The saddest thing about most “dog” books–if you read them you know the kind of books to which I’m referring–is that the dog dies in their ends. It’s the ever-present fact of life for most pet owners. You will outlive your beloved buddy. When we take a puppy home, we ignore this fact. He’s just so young and care-free, and sort of a handful right now. As he grows into his future self, the dog-man you’ll know for the majority of his life, we ignore this fact. He’s my buddy. We hang out together, and my worst day can be made one of my best with a simple dog-hug from the guy who’ll love me no matter what anyone else thinks of me. For me, that dog is Scooter, and my heart hurts to bid him farewell here. I’d rather be upstairs getting him a treat, or letting him lick the stuck-on cheese from a nacho plate beside me while I watch Jeopardy. Buddy, you’re allowed to stay. You don’t have to go. My life would feel kind of hollow without you. To this proclamation, I imagine him saying, Thanks for all the food, all the companionship, and your love for me. I want to stay with you. But it’s my time. I’m going to a place where the plates always need licking because they’re always full of corned beef, the geese always need chasing, the beds are always comfortable–and formed perfectly to my body. I’m going somewhere it never rains and there’s always bunnies to chase after. And one day, when the time is right, I’ll be back down here to get you. In the meantime, let people know what a good, caring, lovable, awesome, cuddleable, curious, pup I was, and how much I meant to your family. Okay, Scooter, I will. I wish I didn’t have to do this. I wish I could just get you a treat, or go to the door and answer one of your one-paw knocks with: “Come on in, Scoot. I’ve missed you!” Scooter C. Dog March 21, 2005-April 22, 2015. Words seem inadequate to describe you and our deep connection, let alone to memorialize you. Love ya, buddy. Always. I always wanted to publish a book and tell you about it while you fell asleep on your dog-bed. Now I’ll write in your memory.
Hoping your child will fit in is what every writer does, every time they finish a new book.
There is, of course, the fun of what I call “the free-write faze” at the very beginning of any composition. No one is going to see these pages until you’re happy with them, so go on and write what you want. We can fix any mistakes in editing.
Fifty thousand words later, a first draft is complete. If you have a child, this is analogous to their graduating elementary school. All the basic building blocks are in place now for a fine, upstanding citizen (or novel). Now it’s time to refine them.
So you send your child to middle school (or junior high), while your book is given to a trusted reader, maybe a gifted editor, whose feedback you will use as the basis for the next draft of your novel, and all of the revisions therein.
Revisions are the worst. That’s because editing is awful. It’s not creative. It’s gardening. It’s being able to prune words and phrases, and learning to live with the loss of some of your favorites because they’re too “showy” or they don’t “serve the story”.
But when you’re done, your book is better. Not quite where it needs to be just yet, but a thousand times better than that first draft that you swore was as good as you could get it.
This is all, of course, an oversimplification of the process. To get the revisions just right might take you five drafts, or ten, or fifty. Yet, at some point, your book will be ready for one more pass with an editor who hasn’t seen it, and so can come at it with fresh eyes. This is the equivalent of sending your child to high school.
Just like high school takes four years, a truly “perfect” book takes time and patience and kindness. The kindness is for the writer to the writer. You’re not going to like everything you see. And you will quibble over turns of phrases and the shape of your story in ways no reader ever would.
At every high school graduation, there is a “commencement” address. As kids, we paid little attention to the meaning of that word. It meant freedom and possibility and hope for the future. It meant that crazy math teacher who accused you of not trying hard enough could suck it, because you were gonna be something great. You were gonna be a writer, and who needs math for writing? All I need to know is how to keep count of my wonderful words, you thought.
A commencement, though, is not an end. It’s a beginning. If you finish a novel, go through all the heartache of truly working it until you can work it no longer, it is like getting ready to send your beloved child off to college. Who will like them? you wonder. Will they come across kind people who can make them even better, who’ll believe in them with the kind of zeal you have always had on their behalf?
Yes, writing is a business. And it may be simple for an agent or a publisher to say, “Pass” on a novel that doesn’t quite work for them. But remember that in those pages is someone’s life. Through those pages soaks every tear they ever cried, every worry they ever felt. In those pages resides the child they brought up from a babe, who is now a worthy addition to life’s bookshelf.