On Mondays, we post pieces that fit that month's theme. In March, we're hearing from four writers about their experience of "Making It Into a Book". Today, Krissy Kneen lets us in on how she finished Affection.
When I first got the nod from Text Publishing that they were very interested in looking at my memoir Affection I was elated. I was briefly the happiest I have ever been in my life. I drank champagne and dined at a fancy restaurant and then when I got home I found it difficult to breathe and my feet swelled up to two little balloons on the stumps of my legs. I finally realised that it was caused by the stress. I would have to make a book. What I had was nothing more than the idea of a book. I had been writing a blog post about my sex life every day for a period of a year. I had thousands of words collected. I had spilled my awkward private moments all over the internet. My proposal to Text suggested that I could easily cobble these together into a book. You would think this would be an easy process.
The thing I love about a book is that it has a through-line. It has a point, and elegantly goes about making that point over a period of two or three hundred pages. What I had pitched to the publisher was a book, a whole book, and what I had was a book-length collection of blog posts. I now had a mere two months to turn the thing into something that had an architecture. Bricks and tiles and concrete had to be constructed into something water-tight, weather-proof and preferably elegant in form.
The next week was spent riding the ridiculous highs of an in-principal acceptance email from Text Publishing and the terrible lows of someone who knows that their work is so very far from being ready to publish. The steps I took were basically the steps I now always take when working on the final drafts of a new book. I didn’t know it then but I was developing a work practice, a system to ensure that the work will be done on time and to a relatively high standard.
Step One: Spend about a week berating yourself, telling yourself that you were stupid for even thinking you could write this book (Yes, I do this even now with four books under my belt).
Step Two: Draw a diagram. Heck, why stop at one? Draw a series of diagrams, each one more confusing than the next. In these diagrams list all the chapters (or blog posts) you have managed to write, all the characters you imagine might be in the story, and a vague order of events.
Step Three: Panic. Come to an understanding that this is a terrible project. It will never be a book and you are a really bad writer. The timing for this step is pretty flexible. In the case of Affection I only had two months so I could spare about half a week of deep depression, sleepless nights, crying in the bath, being a bad employee at my day job and an even worse wife.
Step Four: Take leave from work. This is the magical part of my journey. I have such an amazing boss and take so few actual holidays that I was able to take a whole two weeks off at a moment’s notice. I took to the hills and booked a cottage in the forest and then did not leave the cottage for the entire two weeks.
Step Five: Make index cards for all your chapters. Abandon bits, add bits that aren’t yet written (on different coloured index cards). Stick them on the walls with blue tack, take up the entire shack. Divide the book into three sections and make one wall of index cards for ‘the beginning’, one wall for ‘the middle’ and one wall for ‘the end’. Stare at the walls until you know what this book is about. Stare at them till you know exactly what is missing, then…
Step Six: Panic. Really this mid-final-draft panic can only last a day or two at the most. You are borrowing money to rent this expensive place in the hills. You are borrowing time from your stash of unused holidays. Cry, have baths, call friends and tell them how useless you are, delete your Facebook account. Fall in love with an impossible person, trash the best friendship you have – whatever it takes, just get this bit over with because you have a book to write.
Step Seven: Write the book. Yes. This sounds easy, but it is ridiculously hard but at this stage you just have to write the bits you haven’t got yet, re-write the bits you thought you had, put it all together and make it stand up by itself.
Step Eight: Get that special person to read it. I have my dear friend Katherine Lyall-Watson for this, but she is mine, you will have to get your own person. This person will say how wonderful you are so that your soul is not crushed. This person will become excited about your book-like object, but this person will tell you she got lost on page whatever and felt a little miffed about Mr X. My Katherine did that for Affection and she does that for almost everything else I write. These days my husband Anthony provides a second watchful eye - a screenwriter by trade, his structural suggestions are heaven-sent, but for Affection I just had Katherine, and her reading of the manuscript showed me that I still needed to go back to the computer for…
Step Nine: Get it right! With Affection I had a past story about my omnivorous sexual appetite up till the age of 22. I also had a present day story about turning 40, being married to a member of the opposite sex and repressing my voracious, omnivorous sexual appetite. That modern story wasn’t right. Perhaps I was protecting my husband or the people who I have had serious crushes on or even myself, but something wasn’t working about the modern story. I had picked a very potent example of one of my recent crushes and the young man who I was writing about got cold feet and decided I couldn’t use him, even with his name changed, in the book. I had removed him and as a result the modern day plot was thin. After a momentary panic I phoned a friend, another friend, someone who didn’t realise I had a crush on him at all. He was hesitant, but after an awkward conversation he agreed that I could use him (with his name changed) to replace Crush 1. Oh yes, the story of this book is as convoluted as my love life, but with my Crush 2 firmly in place I went on to…
Step Ten: Rewrite. Quickly, because you are nearing your deadline and if you don’t finish it soon you might die from stress and lack of sleep.
Step Eleven. Send it to your editor. Ah, the elation! The good bottle of champagne! The glorious feeling of achievement! Ah! How short-lived it all is.
Step Twelve: Wait, panic, wait, panic. This step may actually be the most awful out of all the steps and surely every author knows the horror of sending out a finished manuscript and then spending the next weeks or months writing rejection letters to yourself or even writing your own bad reviews in imaginary newspapers. Still, this is a necessary and important step in a writer’s journey and the most important one. If you don’t send out your completed but flawed book to your editor/publisher, you will never have the chance to embark on the frustrating but pleasurable experience of a close edit in partnership with an expert (your editor) and you will never have the opportunity to see your finished but flawed book in print.
Then. That strange wonderful-horrible moment when I first held a completed copy of Affection, my first full-length printed book, is one that I will never forget. What is done is done. I can never make that book any better than it is, but also no one can ever take it away from me now. I have a book out in the world.
This was and still is my mantra: No one can take this away.
Krissy Kneen is the author of Affection, Steeplechase, and Triptych, and is a bookseller at Avid Reader in Brisbane
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.