Our Novels, Our Children

Like most writers, one of the most commonly asked questions I get from folks who hear I’ve written more than one novel is, “Which one is your favorite?” When I got that question, I used to say, “Whichever one I’m working on at the moment.”

The problem was, people didn’t get that answer. Most of the askers weren’t writers themselves, and the concept of liking something that was incomplete was incomprehensible to them. So I switched answers. I began to say, “Picking a favorite novel would be like having to pick a favorite child.” That tended to satisfy the asker.

But now I’ve hit something that demonstrates to me that maybe – just maybe – the books we write are more like our children than we want to admit.

I’m currently working on programming The Company Man to be read on the Kindle. It’s double duty, as the cleaned-up file will also be the source of text for the trade paperback version. And as with A Death of Honor, I’m doing a little minor restoration on the file as I go, including undoing some minor editorial changes that I disagreed with – but as a professional, went along with.

Now this should be an easy thing, right? Except when it’s not. The file I’m using as the source for TCM is one that I downloaded from a file sharing system. The scan to OCR stripped out all of the formatting: italics and small caps, which I use in my manuscripts without mercy, shrunk em dashes to en dashes, and blew up accented letters in words like cafe and most of the ones used in the book’s “pidgin Spanish” slanguage. It made hash of line and paragraph breaks.

And the last time I read this novel was when it was in galley form – I don’t read my novels after they are published. This would have been in the summer of 1988… nearly twenty-four years ago. As a result, a battered paperback copy of the novel is not too far from me and my Chromebook at any one moment.

Now this should be a pretty tough thing, right? Except when it’s not. And it’s not. I still need to pick up that paperback every now and then, but I’m not having to refer to it as much as I thought. I did a lot more in the beginning, but it’s like the voice of the book, the pacing and the rhythm have all come back to me, and I’m sailing through it effortlessly.

Okay, that might be me picking up cues from things like surviving punctuation and paragraph breaks, but it goes beyond that even. Yes, I italicized titles of things and anything in pidgin Spanish, but I italicize lots of other words for emphasis. I get to a sentence where such a word was, and I think – that word right there I had put in italics. Twenty four years later during which I haven’t done much more than move a copy of the book from one shelf to another, and here I am, remembering specifics on how things were written.

It’s like I know this book as if it were one of my own children.

When I was a kid, I saw a John Wayne movie on TV that was called Without Reservations. It featured Duke as a GI returning home from the war (the film was made in 1946) who has to share a train seat with a woman (Claudette Colbert) on the way to Hollywood because her megablockbuster novel (think Gone With The Wind) is being made into a movie. She’s travelling incognito, so Duke doesn’t know she’s the author… and there’s no love lost between him and her book. They discuss it on a trip, he speaks his mind about why he hates the novel, there’s comedy and romance, and if I recall, she ends up changing the script to reflect her new beau’s preferences.

I only saw this movie once, but here’s one scene that has stuck with me all these years. Our author goes into a liquor store to get some hootch, but it’s in short supply. The storekeeper is reading her book, and she appeals to him to give her some booze because she wrote the book he’s reading and enjoying. “Prove it,” he says. She asks him what page he’s on. He tells her. And Colbert proceeds to recite, word for word, what follows from the point the storekeeper leaves off. Upshot? She leaves with some booze.

The impression I got from that scene as a kid was enormous. Wow, do authors really have to memorize their own books? As time went on and I grew up, I realized it was just a made-up scene, and no, authors didn’t have to memorize their own books.

Only now I’m rethinking that. We might not memorize them, true. But each novel we write is a journey we make, and the only company we have on the trip is… the novel itself, as it grows.

No, we don’t memorize our novels. That’s silly.

But we know these books. They’re with us as they change our lives just by the very act of being written.

So yes, oh yes, most definitely indeed yes. They are our children. Our beautiful, flawed, singularly unique children.

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4 responses to “Our Novels, Our Children

  1. Good news! Good News! I can say the Company Man is a favorite of many. I think I got that same file. How did you get rid of the carriage returns after every line?

  2. I find I have favorite characters more than favorite books. I tend to keep them as I write new books.

    • Nothing turns me off more than when a writer kills off a favorite character in the middle of a series. I suppose the opposite is also true, when someone needs to die (Jar Jar from the SW prequels, for example).

      I did find it a bit of a stretch when Neal Stephenson started using the same characters a few hundred years apart though.

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