Friday, August 26, 2011

When does it start to feel real?

When I'm working on early drafts, my project feels like my own little secret.

The story is like the kind of dream you have that is so private and personal you don't want to share it with anyone for fear that as soon as you talk about it, the magic of it will disappear. And besides, your dreams rarely make sense to anyone but you.

But as I get close to finishing a draft, I start to form the words that will define what the heart is. And I can say to a few close friends something vague, but true. "It's about family."

That's about as far as I can go, because it all still feels like a dream I'm still clinging to. Trying to make sense of.

Finally, I finish a draft and get the nerve to share the story with my trusted critique partners. And they help me to find the actual bones of the story. And now I can feel the dream becoming less translucent and wispy, and a little more clear. A little more solid. A little more real.

It seems like another whole year (or two) goes by and I keep rewriting the dream, over and over. I know it's not a dream anymore, not really. But it still feels like one. Like something I could still lose. I share it with my agent. Go back to the beginning. Share it with my editor. Go back to the beginning. I ask my wise and wonderful friend Jennifer Richard Jacobson's question over and over: "Is it true yet? Is it true yet?"

Then finally, at some point in all this, my editor finally says, "I'm sending the manuscript to copy editing."

And suddenly, it dawns on me that this story I've only dared to share with a small handful of people I love and trust is going to be read by strangers.

That's when it finally starts to feel real.

But while I wait, I wonder. I doubt. Because that's what I do.

Finally, the copy edits arrive. Inside, I find a note tucked in from the copy manager. It is private, and personal, and it makes me cry. Especially when I get to the end:

I'm left ruminating on the power of that truth telling, knowing it will mean so much to your readers, in so many ways. Somehow that telling--the telling of it just so--offers solace. So thank you for the book, and I look forward to seeing it take shape.

It's this letter that gives me the courage to go back in again. This time, reading the words as if they are finally, in her words, a book taking shape. Then I let them go again.

Yesterday, they came back to me. My words have been type-set in a new font. They don't look like mine any more. But they are. And now, seeing them as they'll look inside an actual book, they feel as real as they ever will.

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