Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

March 14, 2012

Telling a Book Goodbye

There’s a very strange something that happens when you finish a book. Call it Writer’s Postpartum, but it is a kind of mourning/grieving/losing-your-best-friend/wandering-about-the-house-without-a-purpose feeling. It’s the feeling that something is missing, that something is not quite right, as if you’ve suddenly woken up to find yourself very far from home. When I’m done with a book, I always feel a bit like Miss Havisham– lost and sad and rambling about in the ruins of her mansion.

Because there are so many stages of a book, the postpartum can come at many different times, the worst of it being just after you turn a book in. For months, you’ve been rushing, rushing, rushing, and pushing yourself beyond all mental/emotional/physical limits to finish it, and then– just like that– it’s gone and on your editor’s desk, and it doesn’t matter if you have another book lined up right afterward, waiting to be researched, outlined, written. You still have that overwhelming feeling of loss.

On Friday, I Fedexed the first pass loose galleys of Becoming Clementine to my editor at Penguin which, in English, means that I’m essentially done making changes to the book. I will see the manuscript one more time– for what is called the second pass– but that will basically be to proof for typos. All major changes are now completed. Now, on the one hand I’m thrilled not to have to read the book again with the kind of intensity you have to give it when making edits, large and small. And there is another book to be written before September, after all, so I do need to be concentrating on that. But those postpartum feelings still crop up.

I’m not the only writer to experience them. Some of my favorite quotes on the subject:

“The book dies a real death for me when I write the last word. I have a little sorrow and then go on to a new book which is alive. The rows of my books on the shelf are to me like very well embalmed corpses. They are neither alive nor mine. I have no sorrow for them because I have forgotten them, forgotten in its truest sense.” — John Steinbeck

“I usually have a sense of clinical fatigue after finishing a book.” — John Cheever

“Writing a book is like a purge; at the end of it one is empty… like a dry shell on the beach, waiting for the tide to come in again.” — Daphne du Maurier

“When a book is done, he has his own life and you forget about him. He goes and lives alone; he takes an apartment.” — Oriana Fallaci

“I scarcely look with full satisfaction upon any (of my books); for they do not seem what they might have been. I often wish that I could have twenty years more, to take them down from the shelf one by one, and write them over.” — Washington Irving

January 24, 2012

Behind the Book — Naming a Book

Book titles are tricky. Sometimes they come to you naturally and easily and sometimes (most of the time) they’re more evasive. John Steinbeck said, “I have never been a title man. I don’t give a damn what it is called.” But I do. I think titles are important.

Tennessee Williams said, “The title comes last.” This has, for the most part, been my experience. I spent two years researching and writing The Ice Master before choosing the title, which was suggested by my mother. After my editor and I settled on The Ice Master, we came up with a subtitle: “The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk and the Miraculous Rescue of Her Survivors,” which became simply “The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk” because my editor felt the former was too wordy and gave too much away.

I went through at least fifty titles for my memoir about high school (including the uninspired High School and the more inspired Riding in Trans-Ams with Boys) before my editor– during our brainstorm of 1980’s-related words and phenomena– came up with The Aqua Net Diaries.

In the case of my first novel, Penguin originally wanted to change the name Velva Jean Learns to Drive so that it wouldn’t be confused with a children’s book or a young adult book, but I stood firm and convinced them otherwise. When it came time to choose a title for Velva Jean Learns to Fly, Penguin wanted to change the name to something that could stand alone and didn’t mention Velva Jean (the sales and marketing teams have very good and convincing reasons for this). But I wanted Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and I fought for it.

With this third novel in the Velva Jean series, sales and marketing have again stated their case– more emphatically this time– about leaving Velva Jean out of the title. After all, they argue, she’ll be mentioned in the jacket copy and also on the front cover (which will say: “Author of Velva Jean Learns to Drive“). The few readers I’ve mentioned this to have reacted almost violently– they want Velva Jean’s name in there! I understand this because part of me does to. I like the symmetry of Velva Jean Learns to… But this third time around, I’m ready for a change.

Maybe it’s because I don’t want potential readers to pick up the book and think, “Oh, it’s some series about some girl named Velva Jean, and I haven’t read the first two so I can’t start with this one,” or maybe it’s because I’m, every now and again, feeling the itch to move beyond Velva Jean into new characters and new settings, or maybe it’s because of the nature of this third book– it’s a darker, broader, more epic tale, full of adventure, danger, intrigue, and action (and a grown-up love story!). Or maybe it’s because sales and marketing make a really good case. Whatever the reason, I feel ready for a new title.

The challenge about revealing said title is that, until you read the book, it’s going to be hard to really get its meaning and impact. But then, aren’t so many good titles like that?

E.L. Doctorow said, “You’ll find a title and it’ll have a certain excitement for you; it will evoke the book, it will push you along. Eventually, you will use it up and you will have to choose another title. When you find the one that doesn’t get used up, that’s the title you go with.”

That’s how I feel about this new one. I had a couple of other titles for it at first, but I wore those out. Then my editor suggested one– what ultimately became the final one– and I wasn’t sure at first. I mulled it over, I tried to think of others, I tried living with this one or that one for a day or two. But I kept coming back to the one she suggested. And now I like it. I really do.

So what is the final title for Velva Jean #3? You’ll have to tune in here tomorrow for the reveal…