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A few days ago I was winding down after a long day of work when I thought, “You know, I haven’t checked my messages at Ricochet in ages.” This didn’t seem strange to me, because I figured everyone knew I was taking a book sabbatical, and knew that if it was urgent, they should write to my Gmail address.
Why did I figure everyone knew that?
Well, honestly — I don’t know.
So when I read this message from FrontSeatCat, telling me in very frank terms that no, everyone didn’t understand why I was gone, I was absolutely stunned and horrified. She gave me permission to quote from it:
My face on reading FSC’s e-mail.
Hi Claire, I’ll make this quick.
What started as enthusiasm for your book project has dissolved into a big question mark. Writer’s block? Ok. Your long absence from Ricochet? Ok. I (we) don’t care if your views have changed, politics, whatever – it’s all good. But if I look for new stories (Google) from you, I get Twitter snark and sarcasm. That’s it. Where are your political posts, journalistic stories? I don’t care if you are not a Trump fan – don’t you have something to contribute regarding Russia, etc., anything other than snark? … You asked all of us upfront – investment or donation – specify. We would be part of the process, cheer you on, see the progress. What happened?
Don’t do it to get more donations – if your heart is on pause, say so. Be honest. Take my investment and change it to a donation. If it helped you and the cats eat another week, as you were describing, I am more than happy. I mean that sincerely. I loved your books. I loved your stories, your posts, whether I agreed or not. You mentioned something about having SAD, the condition that befalls some in winter. My nephew has that. Winter is coming. I mean that realistically and metaphorically. I don’t know where you went, but the snarky person on Twitter that adds to the volume of nothingness is a waste of your talent and soul.
Please come clean with your friends and supporters on Ricochet, and even elsewhere. It’s a slap in my face to think you have to cover up who you are because it’s a conservative site. It’s a slap to think I invested in your dream and you have lost interest in it and us. I think we can all benefit from your insight into current Russia and world events. It wouldn’t hurt to try to understand what is happening in America either – both sides – all sides – you’ve been away a long time. … I hope you can level with us, even if it is only on the Member Feed. We invested in you and I would like to have an honest from the heart update, even if it’s the last one. Thanks.
Front Seat Cat (Linda) – sending a hug
First, thank you again, FSC, for telling me what you were thinking. Had you not been so candid, I would have continued to plug away imagining that everything was copacetic and everyone knew I was hard at work.
Now, you might ask, “Why exactly, Claire, would you think that? What did you think people would think if you just took a long unannounced break?”
Well, actually, I didn’t figure anyone would notice! It’s silly, but it just didn’t occur to me. But the instant I read that, I realized that of course just disappearing — without explaining why — looks awful, and of course people don’t magically know, by osmosis, that I stopped posting so I could devote that time and energy to finishing the book.
I’m so sorry. I should have announced that I was taking a book break. I’m so embarrassed that it didn’t occur to me.
I’m horrified, actually. Reading that e-mail felt worse, at least for a few hours, than reading that North Korea detonated a hydrogen bomb. That last sentence is actually and literally true. I’m not proud of this, but it’s fascinating to see my own neurosis — my primal fear of being thought a slacker and a failure — mapped out so plainly.
A small point in my defense, and I mention this just so I don’t sound so painfully clueless, is that I didn’t just disappear. I talked about it with TPTB; I told them I needed a break to prioritize finishing the book. “No worries, we understand, come back anytime,” the Yeti said. So in my mind I’d told the boss, who’s the person you need to tell if you’re not going to show up for work, right? I guess I reckoned if people were wondering where I was, TPTB would tell them. No need to make a big announcement since I wasn’t sure how long I’d be gone.
Sidenote: What mental age do you revert to when you suddenly think people are thinking bad things about you? I’ve now had a couple of days to reassure myself that no, I didn’t just run off with everyone’s money and spend it on Verveine de Vénus scented candles — I really didn’t, so I don’t need to feel guilty that I did! But the unalloyed shame I felt on realizing that people might think that is a straight-up a relic of me at age eight. I’m in trouble! Everyone thinks I’ve done a bad thing! The whole class is talking about me!
But I’ve pulled myself back together and reassured myself that I’m in fact nearly fifty, and all I need to do is explain this like an adult.
Here’s the update I should have posted a month ago. When last I wrote about the book, I’d just finished the first draft. I was very pleased with it, as you’ll recall, but then I showed it to a friend, a professional editor, and she gently told me it had a long way to go.
It was another one of my dear friends, Norah Vincent, who long ago introduced me to an expression that’s not Ricochet-friendly but so relevant here that I’ll introduce it in bowdlerized form: “the merde sandwich.” That’s what editors do when they need to tell you your book isn’t very good but don’t want to demoralize you completely. Writers tend to have Fabergé-egg morale, so editors the world around use the same merde-sandwich technique. You know you’re being merde-sandwiched when the e-mail begins, “Your work is so vital, so passionate, so urgently important!”
Me after reading the first paragraph of my merde sandwich.
Why, thank you. … [preen, preen!]
You get a whole paragraph like that, telling you how brilliant you are, how penetrating your insights, how unique your voice. It all feels so right.
Then you get to the paragraph that begins, “In places, however, I felt that the structure … “
In layman’s terms: “This is unreadable. Start over.”
She merde-sandwiched me but good.
And, of course, she was dead right. I’d sent her a disorganized, wordy, and self-indulgent draft. The tone was wrong: It sounded as if I’d put a series of Ricochet posts back-to-back, which is unsurprising, because I did. But the style that works for a blog post doesn’t work at book length. The draft was about 50,000 words too long. And as she put it, “It feels as if you’re writing four books here instead of one. Maybe you need to decide which one you’re writing?”
My face on reading my friend’s e-mail.
As she said, “You’re using the word ‘I’ too many times. I’m distracted by your focus on you.”
As she said, “Your argument in Chapter Six seems to contradict Chapter Two.”
Yikes! She was right. And I couldn’t even decide which version of me I agreed with.
“I don’t think these chapters will still be relevant in a few months.”
Yikes! She was right, though. A whole chapter on the French election? The election is long since over.
I took a selfie. Can you see me?
And on it went, and on, until the merciful final paragraph, in which she again told me again that I was the sparkliest and frostiest little snowflake in the snowbank, and it would be a great book–once I’d started all over again and written it from scratch.
Now, anyone who’s ever written a book (or at least, anyone who’s ever written a book anyone else would want to read) knows this is a normal part of book-writing. But why? It’s not true of other professions. Pilots don’t just accept that you just have to crash a few 747s before you get the hang of it. I mean, this isn’t my first rodeo: I’ve written books before — four of them, plus a doctoral dissertation and other long works — so you’d think I’d be further advanced on the learning curve. But for reasons I don’t really understand, well-written books never emerge on the first draft, or even the second or third. You just have to get the bad arguments, lousy narrative structures, and authorial tics out of your system before something professional emerges.
I just read an article about exactly this in the Atlantic, by the way. By one Thomas E. Ricks, author of Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. The article’s called The Secret Life of a Book Manuscript, and goodness, it sounded familiar:
… But two weeks after I sent [my editor] the manuscript, I received a most unhappy e-mail back from him. “I fear that the disconnect over what this book should be might be fundamental,” Scott wrote to me, clearly pained to do so. What I had sent him was exactly the book he had told me not to write. He had warned me, he reminded me, against writing an extended book review that leaned on the weak reed of themes rather than stood on a strong foundation of narrative. I had put the works before the two men [Orwell and Churchill], he told me, and that would not do.
There was more. But in short, he pissed all over it. It was not that he disliked it. It was that he [redacted] hated it. I was taken aback—I had enjoyed the process of researching and writing the book. So, I had expected, a reader would too. No, Scott said, the way you’ve done this doesn’t work. …
… I spent the next five months, from mid-January to mid-June of 2016, redoing the whole book, rethinking it from top to bottom. … Writing is a lot like carpentry, hammering and sawing and sanding. In this case, I was like a builder taking down a house I had just finished constructing. Scott had persuaded me that my blueprint was off, so I disassembled the whole thing. I stacked my lumber, bricks, window frames, glass, and cement. And then, after a couple more weeks of taking notes on how to do it differently, writing signposts on my new blueprint, I set to reconstruction.
I dug a new foundation, lining it with solid chronology. I wrote a second note to myself at the top of the manuscript: “If it is not chronological, why not?” That is, I would permit myself on occasion to deviate from the march of time, but I needed to articulate a pretty strong reason before doing so.
So that’s what I’m doing: Pretty much exactly the same thing Ricks did. Roto-rootering the whole book. And not only have I not lost interest in it, I’m so involved in it that I didn’t even think to let people know — because I assumed they’d know this by magic. That was silly of me. I’m sorry, FSC, for worrying you. Thank you for your candor and for shaking me out of my reverie.
I’ll post weekly updates from now on!
PS: I’ve set a rule for myself limiting my use of Twitter 15 minutes a day. I fully agree that time spent on Twitter just adds to the volume of nothingness and is a waste of one’s soul.