It can take five years to write a book, and a few hours for an editor to decide to reject it.
That's why I struggle so much with every line. I go back and forth for hours on just one sentence or paragraph because it's at the beginning of the book.
Then I take a break, thumb through some other books. Here are a few that are scattered near my desk at the moment. I wonder what kind of critiquing they would get from people in my writing group, or friends:
"To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will."
"What Eva would remember later, looking back, were the honey jars, how she was riding her bike down the road, legs churning, hair whipping across her face, not far from home yet..."
"My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of the year."
"I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before."
These are, respectively, Ordinary People (Judith Guest), The Honey Thief (Elizabeth Graver), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), A Separate Peace (John Knowles). I have them near my desk for different purposes (not respectively: reference, pleasure reads, style check). They've all been praised in different ways (either by top literary critics or by the book-buying public). Readers don't focus extensively on every word of those lines. The books did fine.
If I asked all of you which of the above opening lines you liked and which ones didn't please you, you'd all have different opinions. And put aside literary quality; which ones would make you want to read more? I'd probably be most intrigued by the last one. It all depends on personal preference.
But what if I'd written those lines? It's possible that members of my writing group would say: Too dry, too long, too juvenile or simplistic, too quiet...and I'm almost certain that I'd read those lines 100 times and make similar pronouncements myself. From the first one, I probably would end up taking out "if you will," and replacing it with "A bumper sticker or a pin, or maybe a tasteful tattoo." Then I might take out "tasteful tattoo" and change it to "hipster t-shirt," or...
And then there's "What Eva would remember later, looking back..." Do you need "looking back"? Or does that reinforce the timing because early readers of the manuscript were confused? It doesn't hurt to have that phrase in there, but it's not a hundred percent necessary. I'm sure I'd labor over the "looking back" endlessly if I'd written that first line. I'd probably keep it in. Best not to take chances. Readers skip words.
What about the line about "My name is Kathy H." I might change it to "My name is Kathy." It's shorter. But then it sounds a bit like an AA meeting, or a kid speaking. Sure, it tells the narrator's age in the very next line, but tones are set early. Hmmm. How about "My name is Kathy and I'm 31." Or "My name is Katherine Harris, Kathy for short."
So think about me now, laboring over these initial pages for hours, days, weeks, months in my room. Who can I ask for advice on my pages? Writing groups, yes. Friends and fellow writers, yes. If one person doesn't like something, it might not mean much. If everyone says the same things, then I'm getting good perspective.
But most of the time, I can wear out my welcome. There are eight people in my writing group, which meets monthly, and each of us get fifteen minutes. Each of us is crazily revising his or her own magnus opus (dei).
I can also ask friends, cleverly ambush them at lunch: Hey, can you read this ONE line, just one line, and tell me if it seems normal? (And they might look for ten seconds at each and every word in that line, and I might say, 'NO!!! Just read it like if you picked it up at a book store, because that's how any regular reader will read it...but um, at the same time, tell me if any of the words seem awkward or stop you, okay? But still read it like it's normal. Like you don't know me and you just picked it up, okay?') And sometimes I need to specifically ask women, or men, or people who read a lot, or people who don't...
And you can at some point ask your agent, but there are only so many times you can bug your agent (if you're lucky enough to have an agent), and you want to use those rare times for important things (like, "Um, so, have you heard anything on my submissions yet?") You cannot waste your rationed communications on "It's four a.m. and I'm stuck on page 46 and please e-mail me to validate my existence thanks."
The upshot? In the end, it comes down to the writer, writing alone. I want to give this my best shot. I appreciate the patience friends have shown when I've ambushed them with sentences and questions. Or if I've merely just said, "No, I can't come out Sunday; I'm writing" and you thought it was a lame excuse, because I can write any time, and why can't I put the book down for two hours? (Because dammit, it takes an hour of internet procrastination before I hit my groove, and if I have to stop and come out, that's going to take another hour of procrastination and then getting back in the mood, and other things...)
I realize this is a completely selfish job. It's an extremely comfortable job as well. (Or should that be "too"?) As stuck as I might get on a line, I'm not doing eight hours of data entry (like I've done before) or making your Whopper your way. This is usually relaxing work, finally geting to do a data dump of all the ADD-addled crap that came into my head all day when I should have been paying attention to the person talking to me or the assignment I was supposed to be doing. I can focus on a computer screen when I'm writing more than I can focus on almost anything else.
But it still gets a tad lonely, and not in a way that having people around would help (it wouldn't.) I just mean that as much as I care about this, I know that in the big picture, until I get it right and it affects people and adds something to the world, it's just another potentially obscure piece of one person's creativity or art out there. And that's being generous.
Newspaper reporter Derek Rose writes a summary of what it was like to be covering the West Virginia miner tragedy. He's been down there for almost a week now. Worth reading if you have the time.