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Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Because I am coming very close to a deadline for Girl At Sea, I wanted to give you a glimpse into the process of writing a book. After all, that’s what most people want to know. How do you write a book?

This is not a guide to the long, thoughtful process of plotting, sketching, researching, and experimenting that most people think of when they think about writing books. The part where people imagine we writers sit under trees in floppy hats, turning a line over and over, while someone lurks in the background playing a lute. Or some of you imagine that we are sitting in a coffee shop wearing a floppy hat, be-bopping to Starbucks jazz and letting our little fingers fly!

No, no. That’s not what this guide is about.

This is about those last weeks and days when you really, seriously must finish the book. Really. They aren’t kidding.

“But don’t writers just turn in the book when they are done?” you ask. “Surely, it must be so!”

No, dear readers! No! See, here’s the thing: most writers are never done. Many of us would spend all of eternity tinkering with our books, if physics would allow us the opportunity. This is why publishers make us sign contracts that say, “You will give us a book on such-and-such a date or we will send the zombies after you.”

It’s only fair. The publisher has to have time to get paper, print the book, put the cover on it, get it to the people who buy books for stores. There’s a lot to do. Which means the authors can’t sit around noodling forever. Because we would.

(The obvious exception to this rule is J.K. Rowling, who can turn in Harry Potter VII in any form she desires, whenever she wants. If she wants to scribble scenes on tiny bits of paper, then toss them into the ocean one by one, the publisher will send a trawler and some people with nets to scoop them up, one by one. And they’ll like it.)

The rest of us have deadlines. And this is how they often happen.

The Writer: looking good and feeling fine.

The Writer has been working on his book for quite a while now. He really likes chapters one, eight, ten, and fourteen. Chapter two isn’t right. For that matter, neither are chapters three through seven, nine, eleven, and thirteen. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, there is no chapter twelve. But there’s time, right?

The Writer looks at the calendar. The book is due in a week. This brings about The Realization.

It’s best to be sitting down when The Realization comes.

No. This isn’t good at all. It’s impossible. Didn’t you hear that part about chapter two? And the fact that there is no chapter twelve? No. No, no, no. Clearly, it’s time to send a note to The Editor to beg for more time.

The Editor always has something wise to say.

The Editor, used to these shenanigans, nicely tells The Writer to knock it off. The Writer has had weeks to finish chapter twelve. And The Editor just knows The Writer can do it. “Good luck, Writer!” he says. “Fare thee well! I’ll see that book in a week!”

The Writer inevitably falls into a period of serious denial. There is simply no way that this book is due. There’s all the time in the world! The Writer will start engaging in totally irrelevant activities, like knitting scarves, visiting local sights, and updating his blog and putting in lots of pictures. It’s like he’s drunk. Drunk on denial.

In the denial phase, frivolity rules.

Before long, the buzz wears off, and The Writer will return to his desk.

“All right,” The Writer says to himself. “I can do this. I’ll just sit down here and . . .”

And then blank. Nothing. Just a few hours before, characters were chatting away in The Writer’s head. Now, there is only the sound of crickets and the occasional wind chime. The Writer has fallen into a Deadline Coma.

The Writer may suddenly find that he doesn’t have as many ideas as he did before.

The Writer then reads over the material and finds that it is all wrong. Every word of it. Who wrote this gibberish? Clearly, someone has been sneaking in at night and swapping out his fine work with this monkey typing. Maybe someone is drugging him every night. This is a piece of insanity!

Who has been sneaking around, tampering with The Writer’s work? Or mind?

Clearly, at this point, there is only one thing to do: run. Get up and run. But deadlines always follow. All deadlines are homing deadlines.

Run, Writer, run!

Naturally, there is no outrunning the deadline. The Writer is cornered and desperate. The deadline forces him back to his desk, where he slumps and complains for a day or two. By about day three, The Writer will probably decide that his work is so bad and the situation so hopeless that he should probably go to the roof and throw himself off. Usually, he catches himself just in time.

The fire department in New York City is frequently called out to rescue writers dangling from ledges. This is the NYC equivalent of the cat stuck up in the tree.

Seeing his folly, The Writer sits back down to work with a newfound respect for life. Miraculously, he often finds his brain to be suddenly flooded with ideas. The days before the deadline are spent in a kind of frenzy. Then, on the appointed day, the book is sent. The Writer celebrates with friends, who are glad that he has finished spazing, running, moping, and clinging to the edges of tall buildings.

The Writer is suddenly a lot more fun to be around, but his friends know this isn’t the last time these things will happen.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL! I loved the article, but the pictures you put with it are SO great! Wonderful job! ;-D

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Blogger yndy said...

Absolutley brilliant! :)

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Anonymous Lynn said...

My thoughts exactly.

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Stuart said...

Genius. At last I have an explanation for all those precariously dangling individuals I so often see above the city streets - it is the publishing capital of the world, industriously working away.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Vibha M said...

Lovely article Maureen. Am a hobbyist writer myself and am planning to start writing a novel. Just can think of a good enough topic. :-)


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Anonymous robinson said...

thanks for making your blog the way you did. the pictures added beautifully to the humor. happy writing-running away.

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Anonymous kim said...

You made me laugh! Thank you :)

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Anonymous Jules said...

Though I knew I wasn't alone, it's nice to find other writers find it important enough to blog about. :) Very funny.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

omg...!! u ought to be a writer...you made my day!!! hmmm...that only leads me to believe that I should become a writer too...M

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! This is exactly how I act when I'm close to a writing deadline. No I'm not a writer but I am in college. All my great ideas race thru my head and by the time I write them down I know I missed at least 9 out of 10. I do enjoy writing so thanks for the blog. I no longer feel alone.

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This is great! I would like to see more of these blog posts. When?
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