Monday, February 18, 2013

Even keel? What's one of them, then?

Someone asked me recently what the best bit of being a writer was and here’s what went through my head:  “When Joe comes!  Or is that the worst?  No, wait – the actual writing!  Except that’s the worst too.  The jacket!  Wait, though, that sometimes makes you feel physically sick.   Oh, silly me – it’s people reading my stories.  Am I insane? That’s worse than Joe, the jackets, the actual writing and a poke in the eye all put together.”

Let me explain.
Any day when I get a box of books from Joe the UPS guy is a great day.  Both because of the books and because of Joe, who is lovely.  He's of a certain age and boxes of books are heavy, so it was a testament to his work ethic that it took him a long time finally to say to me: “What is it that you do?”  (I translated it for myself: “ What the frilly hat is in all of these boxes?”)

But sometimes Joe comes with a packet of page proofs instead.  300 pages of too-late-to-change carved-in-stoneness.  Highlights from the most recent set of page proofs I’ve waded through were: changing a character’s name (only from Dorothy to Dorothea but still); having nine characters staying in a house and a scene about where all eight of them are sleeping (cue hasty invention of sleeping quarters above the old stable yard for the chauffeur) and; the magical unlocking of a door whose key I had just said was in a Staffordshire bon-bon dish on a mantelpiece in a totally nother wing of the house. 
I do see that’s not Joe’s fault really. If I didn’t live in the middle of nowhere, with a mailbox a mile from my house, it would be Dan the mailman’s doing instead

There are wonderful moments in the writing process itself.  Typing “The End” would be pretty great, for instance.  Of course, I never actually type “The End”; I hit save, save as (click click click) external storage device, save both & rename, open Gmail, attach file, send to self, new message, send to someone else too.  Paranoid?  Moi?  Doesn’t everyone have a flash drive in their wallet?  (save)
Something I do type which is quite good is “Chapter 1”.  Ahhhhhh.  That moment when there’s a nest of folders on my computer desktop: work>newbook>drafts>draft 1 and there’s a blank page on the screen and this book is wonderful.  It’s genius.  It’s funny and heart-rending and revealing and true.  It’s I Capture the Castle with Corpses.  It’s Catch 22 by Agatha Christie.   It’s Gone With The Wind To Scotland And Somebody Died.

But there are the other moments, too, and plenty of them.  Like typing “Chapter 11”, which is where I am now.  It’s the slough of despond.  The dead hour when most people commit suicide if they're going to.  The bit you call “somehow “ when the idea for a story first arrives.  “So . . . there’s this guy," you think "and at the beginning he seems to be . . . but in the end it  turns out that in fact . . .” and connecting these two islands of clarity is a sea of “somehow”.  I’m deep in huge lake of stinking steaming somehow today.
It always gets better, but you’re so traumatised that you try to stay scared.  That way the gods of gotcha are appeased.  Kelli Stanley put it beautifully on Facebook the other day: “I can see light at the end of the tunnel,” she wrote.  “I hope it’s not a train.”

Once the moments of genius and the slough are over, though, you get another good bit when you see the cover.  This is when I can officially forget the name of the book forever.  So Dandy Gilver and The Proper Or Was It Best Way to Treatment Ah Must Have been Proper Treatment For Of? For Blood Or Maybe Bloodstains became The Red One. 

And Dandy Gilver And An Unsuitable Or Unseemly Or Bothersome Day I'm Sure Of for a Murder, Corpse or Killing became The Purple One.  
Next Up is The Blue One: aka Dandy Gilver and A Goodly No Deadly No Goodly Measure Or Was it Dose Measure I Think of Brimstone.
On the other hand, there’s the moment when you hit the “open attachment” button to see the cover for the first time.  Because what if you hate it?  What if it’s beige with brown writing?  What if it looks dumber than a bag of soup?  You’re going to have hold this thing up and smile for photos for a solid year, you know.  Maybe even two if the US jacket is the same as the UK one.  You might even have to answer the question “Did you design the cover?” and try to say “No, I’m not an artist, unfortunately.  Isn’t it lovely?” instead of “God, no!  Is that what you think of me?”
But a few months ago I half-shut my eyes and hit the open attachment button to see the cover from a brand-new publisher for a brand-new strand of writing.  Anything at all could have happened. Shoes and loopy writing!  Flowers dotting the “i”s!  Beige on brown in a bag of soup!  But look what I saw instead:

It’s beautiful.  And it reminded my that I wasn’t writing a draft, or a set of proofs or a title to have to remember.  I was writing a book.  And people were going to read it too.

And that’s the best bit of all: when someone emails, or sends you a Facebook message or a tweet, or – get this – puts pen to paper and licks a stamp and tells you that they enjoyed your story. It’s amazing how often these letters get lobbed into the slough of despond too; right splash into the middle of the sea of somehow.  It’s probably because a new book comes out in paperback just as I hit chapter 11 on the next one, but it feels like gods of pity have let a crumb fall from their table to sustain me. 

Except I’m not there yet.  Where I am, right now, is the considerably worse bit when the ARCS go out and all those people you hope might give you a kind quote to put on the jacket are laughing scornfully and reading bits out to their loved ones as examples of bad writing.  And these are people you’re going to have to face at Left Coast Crime and Malice and Bouchercon!   (Only then they’ll say they loved it, because they’re setting you up for a big fall.)
This why when writers read their friends’ ARCs they email fifteen times a day:
  • “I’m on the second page.  The first page was wonderful!”
  • “I’m on Chapter 3.  It gets better and better.”
  • “I was up to Chapter 15 (still great!) but my house burned down.  Can you send me another one?  I can’t think of anything except your book because it’s so amazing.”
And there you have it.  That’s the five shilling tour of the inside of a writer’s head – no wonder we make up stories to visit instead of staying there, eh?


Beth Groundwater said...

LOL, Catriona, I love this post. I've been in that huge lake of stinking steaming somehow with every single book, and all I can say is that I'm glad I know how to swim!

Shannon Baker said...

I’m deep in huge lake of stinking steaming somehow today. Welcome to my month! Can't wait to see you next month.

Deborah Sharp said...

What an inspiring post! Glad to know I've got some company in that stinking, steaming .... I'll toss you a life vest if you return the favor!
And PS, your Dandy books are a delight, so I'm not truly buying the fact you're ever that deep in the stink!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Great post, Catriona! We can all relate.

Catriona McPherson said...

Thanks, everyone, for not saying "Um no - that's just you." Tomorrow, Chapter 12.