Sure, the Temple Could Be Doomed
...but it doesn't have to be!
You have to give yourself permission to discover a book as you’re writing it.
As my debut, SHOOT THE MOON is my first experience with the full production process of bringing a novel into the world. Each milestone I pass with my publication team makes me more and more grateful that I’ve been practicing the careful work of removing my ego from the process before now.
I used to sew my worth so closely to my darlings that killing them felt like doing violence to myself. Each edit was agony. Every small tweak made me feel like I was prying bone up from under my skin. I was an unmoved boulder, sure that the first way I had done things was the only and correct one, and it would have been hellish to work with me even two or three years ago.
Moving through the editorial process has given me much to think about. I’ve begun thinking of it as a “big dig,” the steady work of upending the earth to find what really speaks beneath its surface.
The early stages. The tent outside of the dig site, in which you and your editor don’t yet speak the same language. You point to a passage and say Look, here, see my genius hand with themes! Your editor looks at the same passage and says Yes, but you’ve made the same point twenty pages back. You’re trying to carry too many tools with you.
Yes, but you’re going underground for a very involved excavation, you need every tool you can bring with you! Your editor has watched a lot of curious people go deep, deep into the earth. They know the kinds of tools that are most helpful for the thing you’re trying to unearth—maybe not the perfect tools for the way you do things, but perhaps it’s worth picking up a brush instead of a hammer just this once to feel the weight of it in your hand.
And perhaps the brush feels right. Perhaps you discover as you make your descent that there is far less solid rock in your way, and simply a shitload of dust you would rather brush off.
You were right, you radio back up your editor, holding down the fort in the tent. The brush is handy.
Isn’t it just? You can hear the smile they’re sending down the transmission line. Wait until I show these neat little pliers next time you head back up.
So, you learn the most effective language to use with your editor—it might be more tool-speak or shop-talk, it might be sharing recipes, it might be exchanging articles that have absolutely nothing to do with your task at hand simply because it’s a way to make space in the head for the task itself; Things are going well, no questions about your notes but LOOK at this CRUMB CAKE.
The dig proceeds. Now, you’ve unearthed something vaguely creature-shaped. You know how to speak fluently to the people who need to understand you, so all there is to do is keep digging. Keep discovering. What really lives under the scales of this beast you’re creating together, playing small and wondrous gods with the shape of this yet-unknown thing under the crust of your fragile earth?
I think it used to be a meat-eater, you suggest one evening, looking at a very long tooth-shaped thing under the magnifying glass, and your editor makes a curious sound. They pull out a book about carnivores and their bygone mating habits, and you begin to read together.
And now finally, the real core of it. The depth pays off. You find the heart of the creature waiting on a plinth and you are Indie in the well. Switch the idols. Dodge the rock. This is where shit gets good.
If I had reached this stage at an earlier point in my life, I would have been entirely paralyzed by the amount of red lines, dots, open-ended suggestions on the page. I would be miserable, in no small part because I would still be trying to clear away dust with a hammer.
I know I’m going to get back to the surface unscathed (maybe with a nick from those arrows that shoot out of the wall when stepping on the wrong tile, but nothing some dittany and a good drink can’t fix in the aftermath).
Right now though I’m still just running and dodging my own traps, enjoying the adrenaline.
It can be difficult to see the Temple of Doom through the trees, for lack of less mixed-up metaphor. Every step deeper inward has its own certain magic, and being open to seeing that is paramount to having a good experience while you’re slowly exhuming a fully-fledged book from the sand. I’ve been exceedingly lucky to have a great editor by my side, a co-explorer who wants to make sure I’m safe as I spelunk the depths of the story we’re tackling together.
I’ve become deeply familiar with the gear involved, both from my own bag and my editor’s. I know by now that I would climb into the freakiest hell-maw with a rope from Kate, because I know she’d source the good stuff for any dig—dynamic, comfortable, shitloads of kilonewtons for a good catch.
It’s an exercise in trust, of course. I took a few falls on that rope where it was safe, when we were still just in the rough stages, and learned that it could take one hell of a whipper.
All this to say, you must trust your people. In my experience, trust is a combination of time and proven results: over the last several months, I have seen leaps and bounds of progress not only in the story I’m seeking to tell, but also the acuity of my narrative voice developing in stunning directions I wouldn’t have known to steer it otherwise. Good results, which I now know how to replicate. Forward progress, outpacing that fucking boulder I can still see rolling over my shoulder no matter how far ahead of it I get.
It’s a waste of time being precious over anything you write. Growth is a process of excising, examining, looking at the fine and fossilized things that come from your own depths. In guarding the old with your teeth bared too hard, you risk overlooking the delicate turns of an opportunity to learn.
And the real truth to swallow at the end of the dig is this: no matter how hard you try, you can control nothing of the way a reader is going to interpret your work. So why not start practicing the severance now?
You must become adept at removing yourself from the equation, cutting the umbilical cord, or else you will remain immovably terrified of anything less than total adoration from your audience (which is, of course, an impossible goal. No one person can please everyone).
The easiest way to stretch that muscle is to collaborate with people you trust. Let them give you the hard facts and help build up your calluses before you must truly nudge the fledgling out to fly, keep descending, and start building the next nest even deeper underground.
Softly but deeply interrogate the goals of everyone who comes into your path on the way to that dig site, because you want to build a team of people who share the same ones as you—for instance, if you are trying to build a tower, you cannot saddle yourself with those who come armed only with sledgehammers. Useful tools, but not for building upward.
Each story will need a different approach. Insist on confidence and greatness from the people who must guide you. Learn to ask for as much as you give. This strange archaeology is obtuse and difficult. Do whatever is in your power to make it less so.
~~~~~~ Book Updates ~~~~~~
SHOOT THE MOON, a midcentury story about wormholes and clinging to the time we have left with the people who love us, comes to Putnam Books in fall 2023 — stay tuned for more coming soon.
~~~~~~ Reading Recs ~~~~~~
HOW TO DO NOTHING: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
My spouse had this knocking around in our shared ebook library for a while, and I picked it up when I decided to delete the Twitter app from my phone. It makes me want to run out into the nature preserve down the street, which is a very good thing. Odell has a way of making the mundane feel prescient and delicate and worth holding in both hands (and I also adore her thoughts on being properly radicalized by trees).
ALL THE THINGS SHE SAID by Daisy Jones
I am having a BLAST annotating this one in preparation to send it to a friend for a sort of “sisterhood of the traveling books about lesbians.” It’s already made me catharsis-cry multiple times, by which I mean READ THIS BOOK ASAP. The reverence and care with which Jones illustrates queer history is masterful and heartening.
~~~~~~ Currently Listening ~~~~~~
Mi Mundo Raro — Chavela Vargas
I spent an afternoon this weekend lying on the floor listening to this album from top to tail, better than any church.
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