On Rereading

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Here’s one thing about the life of a working writer: there is nothing quite like rereading five books in one of your series so you can make the sixth and final a reasonable first draft, tucking in all loose ends and making sure all things you want to resolve are nice and square, and the things you don’t want to resolve are done well.

For me, it’s kind of a Purgatory. It’s not quite hell, but it’s not comfy either.

I am not generally fond of rereading my own stuff. For one thing, after revisions, copyedits, proof pages, and reviews, sometimes I just get exhausted with a book. For another, writers are inveterate fiddlers. If not for deadlines we would continue polishing things forever. (Or maybe that’s just me.) I’m always seeing things that could be better, or catching little things I want to fix but can’t. It upsets me.

There’s the fact that while reading the book, I re-experience the emotional cost of writing it. I remember where I was when I wrote certain passages, what I was thinking about, what was happening around me. This particular series holds books that I wrote under acid-test conditions (to put it kindly) and remembering how I crawled into the story as a sharp-edged refuge is…well, a little difficult. Not only that, but I re-experience the characters’ emotional cost. Yes, I’m terrifically hard on my characters (no risk, no reward, remember,) but I suffer right along with them. Their hard-won victories make me feel good, the prices they pay for those victories are to some extent paid by me. (Though I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, my characters, thanks.)

Add to that the fact that I’m saying goodbye to a character I’ve literally bled with, and no wonder I’m wanting to take this easy. I make notes on my trusty legal pad, I fold down pages in my working copies (I keep one copy of every book to write notes in or check when I need to) I do my best to read critically, even though I’m still too close to the work to see everything. And I think about what the series has meant to me, if I pulled off what I meant to, if I didn’t punk out.

There are good things, too. I sometimes (not frequently enough, alas) run across passages I like. I usually don’t remember writing them, there are occasionally chunks where I hit the sweet spot and the words came through me without any interference. And every once in a while I am surprised into a laugh when a character makes a comment. (If one can’t find one’s own books occasionally funny, well…)

So I’m in a very reflective mood this Friday. I am bracing myself for the plunge through the fifth book this weekend; in many respects, the next-to-last book is the hardest to write, and this was no exception. Plus, I was incredibly stressed while I wrote it, and I don’t want to revisit that time. It’s still too raw. Too bad. Got a deadline. Gotta make it.

If you’re contemplating life as a working writer, just be prepared for the fact that the books don’t go away even after they’re published. They hang on your shell like barnacles, and sometimes you do have to scrape or feed them, or arrange them in different patterns, or just get them out and look at them. Wince at their imperfections, but try to be gentle with them and with yourself. Each book that makes it to the finish line is a victory; each book that makes it through the publication process is a double victory. To look back and say I could have done that better, yeah shows a certain amount of growth. That growth is a good thing, even if uncomfortable. Try to be gentle with yourself, and give yourself some credit for enduring, if nothing else.

I’m going to try to take my own advice on this. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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