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Living and Writing in the Natural World

My least favorite part of writing

The art and practice of writing has its ups and downs. Let me enumerate them for you, since I currently find myself at the very bottom of this list of “Best parts of writing a book.”

For sure, the top of the list is hearing a publisher has bought the rights to your manuscript for publication. What a rush! It’s not even the typical monetary “advance” that makes your heart sing. Rather, it’s the knowledge that someone who knows a lot about books thinks your book is wonderful. So wonderful that they’re willing to risk some money to publish it, yet. Wow.

Just below that is seeing the book in a store, a clean, colorful cover sporting your name on it. You stand there like an idiot staring at the book, restraining the urge to pick it up and caress the thing.

For me, at least, and the kind of books I write, whether fiction or nonfiction, the next best thing is researching the book. Partly this involves reading other books, which is nice. But best is the travel to exotic locales, searching out just the right spot to set a scene. Circling the spot, noticing everything about it, all the “color” to put into your descriptions. Imagining your characters there, what they will see and smell, what they’ll do. I’ve done this in Taoist temples in Beijing, walkways in St. James Park in London, climbing spots on the sea-drenched cliffs of northeastern Taiwan, tea plantations in Hangzhou, and biochemistry institutes in Cambridge. It’s always fun, always intriguing, always surprising.

The actual writing of the book is enjoyable, though not like anything I mentioned above. Writing a book takes a rather large dose of discipline. As someone once said, you have to be inspired, and you have to make sure you’re inspired every morning between nine and noon. No exceptions. Not everyone can do that for as long as it takes to produce a book.

I used to write in the above-mentioned nine to noon slot, and spend the afternoons revising the previous day’s work. These days, I guess because I’m older, I don’t have the “oomph” to sustain the required intellectual concentration in the morning. I need to ease into the day, make and eat breakfast, read the paper (after bicycling half a mile to get it), and drink my cup of green tea. Chores and light physical tasks occupy the rest of the morning.

After a good lunch and a brief nap, I get some strong black tea in me (double or triple the caffeine in the green variety), and finally I’m ready to sit down and fiercely focus my time, energy, and judgment into writing for three hours. Turn the phone off , close the door to my study, and write, write, write. (Afterwards, I reward myself with a brisk bicycle ride around our nearby park—in the summer, with a swim in the middle of the ride.)

When I write, I don’t worry overly much about the quality of the writing. Good or bad, the important thing is to write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be limpid prose, but it does have to get written. Too many would-be writers get “stuck” trying to produce perfect sentences. To heck with it. You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Get your pages in. Be yourself, freely yourself, and let it flow. This is where the fun comes in at this stage, beyond all the discipline required. Here is your chance to be fully yourself, to pour all your life, experiences, joys, and tragedies into the creation of a work of art.

Tomorrow, of course, you’ll come back to what you wrote today. Some of it will make you proud; some of it will appall you; and some of it will merely disappoint you. No problem. You do your self-revising, to express what you really wanted to say. Revise so that others can understand what you’re getting at. This is difficult, but not too bad.

Which brings me to what is really difficult, the bottom of my list, the stuff I’ve been doing for the last six days: wrestling with an outside editor’s critique of your wonderful prose. Arggghhh! You’ve polished your prose with self-revision, you’ve arrived at what you think is a pretty darn good version of Truth As You Know It. You love it. It’s like a child of yours, a precious thing that you gave birth to and saw grow up into something you’re proud of. I did this!

Until an editor gets hold of it. Then you’re told, with varying degrees of bluntness and sensitivity, depending on the editor, that your baby has flaws. Even the small flaws are hard to receive. But there’s worse. Inevitably, there are flaws in your baby that require major surgery.

Did I say Arggghhh yet?

I have a rule. I read the editor’s evaluation and suggestions, then I let it rest for several days. That way the inevitable ?!!#?!!***!!! reaction settles down. Then I re-read the editor’s suggestions. These are often both general points, and many dozens of specific marked changes on the pages of the manuscript. Always, I find the editor has a point. Roughly, I agree with about a third of the editor’s suggestions for improvement; I’m not convinced, but willing to make the suggested changes, in about another third of the suggestions; and the last third of the suggestions just don’t work for me. That is, they make the prose worse, for various reasons, in my considered opinion.

So I rewite, paragraph by paragraph, taking the majority of the suggestions made. And I find, at the end, that it’s a better manuscript in my hands, after all this.

Currently, I’m ten chapters into the editor’s suggestions for my novel The China Ultimatum, which I self-published a little over a year ago. My agent, who is wonderful and whom I’m lucky to have, read the self-published version recently, saw its potential, and gave it to an editor to critique. The editor did so, and forwarded her evaluation and suggestions to me several weeks ago. I put it aside while I went backpacking in the redwoods for a week, and in the Sierra Nevada for a week.

Now I’m into it. I do about two chapters a day; it takes a lot of thinking and decisions as I evaluate the suggestions, then more concentration to write the new version, if I’m doing that. It’s exhausting. I’m ten chapters in, with thrice that to go still. Three weeks or so of hard, grinding work loom before me.

As I said, this activity is my least favorite aspect of writing. But it invariably improves the book, and increases the odds that somewhere, a publisher (most likely in New York City) is going to pick up the manuscript and be intrigued by it. Intrigued enough, occasionally, to publish my baby. Because it’s still mine, after all. And I still love it.

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