The Books that Write Well…and Those that Don’t

book cover reading "Private Politics, Emma Barry." It shows a door opening into an office. A couple in profile is having a heated argument in front of a window.

Last month was Private Politics‘ second book birthday, and next week is Star Dust‘s first. They’re a tale of contrasts. It took Genevieve and I approximately nine months to write the first draft of Star Dust. In contrast, while I started Private Politics during the summer of 2013, I wrote most of it in 6 weeks in September and October of that year. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book so well, so painlessly.

But does that mean Private Politics is better than a book with which I struggled?

There were moments when I didn’t think I’d survive Party Lines, for example. Of the four manuscripts I’m working on–by myself and with Genevieve–one of them is going splendidly. The other three…aren’t.

A book can go badly because of external stuff: stress, lack of sleep, laundry, weather, the evil day job, illness, whiny children, the future of the free world balancing on the knife’s edge of an election. But I repeat myself.

It can also go badly because you lose the thread of the thing, by which I mean something like the rhetorical concept of kairos, the sense of timeliness that calls a work into being. Whatever we label it, sometimes the urgency just drains out, and good luck conjuring it back once that’s happened.

And of course the problem can be in the manuscript itself–characters that don’t make sense or don’t have enough conflict or a plot with holes so large you could drive a snowplow through them.

But let’s say you keep writing and you manage to push past the bad–whatever type of bad it is–and you come out the other side. Is the book that kicked your ass worse than the book that didn’t? Or maybe I have that backwards, maybe the hard book is better. You struggled through and edited and sweated and cried. Isn’t that more of an accomplishment?

I had a poetry professor who argued every poem is about the process of its own creation. With due respect to him, I don’t buy it. And the more art I create, the less of it I buy.

To state the obvious, my relationship to my books is different than a reader’s. I wrote every sentence and made every edit. I understand every reference, and I see not only what’s on the page, but also my inspiration and everything I intended. (And perhaps how I’ve failed.)

I also know all the things that aren’t in the text. The way that cafe where I work sometimes smells like burnt coffee beans and caramelized sugar, how I wrote that scene longhand while lying under the Christmas tree watching the lights, or that the love scene everyone adored came out of an unfinished manuscript about two different characters. The book for me is thick with that stuff, and I can’t clear the haze to see my book without the process of its own creation getting in the way–so maybe my professor was half-right.

I’m trying to remind myself of this as I look at the projects that are writing well and also (especially?) those that aren’t. The high stress books, the books that are the most work: they end up particularly palimpsest-y (is that a word?) for creators, but they’re every bit as clean for readers. Readers see nothing but the work–even when we wish they wouldn’t.

4 thoughts on “The Books that Write Well…and Those that Don’t

  1. So much of this post resonated with me. I just published a book that took me a year to write, and I’m a fast writer–that’s a lifetime. In the end, to the reader, I think it’s almost exactly the same as the one before it in the series that only took eight weeks.

    I’m in final proofreading for another book right now and agonizing over word choice. I could futz forever with how chapters begin and end, and when I re-read, I remember all the discarded versions. I should blog about that, because the meaning certainly shifts a fair bit–and I don’t think that shifting exists in the final product, no. But I wish sometimes it did, that it were more obvious that we chose *those* words for reasons.

    1. Yes! I wish readers could see the process, all the decisions about whether to combine those sentences, or leave them separate, or use a semicolon, or change that word, etc. But when you do read with all of that in your head, it’s also hella distracting.

      It’s both comforting that readers won’t see that–that in the end, the choices you’re agonizing over don’t matter too much–but also depressing. So much of what makes a text work (or not) is ineffable, and we have less control over that than we think.

  2. Neil Gaiman said something about this a while back–that the list of his books readers loved most bore almost no resemblance to the list of books that he loved most, that praise didn’t correspond to effort, etc.

    I go back to that comment from time to time. I think because there’s a part of me that wants to believe that stressing and dithering and overthinking has some direct relationship to the resulting quality of the book, which allows me to justify bad habits.

    But that sense of timeliness–that I understand so well. By the time I was writing the version of Orphan Pearl that made it to print, I was on another planet, mentally, from where I was when I started it. Now I have mixed feelings about the book as a whole.

    1. Well, I loved The Orphan Pearl–which proves the first half of your comment.

      At the end of the day, readers and writers read entirely different books, because the reader only sees the final version (plus, I guess its cultural context, the writer’s brand, reviews, etc.), whereas the writer sees all the things that surrounded the creation of the text, all the things that she intended/inspired her, etc. And never the twain shall meet and all that.

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