Monday, October 8, 2012

Is It Done?

Last week my brother and I submitted the manuscript for his memoir, Mr. Joe, to our publisher. I was the one who sent it in, using an increasingly common method: I attached the 362-page Microsoft Word file to an e-mail. Both Joe and I are compulsively early, so the manuscript left on its cyber-journey two days before the deadline—on Wednesday instead of Friday.

Perhaps you heard my “Ta-da!” as I clicked the Send button. At last, the thing was out of our hands. Mr. Joe has been a six-year labor of love, but that Wednesday I was saturated with it, having spent the previous ten days putting in revisions. As the message went to the Out box, I could almost hear the clang of rolling steel, as though a safety door had descended behind Mr. Joe  and forced me to let go—not a bad thing.
Our publisher normally responds like lightning to e-mails, so I was surprised when we heard nothing back from her.  Joe, with his trusting nature, assumed that all was well; but some of us harbor more anxiety. Some of us question everything. All I could think was: Did she get the manuscript? Did she read it? Did she love it or hate it?
The silence was agonizing.
When Friday came—the due date--I ventured a second e-mail in case the manuscript had not reached its destination. That time the reply was quick. Our publisher had been preparing for a huge book fair all week. Mr. Joe, one of many projects, was on her reading schedule for the following week.
“Are you ‘done’ with it?” she asked in her message. “Do you believe it’s ready to go?”
If I thought the silence from Wednesday to Friday was agonizing, this was worse. How could I say it? The day after I sent the manuscript in, I found an error: two words left out of one of the later chapters,  no doubt the result of my cutting and pasting. The spell check hadn’t caught it.
I’d also thought of a great line I could add to Chapter 44, regarding my mother’s statement that she did not want to live to be ninety years old. I hadn’t immediately seen that her words would connect beautifully to an earlier passage in the book.
Now my mind was racing. Should I tell the publisher about these changes? That would mean sending a new file. The changes were tiny. The missing words would be caught in Production. Should I read Mr. Joe yet again? Would I think of a dozen other changes if I did? I decided to delay my response.
She wrote again: “I’ll read it Tuesday and Wednesday if you feel it’s ready to go to typesetting.”
I couldn’t escape the  readiness issue. It made my heart race. It made my mind wild. It made me doubt myself—but let’s cut to the lesson. Joe has had to remind me a few times during this project that everything isn’t about me.  I don’t recall that he said it this time, but his words echoed in my mind like the clang of that virtual steel door.
Our publisher is beyond excited about Mr. Joe. Being also a busy publisher, she likes to avoid reading multiple versions of the same manuscript. Her unsettling questions weren’t a finger-wagging directed at me. She merely wanted  to know if the Author Final was indeed final. I told her the truth: I'm never done. Writers seldom are. We can always find something to change.
As she began her reading two thousand miles and three time zones away, Joe and I did the same in Cincinnati. I intended to make my two little fixes and hope the 91,000 other words would still stand. Here’s the thing: Every change in a manuscript starts a chain reaction. Maybe we should call it a change reaction, because every change can trigger a new story. Every change makes an author rethink what came before and after it. I got lost in Mr. Joe and felt like I was fighting my way out. Maybe you know the feeling.
Luckily, our inner survival mechanism eventually kicks in. When mine finally did, I completed my edits easily and clicked on the Send button without a single stab of conscience.
Thanks to our publisher, Bettie Youngs of Bettie Youngs Books, for her steadfast support and encouragement during the development of Mr. Joe.

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