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The Cooling Off Period

FACT: The stretch of time between the moment your manuscript is accepted for publication and the time it actually becomes a book and hits the shelf is a VERY LONG STRETCH OF TIME. 

No, I don’t mean it feels long, I mean it actually is long.  Six months would be very, very quick by publishing standards.  Eighteen months would not be out of the question.  

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A CONVERSATION COMMONLY HAD BY SOON-TO-BE AUTHORS EVERYWHERE:

Random Person: Oh!  You have a book coming out?  How exciting!  When?

Writer: April Fool’s Day, 20XX (names precise date)

Random Person: (recoiling a bit, wondering if the writer in question isn’t a bit nuts) Why, that’s a year from now!  Why so long?

Writer: (has no answer for this, only shrugs)

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There is, of course, a perfectly good reason it takes such a long time to turn a finished manuscript into a book.  Publishing houses are full of smart, hardworking people who must do a whole lot of things to keep the wheels turning.  Layout.  Typeset.  Cover art.  Publicity.  Marketing.  Sales rep’ping.  And all this is to say nothing of strategic timing.  I know we live in an age of instant gratification, but it’s not like they just push a button, people. 

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The other day, The Millions posted a piece wherein aspiring debut novelist Meredith Turits interviewed six writers, and picked their brains about the way they feel now about their debut novels.  The responses fascinated me, in that they ranged from sheepish and mildly embarrassed (perhaps the way you might feel about having your old yearbook photo posted by a friend on Facebook) to fiercely proud and defensive (perhaps the way some people hold onto the intense memory of an old lover?).  It was an interesting quick read, if nothing else. 

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BAGGAGE MAY SHIFT IN FLIGHT

Reading that piece on The Millions website got me to thinking.  No two responses were exactly alike.  I’ve always had a weird relationship with my own writing once it’s out of my hands.  And I often go through a period during which I HATE it.  I can see all of my writing’s shortcomings, and these shortcomings are suddenly all banded together, giving me the finger.  This, unfortunately, occurs most often when something is about ready to go into print, and there isn’t really a whole lot of room for such a self-critical stance.  It’s an indulgence you can’t truly afford as an author: You just sold a book to a publisher.  You handed over a manuscript and agreed that it was “finished.”  People are working hard to think up ways to make that book succeed, to get that book into readers’ hands everywhere.  Your job is to figure out how you can aid in the cause that has become Publishing Your Book.  It’s probably the lousiest time to lead with, “Oh my God, don’t read that; it’s terrible… I’m soooo embarrassed!”  I think actually adopting this stance would be up there on the scale of Things Shitty Humans Do. 

And yet, the dirty truth is, I felt that way in the months leading up to the publication of The Other Typist.  I’m still trying to figure out what’s up with that.  Is it a teenage-girl-vanity impulse leftover from my more immature days?  Like seeing your figure in a photo or hearing your voice on someone’s voicemail and rejecting it as your own?  Is it some kind of impossible, uptight, perfectionist tic that – quite honestly – you should see a therapist about?  As for me… whatever it is, I definitely think it is related to that person inside me who sees a minor typo in an email only seconds after she’s hit “send” and spends the next ten minutes trying to think up some sort of breezy, witty, casual, I-totally-didn’t-mean-to-do-that, please-forgive-the-typo, follow up email.  (Hot Tip: Nothing says “uptight crazy-pants” than one such follow up email… take it from me, leave it alone and back away from the computer slowly). 

And while there is absolutely no place to put this feeling, you may well still feel it.  I know I do sometimes. 

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Does this mean if you feel this way, your book probably sucks?  I hope not.  During the time I hated The Other Typist – a period of time that spanned from months before the book pub’d to a few months after it had hit the bookstore shelves – I met a number of people who liked it; I even got random emails from fans who liked it so much they wanted to reach out just to say so. 

WHAT I LEARNED: How to listen to them.  And how to say “thank you.” 

DO I THINK IT WAS A PERFECT BOOK? – No.  Even now, I will sometimes look over the more critical reviews or even the harsher Amazon comments that criticize the book and I will find myself nodding, “Oh yes, totally! I agree… ”  But you know, when I dig away all the self-conscious crap that had me bogged down, the truth is, I had a lot of fun writing it!  And it was deeply gratifying to hear that there were people who had a lot of fun reading it.  As writers, can we really ask for anything more? 

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OH YEAH, AND ONE MORE WEIRD QUIRK

…is that people forget: Writers, unless they’re insane narcissists, don’t go around reading their own books. 

We may spend years writing and rewriting a book, but once it’s a done deal and we are told we can’t make any further tweaks or minor edits, we put it down and walk away.  We don’t exactly sit around our houses and pluck it off the shelf and say to ourselves, “well, this looks like a good pleasure-read…”  There are so many great books in the world, and not enough years in the average human lifespan to read a good many of them!  We’re not going to read our own books: A little known-fact that can sometimes lead to some rather amusing question-and-answer sessions at a book reading.  For instance, there are times a reader knows the book better than the author does.  (Writer’s internal monologue: “What is this reader asking? Didn’t that chapter didn’t get cut in edits?  Oh geez, I thought it did!” … or… “Wait – what was that character’s name again? I can’t believe I forgot!”).  It can make a writer feel like she just failed to turn in a book report on the very book she wrote!  Does this quirky phenomenon indicate that the author didn’t have a deep intellectual engagement during the writing of her own book, or that it was something that was superficially or hurriedly produced?  No.  I don’t think so.  It just means the author reads like you do: Books she did not write herself.  Maybe that’s a relief? 

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THE BOTTOM LINE

They’ve moved my pub date for THREE-MARTINI LUNCH up, from June to April.  I am doing my best to remember everything I learned from that blurry time when Penguin was winding up to publish The Other Typist and I was going a little crazy every other day, trying to decide if the book was any good or not (um, not my place – one hundred percent the reader’s place and the reader’s place only).  The bottom line is, each time you write a book, you write the best book you can, and – if you are alive and ambitious at all – you immediately find yourself hungry to learn how to write something even better.