How to let it go
I've done this twice now, and I've decided that letting go of a manuscript is my least favourite part of writing and publishing a book (except finding an error after the book's gone to press, which is the highest of all authorial agonies). It should be the most exciting, and in many ways it is exciting – there's something liberating about being unable to edit the manuscript any longer, to know that it's now in someone else's capable hands – but I only ever remember this in retrospect. Despite making promises to myself that I wouldn't worry so much, I've still found it tough the second time round. I haven't been sleeping well for the last few days. I feel sick with nerves and my mind tick-tocks like a pocket watch, dwelling on every sentence and simile, every name and description and snippet of dialogue. The devils in the details start to haunt me. Did I repeat that image twice? Did I get that date wrong? I flick through the ARC until it's bruised with fingerprints: studying it, eyes peeled for errors. My fingers twitch over my keyboard, half-writing an email to my editor to ask yet again, cringing with embarrassment, if she can make a 'final' tweak. Then, er, another 'final' tweak. Maybe one more? I had to do this only yesterday night, as it turns out I'd made a transliteration error in the manuscript that I needed changed to preserve the meaning of a Rephaite family name.
As it creeps towards the time when the book needs to go to the printer, it becomes more and more difficult for the editor to take last-minute changes in, and the likelihood that mistakes will be made in the typesetting – typos, gaps, random capital letters – becomes much higher. The manuscript keeps getting passed back and forth between the editor and the typesetter (each version is called a "pass", e.g. "2nd pass"), and making too many small changes means more passes and greater opportunity for error. Fortunately, I have a brilliant editor who takes in as many changes as she can at the eleventh hour – but sooner or later, the book must be printed so it can hit the shelves on publication day.
Last year, this part of the process, coupled with my looming Finals, set off a period of severe anxiety and insomnia that left me curled up on the floor in tears during the day and wide awake, trembling with fear, during the night. Those nights were spent in a state of rigid, heart-pounding panic; for all I tried, I couldn't shift my body out of its 'fight or flight' mode. Eventually it reached boiling point. I was getting no work or revision done, and I made the decision to remove myself from college for a few days. Letting go of The Mime Order, while it hasn't been nearly as difficult, has still been the hardest part of the Book 2 process so far.
Once the book goes to the printer, it becomes a fixed object. The word petrified is probably appropriate. Before that, it was a fluid, moving text; a work in progress. An error in the ARC is annoying, as you know that some readers may see it and raise an eyebrow, but it can still be changed for the final, published version. Small errors in the hardback can be corrected for the paperback, but it's pretty final after that. Finality is frightening. I've found that moving on to the next book quickly can help alleviate the panic – it gives the sense that I'm in control again – but even then, I keep glancing back at the previous manuscript, and my brain keeps tick-tocking, searching like a radar for new things to worry about. A fresh wave of panic arrives when I actually get a finished copy. Holding the book for the first time is an incredible experience – there is really nothing like it – but once I actually begin to read my own work in its final form, more worry sets in. Hours pass. Repeated reading, quadruple-checking for typos and mistakes I might have missed the first four hundred times I read the manuscript. With The Bone Season, it took a long time before I could read the hardback without little spasms shooting through my gut and cold prickles dancing up and down my arms.
Fortunately, I haven't needed or wanted to make quite so many changes to The Mime Order. This time I won't be frightened of getting the finished copy. I'll be proud – and yes, a little nervous. But I won't be quite so terrified. I try to remember that even though the printed text is static, the book is still fluid in the minds of its readers. Ice is still made up of water. Each reader looks at the story differently; each seeks out their own themes and meanings and draws their own conclusions. The author puts the object out there and it comes to life. That's why, even when a reader hasn't enjoyed one of my books, I love the huge range of responses I get. They remind me that, because of those readers, a story is never just 'finished'. And I think it will get easier and easier to remember that as I write more of them.
(PS: Thank you so much to Salim and Fatema for helping me correct aforementioned transliteration error yesterday. Luckily, that's one error I can still correct!)