A Date with the Book Pile.
Well, I knew I'd get there eventually.
After seven months of hard graft, I finally sent Book 3 off to my editor, bringing to an end 214 days of high excitement and frequent self-doubt. (Though if I'm honest, there was more of the self-doubt than the high excitement in the last four months.) The manuscript will change again once my editor has had a look (although she did, happily, say she liked it very much when she emailed with an update last week, which is already much better than expected) and it'll change some more as it travels between edits, but the important milestone for me was actually getting to that last full stop in the first place. Because, at points during Book 3's long and arduous gestation, I was genuinely starting to worry it might not happen.
I couldn't tell you definitively why Book 3 was so difficult to write. I've got some theories, some of which I've outlined here in previous posts, but I think, perhaps more than anything, the fact that The Dead Tracks was so easy to write (relatively; it was still hard work, but this piece for Crimetime explains a little better what I mean) probably set me up to fail this time round. I went into it thinking I could get it written in six months (which was how long The Dead Tracks took), and I didn't expect to meet too many stumbling blocks along the way. Instead it proved to be nothing but stumbling blocks. You might be sitting there thinking, "But Book 3 only took a month and a half longer than The Dead Tracks to write, so it couldn't have been that much harder." Thing is, that six months on The Dead Tracks was broken down into the writing of it (four months) and then the editing of it (two months). By contrast, Book 3's seven and a half months was only writing, start to finish. I was writing it up until submission day.
And it wasn't just writing either. Rewriting too. Lots of rewriting. I rewrote the first 150 pages four times; I dropped two storylines (and the characters involved) completely from the book, on account of them slowing the pace and confusing the plotting (total page count left on the cutting room floor: 120); I rewrote the entire ending after reading it back and really disliking it (pages: 45); and then I had a finale which I genuinely had no idea if my editor – or anyone else – would like. Ultimately, it was met with a positive response, but it's very different to the first two books, and whenever you stray out of your comfort zone, you wonder if you've done the right thing.
The one good aspect about all this is that, since submission, I've been enjoying some time off from writing, even if time off always ends up poking me and telling me I should be doing something more proactive. Like writing. Working in magazines during the day (a not-exactly-stress-free experience in itself) means – when I'm on a book – I literally do nothing else (genuinely: nothing else) but write or edit for six-month (or seven and a half month) blocks, so when I'm barrelling towards a book deadline, all I can dream about are those wonderful evenings spent on the sofa doing nothing but nursing a mug of tea and watching TV. Then, after I finally get the chance to do that, as I've been doing these past two weeks, I start to miss writing again. It's insane, really. I was absolutely fried after Book 3, but even a fortnight on I'm starting to get the itch again. I'm trying hard to resist. I promised Mrs W and Weaver Jr that they'd both get a chance to see me in some other capacity than hunched over my computer pulling my hair out, plus I'd Sky+'d about half 2011's TV schedule while I was writing so I've got plenty of catching up to do. (I just finished Boardwalk Empire last night, which I thoroughly enjoyed, though I felt the first half was much stronger than the second. Next up: True Blood. I'm literally years behind.)
And then there's my pile of books.
As I've said in previous posts and alluded to above, writing the Raker novels is pretty time-intensive, and I get worried my concentration will drop if I have my head turned by the brilliance of another writer. So, during the time I write I never, ever read. Ever. That routine always stays the same, but when it finally comes to this post-submission 'down time', it does mean I'm faced with a daunting mix of Books I Really Want To Read and Books I Really Need To Read For Research, all of them bought in the months when I'm head down on my own novel. And it's here I make a dirty confession: I was psyched about tearing into Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars (the book I set aside before anything else for this period of down time) but I didn't really enjoy it. To such an extent, in fact, that (ahem) I didn't actually finish it. I know, I know. I've let myself down, because A) Stephen King is one of my all-time favourite writers, and B) I'm one of those anally retentive people who has to finish a book even if they're not enjoying it. Oh, and C) I hate criticising other writers' work because I know how hard it is to even come close to putting a book together once a year. But I just didn't like it. It left me cold. So I'm sad to admit I didn't finish it. (Luckily, this is also the man that wrote The Stand, The Green Mile and Different Seasons, three books I love so much I keep them in a special book case in the bedroom as a kind of, er, paper-based second wife.) So I've started the next book in the pile: the Great Depression-set Mr Shivers, by Robert Jackson Bennett. I'll let you know how it goes. Unless you've already read it, in which case you'll know how it goes, and I'm hoping the answer is: it went very well indeed, Tim. (On the not finishing thing, I have to say my attitude has, ironically, softened a touch since becoming published myself. I still really hate not finishing a book, because it seems wrong, but I have so little spare time now, and so many books to get through, I need to be grabbed by something or I start to clock-watch.)
Part of the problem in all this is that I'm incredibly weak when it comes to browsing book stores. I don't look and file away mentally for another day. I just buy. Even though I know they won't be read for months, that I won't have time to get through them all, I just go on buying. I'm sure I'm not alone. I bet most of us have books on our shelves that we've never even got around to reading. It all adds to the mystery and romanticism of books in a strange kind of way: after all, what happens if that novel that remains untouched on your shelf, the one you've yet to start, turns out to be the best one you've ever read? That's probably the reason I keep on buying, above and beyond just a love for the form: the knowledge that, even though I've read some incredible books in my life, ones that made me want to be a writer in the first place, the best might still be to come...
Author of the David Raker novels