(s) in a long time! We’re going to visit friends, nothing really new, but we’ll be Out Of Town, doing cool things. Donna especially badly needs this. Her job…well, the short of it is, she finally landed in the job of her dreams, but the workload is oppressive. She loves the work, but there’s too damn much of it. She has, as well, become the major breadwinner here. But she needs a break. We’re getting it.
More domestically, we’ve started finishing projects around the house which have waited too long. A few years ago, we paid this thing off. We are debt free. Given the current banking situation, we’re thrilled not to owe any money. We do without quite a lot of fun things, but in the long run no one has any claims on us. We own our cars, our house, our lives are not in the hands of some junior bank executive who has to increase this month’s bottom line or lose his or her job. But after fifteen years, there are still things we haven’t finished. We began this past year. We have a couple things to do this coming year. The two rooms which have been perpetually in disarray practically since we moved in are scheduled for rehabilitation. Once done, and everything here fits like an outer skin should, well…
Donna and I will be celebrating 28 years together in April.
28 years. Boggles my mind. And I still think she’s the finest woman on the planet. Out of all the aspects that might explain this minor miracle, I think it’s fair to say that, all other things notwithstanding, we travel well together. When we go on a trip, we’re a fine pair of companions for the road. That’s always been true. Even when we’ve had bad patches, once we got in the car or boarded the plane, Something Clicked, and we traveled well. As metaphors go, one could get sappy, but there it is. Drop us naked in Afghanistan and we have absolute confidence in each other that together we’d find our way out and home.
The dog is at my elbow, wanting something. I need to wrap this up anyway and actually finish the scene I said I was going to.
So Happy New Year, any of you who might read this. No excuses, now. Have one. We will.