Saturday, September 13, 2008

Stage Fright

The boy book manuscript is at 66,000 words. In a little less than two months, we quaking co-authors must turn in a manuscript that is at least 75,000 words long. Back at the end of March, when we were on the phone, in conference call, with the editor and she announced to us the short deadline and the massive word count, it was all I could do to take a big breath and say, "No problem." 

No problem. After we hung up, the phone rang again and it was the agent, saying, "You were so cool about that." She seemed impressed. 

No problem. Calmly promising the impossible is an essential skill for a writer. And it has been no problem, so far. We have about 3 more chapters to go, and we keep scratching away at the sections we have yet to write. And yet, instead of speeding up, I've felt as though we've slowed down. It took five weeks to eek out the last finished chapter--instead of 10 days. At this rate, we won't finish in time. Sure, most of that included August and dueling vacation schedules and the yawning gap between summer camp and the first day of school. And the chapters we're working on now are about how much trouble boys can get into at school, how they can misfire in a classroom and how they can be herded into special ed by mistake. These are delicate issues. We want it to be right. 

Those are all good reasons why the writing is so slow, but they don't cover the real reason. The real reason is stage fright. It's the literary version of it, anyway. 

I remember years ago listening to a novelist (whose day job was editing nonfiction books) talk about this very thing. He said he always hit the wall at about 150 pages into the first draft of any novel. At about that point, he would stop writing and have to sit on the urge to throw the whole thing into a landfill somewhere and forget about it. There's a point, he said, at which the whole project stops being a lark that you can joke about (even to yourself) and starts to become something serious, something you can be judged on. And the fear that comes with that shift is almost overwhelming. 

We're nearing that point, although it's much later in the process. We can't stop now, and we can't sit around hoping that we're just going to find the inspiration to finish on time. Tony and I jokingly say to each other, "I wonder what she's going to think about this?" And then we sit in silence for a minute. Truth is, we don't know. The editor won't have seen a word of it since the day she bought into the project back in March. It seems inconceivable that this is how it's done, but this is how it's done. An editor doesn't want to see a book piecemeal. She wants the whole thing to look at all at once. 

And so we need to rev up. Keep going. Ten thousand more words to go.

No problem.


Grace T said...

I love this post--it's a salve to panic.

Only 10k more words. Enjoy the home stretch and congratulations!

Kate said...

I agree with Grace. My countless half-finished manuscripts, articles and plays strewn around the dining room table agree too. Well said, Michelle! This is motivating!