It is at once the most exciting and most nerve-wracking moment of the early stages of writing a novel. Last July, I came up with an idea for a novel that amused me. For the next nine months, I sat at my computer at 9 AM, five to seven days a week, and hacked away until the story and characters took shape. Now, after two drafts, I have a 400-page manuscript that is ready for the next and most crucial step of a long, long journey toward publication: the opinions of other readers.
My first reader will always be my wonderful and talented wife. Anyone who read the previous sentence and thought, “Yes, but she’s your wife. She loves you. She won’t give you the feedback you really need,” doesn’t know Diane Magras very well. Yes, she loves me, but she has never hesitated to tell me when my writing doesn’t work, when my characters’ motivations are unclear, when a plot development is illogical. She is my fiercest critic and staunchest supporter. It helps that she, too, is a writer. She knows the value of honest, thoughtful feedback.
A few days ago, I e-mailed my manuscript to her. She has already begun reading it. Once she has had her turn and I have incorporated her suggestions, I’ll send the manuscript to the next kind reader, and then the next. During this phase of the process, I attempt the impossible and try not to think about my novel and my readers’ verdicts. I try not to think of the possibility that the previous nine months have been a waste of time, and that I will have to start all over again.
What’s a writer to do, then, while he waits for his kind readers to tell him if his work is any good?
The most important diversion, at least for me, is to keep writing. I’m not working on another novel, as I worry about mixing up two or more good ideas and thus rendering all of them bad. But I have plenty of other projects. I have two book reviews to finish by the end of the month. I fill my notebook—a book made of actual paper that I write in with an actual pen—with ideas that may never make it into print but that entertain me. I write the occasional blog post. And I’m updating the journal I have kept of my son’s life since he was born. My son is six years old now. The journal is 770 single-spaced pages and counting.
Another good diversion is to read, and to read a lot, books to review as well as those to savor just for fun. My current non-review reading consists of two books that couldn’t be more different from one another: Life Times, the collected stories of Nadine Gordimer, and Seriously Funny, by Gerald Nachman. The latter, which I may write about in another post, is a survey of the great American comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s, among them some of my favorite performers: Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Ernie Kovacs, Bob Newhart, Steve Allen, Bob & Ray, and, of course, Woody Allen and Tom Lehrer.
Lots of other activities keep my mind off my novel. I take my son out every afternoon for an after-school snack, during which we share a pastry and discuss his day. I have increased the distance I jog and cycle every day—probably a good idea given all those after-school snacks. Next week’s April school vacation will keep me away from the office for a while. And I’ve been listening to more music. My focus recently has been on jazz standards and the more obscure works by Gilbert and Sullivan, such as The Sorcerer, Patience, and Ruddigore—the last of which, the duo’s tenth collaboration and first after the success of The Mikado, W.S. Gilbert derisively re-titled after its lukewarm reception Kensington Gore, or Not As Good As The Mikado. He was right, but it’s still a pleasure to listen to.
How about you? What do you do to take your mind off your preoccupations?
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