While I was away (on my honeymoon) my editor emailed me the copyedit of my book, James Munkers: Super Freak. This was my manuscript in the correct format for printing.
And it looked just like a book. It had a title page, and the page had my name on it. It had an imprint page with the copyright information and an ISBN. It had an acknowledgements page, filled with people I actually know.
And then there were my words. Words I had written recently, words I had written years before, all of them mine. The words were on pages, and the pages had numbers. It was actually going to be a book that looked like other books. It was the single most exciting part of the process so far.
My editor wasn't just sending me the copyedit to boost my ego, though. I had to go through it, checking for errors. Last chance to change. So I sat down at my computer (on my honeymoon) and began reading.
Two minutes later, I wanted to fall down and die.
It was awful. My book was awful. It was trite and unfunny and clichéd and awful. And, worse than that, some sadist was going to publish hundreds of copies of it and send it all over the place so hundreds of people could read it and laugh and point at me and say, 'You're utter rubbish.'
And all I'd read so far was the first chapter.
With tears in my eyes and a glass of sauvignon blanc at my elbow, I began the sorry task of noting down the most glaring errors, feeling that, at this point, I shouldn't ring up my editor and say, 'Yes, hello, is it alright if I change all the words?' So I made changes, and suffered. I even made changes based on information from Wikipedia, for heaven's sake. It was a low moment.
Then I noticed something. I hadn't made any notes for a couple of pages. I scrolled back through them, just in case I'd missed something, but they all seemed fine. My book, for at least a few pages, was fine.
Then it was good. Sometimes it was funny. I remembered why I loved the characters so much, and started enjoying the story again, so much so that I forgot to check for errors and had to double back. Nearly every note I made from then on had to do with the formatting rather than the content.
So either I'd managed to write a good book with an appalling first chapter or, for some reason, I'd overreacted when I'd started the read-through. Assuming it was the latter, I began to wonder why.
Then it hit me: my baby was going off to school. He was about to head out into the world without me.
At my wedding, my dad made a joke about a happy event coming up and the family growing. After a few moments of raised eyebrows, it became clear that he was talking about my character, James. I didn't catch onto the joke as soon as I should have (I actually though, 'What? I'm pregnant!?' for a moment) because I've never thought of James as my son. More like a younger brother, a source of amusement and annoyance in equal parts, but not a child I have to protect.
But that's because he hasn't needed protection before, at least not from people who aren't fictitious. Apart from a few faceless publishers, I've made damn sure so far to show him only to people who are morally obliged as friends and family to say, 'Oh, he's fantastic!' and other life-affirming things.
That's all about to change. James will shortly (hopefully) be winging his way to the shelves of people I've never met before, and who have no reason to say nice things about him so I don't get upset. They're going to be critical. They're going to have opinions. They're going to love him or hate him, be excited or bored by him, read all of him or just the first line, and I have no earthly way of controlling it. My control over it died when I finally sent the copyedit back to my editor. I can't help him now.
Apparently, my reaction is not an original one. At the point of publication writers often feel a sense of loss or helplessness, or that they haven't done their best. Charlotte Wood, in her essay in The Emerging Writer, offers this advice:
'At a certain point, you must finish the book, and let it go. And when it is done - once it's sent into the world - try your best to forget it. It doesn't belong to you anymore.' (p. 9)
This notion of your work now belonging to someone else is an intriguing one, and I confess I love the idea that James might become more important to someone I've never met than he was even to myself. Then again, if I could run off to a desert island with him and never share him with anyone else ever again, I'd do it. But Wood gives us the reason against such coveting of our own books: 'You have a new one to write.'
And I do. It's called 'James Munkers: Force of Nature'. God bless the sequel.