So… this new book– Seven Stories Up. I had almost finished a draft of it and my deadline was coming up fast.
And I was totally going to make the deadline. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Though I was feeling a little bit of a crunch. I had three short chapters to go. That’s it! I could make it! I could!
But then something happened. I was doing some fact-checking, some research about 1937, and I read a line in a book about Billie Holiday, who had grown up in Baltimore. This book mentioned that Lady Day sometimes came back to play shows in Baltimore, in those years. With folks like Count Basie.
And I had this sudden FLASH! This picture sprang into my brain, of Billie Holiday sitting on a marble stoop of a row house (above is one of the houses she lived in as a girl, though it wouldn’t have been covered in formstone in those years) , when Molly and Annie (my characters) happened by. In my FLASH! Annie asks Billie her name, and she says something like, “Out in the world, I’m Billie. But here, by the water, I’m Eleanora. Everybody is something different when they’re sitting by the water. Aren’t they?”
Now, I didn’t know if this scene actually made sense or not in the book–historically or thematically. but I knew that if I started into the background work of making it possible for me to write that scene, I’d slow down, and possibly end up changing other things in the book, and also– risk my deadline.
Then I got to thinking about all the other scenes I don’t have time for, when I’m sprinting, racing, drafting. I got to thinking about all the books I want to read before I’m done with this work, the old pictures I want to stare at. I felt– undone. I felt like I could finish a version of the book, but not my best version of the book. My FLASH! had made me suddenly aware of all the many things I hadn’t thought about yet. Hadn’t had time for.
I knew I couldn’t make my deadline anymore. Sigh.
Luckily, luckily, I have wonderful friends and a terrific agent, and a supportive editor. And when I nervously called them, ALL of those people chimed in with, “Of course we want you to write a book you’re happy with!”
So I’ve pushed back. I don’t know how far. However far it has to be. Because I want to get this right. Really right. I want time to look up the make of Baltimore taxis in 1937. I want to know what kinds of underpants kids wore that year. I want to work out the tiny kinks in my time travel element. I want–more than anything–to make my characters real.
And for that I need time.
It’s a tricky thing, to work on a creative project with a deadline. Art takes however long art takes. I don’t want to rush the “product.” I don’t want to think of it like a “product.” But at the same time, I don’t want to be the kind of writer who doesn’t think about how her delays might affect the work other people are doing. Publishing is about art, but it’s also about teamwork. I know that when I push back, other people are affected.
It’s a balancing act, deciding when you need to take more time, and when you need to just. be. done.
But I also know this. There’s a “Velveteen moment” in a book. A day when the book becomes REAL. If the initial draft of a plot point/ line is:
“The summer my brother died, I felt crappy.”
And the second draft is,
“That summer my brother died, I hated the damn sunshine. Why is it that everything has to be bright in the summer? Pink umbrellas. Red Kool Aid.”
And the third draft is,
“The summer Jim died, I swear there were dead things everywhere. Birds flew into my bedroom window. A dog drowned in the pool down the street. I didn’t care.”
And the fourth draft is,
You get it? It goes on forever. The variations are endless. First we we write the idea of what we’re writing, and then we do it over and over and over. Ideally, we hit a moment when the line, the character, the book becomes REAL. Not “deep” or complicated or fancy or overwritten. But real. When we make ourselves laugh, or cry, and believe in our own characters. We work at arranging and layering all the ideas and details and images and words in the right way.
If we’re lucky, sometimes we get it.
If we’re super lucky, when we’re struggling to get it, we have editors who let us have a little more time.
And now I’m off to get to work.
Wish me luck! Because now the book needs to be good enough that I don’t regret the extension.