May 06

Keeping up appearances

I’ve been working on my novel on and off for more years than I care to admit. Since I first had the idea, I’ve gone to college, gotten married, and had two children. This past year, I’ve gotten really serious about making the book good enough to sell, but there were some plot holes that caused me to go back to what felt like square one on multiple occasions. I feel like I’m no closer to getting published than I was a year ago.

So what do I say when people ask, “How’s your book going?”

They’re just trying to be nice and make conversation, but they have no idea the fountain of emotions that such a question brings forth. “I wrote a thousand words yesterday, but I today changed the plot and will have to toss all of those. I have notebooks filled with ideas, dozens of versions of my outline, and whole folders with the obsolete history of these characters, but I still don’t have a draft I’m happy with.” If I said that, people would be like, “Uhhh… sorry for asking.”

My day job is code monkey. Over the years, I’ve developed a strong resistance to being asked about my work, “When will it be done?” The honest answer: I don’t know. (Many would insert colorful language to punctuate that answer.) Time estimates in software development are essentially useless except under some pretty specific circumstances that don’t apply to most teams. The same is true of writing. You might have deadlines, but that doesn’t make the estimates accurate.

At least in software, you can usually say how much of the feature is finished (although there are whole debates just about what the definition of “finished” is). With writing, you never know when a plot twist — a good one that makes the story better! — will end up invalidating some non-negligible percentage of existing book. At some point you just decide it’s good enough and start trying to sell it. If it doesn’t sell, you keep improving it. (And if you do find an agent and then a publisher, you’re looking at a of minimum two more rounds of serious editing.)

This past January, I wrote a post on making resolutions. I came to the conclusion that the only thing I could control about the process was how many hours I put in. I think that’s the same response I have for the book question. “I’m still working on it!” Not with a sigh and a defeated look, but like an athlete who’s still in training. “I’m still putting in the hours!”

At least I don’t have to wait for the next Olympics to look for an agent.

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