I did it. Ta-daa! My first novel, "Those We Love Most" will be out September 11, 2012. It's my wedding anniversary, among other important milestones.
And as I put the edited manuscript in a big padded envelope and filled out the UPS label (too scary to trust to regular mail) I thought I'd feel a total kick-up-my-heels sense of joy. A kind of Sound of Music, bodice-heaving, running over the hills with glee kind of approach. It wasn't exactly like that.
Don't get me wrong. Finishing a book is a big old dealy-bop. Stapling that envelope shut is the culmination of a lot of hours, creation, frustration, editing, re-writes, self-doubt, deleting and eraser-chewing, although frankly few writers I know still use erasers.
I've always been a sporadic writer. My huckleberry pie life is cut up into lots of different slices, drawn and quartered on any given day; mom, wife, journalist, writer, advocate for injured service members, public speaker. I'm a daughter as well and right now that involves a measure of caretaking and coordinating as my parents fail and falter in different degrees and disparate ways. And somewhere in there I'm a girl friend too. And I've always valued my female friendships, even as we all lamented how much work and family often came between more than a few plans to do lunch or grab a drink. So many of my posse have been just as absorbed in the rat-a-tat-tat of the child rearing years as I was. We are only now, most of us, poking our heads out of the foxhole and blinking in the coming dawn of the empty nest.
But I digress. This is about my book. The book I always wanted to write and the writing process. Oh geez, you say. Boring. The writing process? ZZZZZZZZZ. I'm going to delete. And you may. But for any of you who have struggled to realize a dream or long held the notion that there is a finite time line for what you want to accomplish, hang on a tick. Stay with me. I am here to say that anything, really, is possible. But this is also about realizing dreams. It's about second acts. And if you want it badly enough, you WILL find a way to get it done. Whether it's getting your pilot's license or doing your first stand-up gig or composing a song. I'm living proof. And I'm certifiably over 50. Fabulous freaking fifty.
The truth is I stopped and started this novel a number of different times. There were points I didn't believe in my ability to weave a tale that any of you would want to read. This is a round-about way of telling you that at one point I thought the book sucked. But then all of a sudden it didn't. Last summer I found myself with a stretch of time and I got busy. Instead of writing in the corners of my life, on airplanes, in hotel rooms, and occasional early weekend mornings, I got a little serious. I wrote whatever was coming out, and out it poured, rushing head-long into a decent story, with characters I'd come to care about.
And while the result still required some shaping and pruning, my friends at Hyperion Books saw the possibilities. And so we shaped, we pruned. And we clipped a little more. One whole character's voice was scalpeled out. This is where you trust your editor like a lover. This is where you become partners and go to couples counseling.
But turning in the manuscript was only the beginning. The galleys will be out soon and they will go into the hands of illustrious book reviewers and journalists, other writers and bookstore influencers, bloggers and indie owners and the people who place the advance orders. This will feel a bit like my pre-pubescent self standing naked in front of the mirror after middle school school gym class. I will be a harsh chronicler of all my flaws. Art is, after all, a subjective thing.
But then the real work begins. The marketing and the talking it up, the book selling and the chatting. There will be tweeting and blogging, the readings and signings. I am an author who kind of likes being out on the road. I really do mean it when I say it's the people. But then again I'm still a relative virgin on book number three, the accomplished and prolific ones will tell me.
Will readers turn out to hear my fiction the way they turned out for the first and second non-fiction books to hear about our family's journey through injury and then recovery? "In An Instant" was a bird's-eye view of the bleached bones of a disaster and a marriage. Everyone slows down on the highway to eyeball a roadside wreck. But will they care as much about this fictional family I have created and blown life into? I hope so.
Writing a book for me was a lot like giving birth to a baby after 40. In fact, in some ways it's much harder. First you mess around a little, hunt and peck and see what you've got. And then when the stick hasn't turned blue, when nothing much is happening on the pages, you get serious. You come up with a plan.
Suddenly the writing process needs to be plodding and methodical, a bit like taking temperatures for ovulation and shot for hormones and doctor's appointments and monitoring and... well, you get the drift. Writing a book is a lot like that. But there are moments of unbridled joy. You can feel it occasionally when the story is coming, when a line or a paragraph sings out to you like the buzz of a zip line. Every writer has experienced those tracts of time, those beloved fugue states, so much better than a chemical high. If only we truly knew how to conjure them up on demand.
Indulge me the tired old "giving birth" analogy as a writer. I've finished a damn book. I'm elated and cautious all at the same time. And as I move past the moment without celebration, without popping the sparkling apple juice at the dinner table or crowing too loudly on Facebook or tweeting, (OK, I posted it once) I am conscious the whole time that this process is a marathon, not a sprint.
I am still struck by something the writer Anthony Horowitz told me. He is the officially sanctioned British author for all future Sherlock Holmes novels and the beloved Alex Ryder series for kids. When I asked him what he did to celebrate completing a book he answered, "I take one full day off before I begin the next."
And so forgive me, dear reader, if I return to the next book, which is already tugging at my sleeve. I hope to meet you in the fall on the road, in a book store, at a forum or library or Skyping into your book group from my cramped home office. I thank you for reading and caring, for wanting to hold books in your hands or devour them digitally on a tablet. I hope you always have an appetite for stories. Stories, after all, are the things that connect us.