Saturday, November 17, 2012

Love Your Book

Every time I write a novel I have to fool myself. I have to brainwash myself into believing a couple of obvious lies.
The first lie is that writing my novel is the most interesting thing I could possibly do. More interesting than reading anyone else’s books or watching any movies or playing any video games. This is a patent, laughable falsehood. Reading Dennis Lehane’s new book is much more interesting than writing my novel. So is watching the latest crop of movies: Lincoln, Skyfall, even Wreck-It Ralph. Playing Halo with my son is a lot more interesting than writing my novel. Or at least it would be if I could learn how to work the controls as well as he does.

I have a special problem with video games: I like them too much. Twenty-one years ago I became addicted to a game called Civilization, which I played on my 386 PC (remember those?) The game starts at the dawn of human history; you have to establish a simulated civilization by building cities and mustering armies and increasing your technological know-how. You also wage wars against competing civilizations, and over time -- each turn represents a hundred years, I think -- your weaponry grows ever more powerful. I absolutely loved that game. There was something intensely satisfying about starting out with phalanxes and chariots and then working your way up to riflemen and tanks and aircraft carriers.

One night in November 1991 I played the game until morning. I started playing when my girlfriend (now my wife) went to sleep, and I was still at it when she woke up at 7 am. She gave me an incredulous look. “What on earth are you doing?” I must’ve looked a little scary. My eyes were bloodshot, my hands were shaking, and my back muscles were full of knots from bending over the keyboard all night.  “I did it!” I yelled in triumph. “I conquered the world!”

Later that day I removed the Civilization floppy disk (remember those?) from my computer and threw it in the trash. I realized I couldn’t allow myself to play video games of any kind, because if I did I wouldn’t do anything else. This self-imposed moratorium lasted until a few years ago when I broke down and bought a Wii system for the kids (and then we got an Xbox too). It was jarring to see the new games that have been developed over the past two decades -- the graphics are so much better! But I’ve mostly resisted the compulsion to play. I’m too old to stay up all night. Besides, the kids hog the electronics now.  

But getting back to my point: the world is full of entertaining distractions, and many of them would give me more pleasure than writing my novel would, at least in the short term. Yet I convince myself that this isn’t true. I put down my newspaper and tell myself, “You know what? My novel is more interesting than the CIA director’s scandalous affair. So what, the guy fooled around with a fawning younger woman, what’s so interesting about that? Come on, stop searching the Internet for lubricious details. Stop exchanging snarky e-mails with your friends. Get back to work!”

And this brings me to the second lie I tell myself. At some point in the process of writing a novel I become convinced that this book is the best thing I’ve ever written. No -- the best thing ever written by anybody. Crazy, right? The lie is so absurd I can’t seriously entertain it for very long. But it’s a useful delusion to have, especially when I’m struggling with the book and the deadline is approaching and I have to devote practically every waking moment to finishing the damn thing. Why put in all the effort if the novel isn’t fantastic?

Then I finish the first draft and stop telling myself the lies. They’ve served their purpose, so I don’t have to believe them anymore. I wait a few weeks, and then I’m ready to look at the manuscript again and confront the truth: the book is a mess. Some parts don’t make sense, other parts are boring. I don’t love the book anymore. But I don’t hate it either. Now it’s time for some tough love. An intervention. I have to whip the manuscript into shape.

And then, after all the revisions are done and the final changes sent to the copy editor and the advance reading copies distributed to the reviewers, then I’m ready to fall in love with the book again. But this time it’s not a blind, self-deluding infatuation. I’ve done my best to fix the novel’s flaws, but I know it’ll never be perfect. I love the book despite its imperfections and infelicities. I’m at this stage now with my next novel, which will be published in February. I’m still collecting blurbs and composing the jacket copy, but I can’t make any major changes to the book. This stage is the literary equivalent of zipping up your lover’s dress and clasping the pearls around her neck, getting her ready for her big night on the town.

Go out there, beautiful. Knock ’em dead.


  1. You're right, it's too much work to stick with it if you don't truly believe it must be written and read. Like marriage --you must believe the passion and love outweigh the flaws. Good post.

  2. You date ideas, then fall in love with one of them. You propose. She says, "Let me think about it." Planning or outlining is wooing. Then you get married and write the novel. The opening is the honeymoon (my favorite part) and then the marriage hits some bumps, some problems have to be worked out, but you're still in the glow. Hopefully, you remain happy waking up with this novel each morning.

    Revision? That's marriage counseling. At the end, you hope it's all the stronger.

    Congrats on the new title, Mark.

  3. Fun post, Mark. I read a great review of your book on Publishers Weekly. So whatever your process is, I wouldn't worry too much. :)

  4. Excellent post! I am also addicted to Civ (since it first came out), but I did not toss the discs when I realized how much of a time-suck it was. I'm still hopelessly addicted to it, and waste many writing hours playing a silly game.

    The lie I have to fight is "this is all drivel - no one will read it." Then I pass it along to a couple of critique partners and they tell me the truth. Once in a while, I'm right (it's drivel). The rest of the time, I rejoice that I managed to produce something readable.


  5. My drug of choice is Facebook. To get away from it I am actually going back to the real world and have gotten a job in "Outside."

    Both to get back to the luxury of having regular paychecks and that curious creature known as health insurance.

    But also to get some discipline on my time and thoughts. I believe I will get more writing done when I'm not alone with all the whirring noises in my head and the 24/7 FB cocktail party.

    And, the best part is I get to research and write about disasters, for pay! I'm the new Emergency Management Director for Bourbon County, Kansas. Yes, I am in charge of the zombie apocalypse plan.

    So, while I don't look forward to pants 5 days a week, I do look forward to getting my brain back in harness and falling back in love with my story (and my bank account).

  6. NOW I know why it's taking me sooo long to finish Catalina Eddie. I knew there was a good reason for it. My major diversion is COSTCO. It all starts with the $1.50 hot dogs. Then you're buying fifty 1gb thumb drives for ten bucks.

  7. My main distraction is distractions. They are vry distracting.

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  9. Actually I do have a real distraction when writing my novels. Video games, movies, TV or other books don't slow me down at all. Sometimes though, when I sit down to write, instead of the novel I should be working on I end up penning some bizarre short story, like that reply to Michelle's post the other day about "Roger Rodrigo Emmanuel Robert Rodriguez Culpepper the Third", when I am trying to think about how my protagonist gets down the mountain and tries to rescues his wife from under the eyes of a Chi-Com regiment instead some ludicrous story about my fictional cousin Leonard and his time machine slides in. Sometimes I try to put these little snippets into my novel as comic relief or backstory and I've even created a character who is threaded through all of my novels to be that guy who can do some of the silliness. But still, I wish it didn't happen sometimes.