I find myself, for the fourth time, in a state of what Gwyneth and Chris would call ‘conscious uncoupling’. Not from the ever devoted Husband, I hasten to add, but from a novel.
It’s a funny old feeling. You live with characters in your head for so long as a novelist; even when you’re away from the keyboard, they carry on living their fictional lives in the gaps, and for nine months now I’ve lived, breathed and slept their experiences alongside them. My heart has beaten faster, I’ve smiled, I’ve felt sad and I’ve felt cross with and for them during the whole process. But then, when I’ve finished, edited and proof read the draft I’m prepared to send out, something happens to me, and it happens every time I get to this point.
You see, for nine months, the story has been mine. I’ve talked a lot about it to friends and industry professionals, and I’ve sent the odd funny snippet to friends and family, too, but to all intents and purposes, I’ve been my only reader, and my only critic. This week, as always when I get to this point, that changed. I took a deep breath, sent some emails and now it’s out of my hands. It’s out there to its first readers, and somewhere in that process, it’s not entirely mine any more.
Suddenly, other people are reading it, evaluating it and either loving, hating or going ‘meh’ at certain points. And the complicated attachment I’ve felt to the story and the characters, that metaphorical umbilical cord, has been carefully snipped. I’ve begun the inevitable process of separating myself from the story. And I’m completely fine with that. I’ve never had an issue with taking feedback of all kinds. Let’s face it, if I did, I’d never have survived as a writer!
Now that’s not to say the book’s finished. Nope. Far from it. Experience has taught me that there will be a lot of work to do yet, once the first readers, my agent, then my editor, then the proof reader and copy editor have set eyes on it and gone deep. But I’ve begun the process of letting go of the book, of setting it free. And, as ever, my thoughts are turning to the next one, book 5. Suddenly, new characters are stealing into my mind, whispering in my ear, quietly demanding that I pay attention to them.
I would take a good guess and say that this process is similar for a lot of writers; we have to disengage, we have to pull back and start viewing our story through slightly different eyes. If we didn’t, we’d never put anything out there, after all! It sort of makes me feel like a serial monogamist; I commit totally for a period of time, and then it’s time to move on to the next one and commit again. It truly can feel like the end of a relationship when I get to this point, but without the gut wrenching grief and heartbreak. There’s a melancholy there, that the sheer joy of telling my version of the story from start to finish has now ended, but also there’s a sense of relief that it’s over, pride that it’s done and excitement and nervousness for the next stages of that process.
That’s what I would say to writers who are embarking on their first project; letting go is perfectly natural, and it’s part of the publishing process. While there’s still a lot of work to come, I feel as though I’ll be seeing the book more objectively when it comes back to me and I need to start deep editing. Don’t be afraid if you feel less involved when you’ve finished; it’s part of the journey.
And in the meantime, decrapinating my house of nine months’ worth of stuff is keeping me busy. Because, let’s face it, who has time to clean when you’re in love?