The Birth of a Book; The Death of a Dream

Eleven years. I have been eleven years in the writing of Midnight Rain, and as I typed the final words in this revision, knowing that this time I had nailed the ending, that I had pulled in the story elements that I’ve been fighting with, as I sat there with a completed 100,000 word on-spec novel on my hard drive, my hands were shaking and my pulse was racing. I stared at the last line, shivering, thought ‘Yes’. Posted my brief notice here, unable to sit still or even type anything longer. Stood up, kicked by a massive adrenaline rush, and started pacing in circles, too tense and elated and strung out on simply having the thing finished to even think. I was inarticulate.

It was one of the most overwhelming, unnerving feelings I’ve ever experienced — I’d liken it to giving birth, except with a longer gestation and a whole lot less physical trauma. I had this weird urge to run up to strangers and growl “I finished the book, dammit, finished it” while fixing them with the feverish stare of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner; I wanted to tell them my tale of where and how the book was born and what it had been through in the birthing.

And yet I cannot say that I have eleven years worth of book there, and that fact fills me with a sharp and bittersweet pain. No, I haven’t worked on this book straight through for all of those years — I have picked at it in pieces between paid projects, scratched notes to myself when waking from dreams in the dead of night, scribbled a concept here and a theme there, and have ripped it to shreds and rebuilt it from the ground up not once but three times. In my heart, it was a transformative book, and while I can find ghosts of that in this final incarnation, it is not transcendent. Perhaps it cannot be transcendent. Perhaps, no matter how hard we try, we cannot rip perfect books from our hearts and souls and put them on the page. Perfection eludes us, and we are left with something pretty good, and an ache for what might have been.

I can look at it and say with confidence that Midnight Rain is a good book. I cannot even hope that it is a great book — I abandoned all hopes of greatness with the realization, a couple of years ago, that I could never satisfy my own requirements. I like the book. Parts of it I love.

But a ghost sits on my shoulder — the ghost of the book that I envisioned, the ghost that is the twin of the book that exists in real and tangible form. The perfect twin died in the instant that I declared the work finished and this book was born and I ceased my pursuit of that shining, unflawed other. It was sacrificed to permit the birth of the imperfect book that is. The ghost of what might have been died at the hands of expediency, and of settling, and of grim reality, and in the end those hands were my hands, and I was a willing and knowing participant in my dream’s death.

Not all books are this hard. I did not have such great dreams for other books, and so I did not have so far to fall when I did not achieve them. I think this will be the only book I take eleven years to write, because dreams can grow Olympian in eleven years, but the writer who dreams them remains a mere mortal.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

5 comments… add one
  • Kevin Palmer Apr 6, 2003 @ 21:06

    I would simply like to comment on your moving entry above.

    I have not read any of your books. [No matter how hard I try – I have not YET been able to read everything in print! 😀 ]

    It is a given that sometime in the near future I will be reading some of your work. I truly respect the effort that it takes for a writer to learn their craft thoroughly. Anyone can put words down on paper [or into digital space] Not all, not even most, can transport the reader into the place and time and world that they want to share with them. So many writers jostle your elbow as you read, with the mechanics of putting their concepts into your forebrain.

    It is clear to me as I read the expression and emotion you convey in such a few short paragraphs, I realise that I /*must*/ read your fiction. I have friends to meet and history to learn!

    Thank you in advance for what I am sure will be most entertaining.

  • Holly Apr 1, 2003 @ 5:54

    Midnight Rain is "The Perfect Busman’s Holiday"s secret project.

  • Robert A. Sloan Apr 1, 2003 @ 1:32

    That’s such a tremendous wave of feeling, Holly. Your post moved me so much.

    I, too, know how it feels to finish something that takes way too many years, and got done in intermittent fits and starts. That’s how the long term projects happen. I don’t think you or I or anyone could sustain a project, keeping it central, and then not finish it in a much shorter time. The time that slipped between those stints was silent but it mattered. The times between the pulses are rumination.

    Can you be sure this book isn’t everything you wanted it to be?

    More to the point, since you typed The End, can you be sure that between this finished draft and the editor who buys it, you won’t crank it up again and polish it one step further and bring it closer to the dream that’s in your heart? You were the one who taught me to trust editors and agents to have a skilled eye when they look at what I’ve done.

    Listen to yourself a little with it now, perhaps, because the finished book isn’t the finished book. It’s the finished book when it’s got covers on and it’s in print and I can go buy it somewhere the way I just did "The Wreck of Heaven."

    Those sound like growing pains, Holly, and they give me hope that I will always grow no matter how good I get at this great craft. Don’t count out "finite perfection" till it actually hits the presses.

    Robert and Ari >^..^<

  • Diatryma Mar 31, 2003 @ 22:37

    If nothing else, perfection has a wonderful eulogy.

  • Peggy Kurilla Mar 31, 2003 @ 21:25

    Holly, I’ve been wondering–and please feel free to tell me to zark off if I’m being too nosy–is MIDNIGHT RAIN the secret project (code named PR) you referred to in your essay "The Perfect Busman’s Holiday"? Inquiring minds, and all that…

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this is your most successful book yet…the opening chapters you have posted have really whetted my appetite for the rest of it.

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