When the first proof copies of Cuckoo were distributed, I likened the feeling to taking my knickers off in public.**
But I have found something in this writing process far more challenging even than that, and two weeks ago, on holiday on France, I had to go through it again.
The most difficult part is the very first read.
Well, not the very first read – I do that myself, obviously (and god knows, that’s hard enough). But I mean the very first read by someone other than myself. And my poor, long-suffering first reader of choice is, unluckily for him, the Old Man.
So put yourself in my shoes. I’ve been making up these people and situations, on my own, for a year or so. They have become almost as real to me as my actual family and friends. The scary thought has just struck me that I probably spend more time with my imaginary people than I do with anyone else – my children and husband included….
I know, of course, that at some time someone else will see what I’ve been up to. That moment came for novel #4 about two weeks ago at about eight in the morning…
I’m sitting on the terrace of the cottage we rented in France and I realise I’ve edited as far as I can and it’s time for feedback. So I send the manuscript off in two emails: one to Agent Simon, (who is safely in London), and one to the Old Man, who is about five feet away from me, working in bed.
He knows how much I need him to read it – he’s a great judge of story, and I really value his opinion. So of course the poor man opens the file on his laptop and starts reading straight away.
This it the cue for extreme neurotic behaviour from me. I tiptoe past him, pause, eyebrows raised, for a reaction.
If I get none, I ask if it’s all right.
If he says yes, I carry on to wherever I was spuriously heading off to. But if he points out something that’s puzzling him or strikes a wrong note, it sparks off all sorts of author idiocy, ranging from feeling completely useless for barking up the wrong tree and writing a whole novel full of moronic twaddle, to a completely irrational and unjustifiable rage at his nit-pickery and denseness for picking up that a character’s name changes mid-chapter, or not understanding a non-sequitur plot strand that somehow got left behind by my last edit and has nothing whatsoever to do with anything..
In the mornings, as we have our morning tea in bed, he reaches up his laptop and reads on. Pretending to read another (ie someone else’s) novel, I peer over the top of the pages, scrutinising his face for reactions. It makes for a very tense married life, that sort of thing.
The three days he reads are absolute hell for me. I get through them with chilled rosé and chocolate. Then at last, he saves his comments, emails them to me, shuts his laptop and tells me it’s ‘another fucking winner’.
So I’m thinking ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he? What choice does he have? What he really thinks is that it’s shit, but he doesn’t dare say.’
Then I open his notes which are, as ever, deft, perceptive and brilliant.
And I work on them, and novel #4 is suddenly infinitely better than it had been.
His final note is this: ‘Brilliant. I am so proud of you.’
Thank you, Old Man. And I’m sorry.
Here’s to the first readers. You are brave and brilliant, and books wouldn’t exist without you.
** Since then, knickers off has consistently been one of the most used search terms for this blog. I do hope the visitors who find me that way aren’t terribly disappointed