Seeing red

A big ream of paper -- around 300 pages -- sits on my desk, awaiting my attention. It's the manuscript of my new mystery novel, recently bounced back to me by my wife and my best friend, the two people who always read my novels before I ship them off to New York.

The manuscript is covered with red and black ink -- squiggles and exclamations, deletions and suggestions, complaints and exhortations. It's about the most daunting thing I can imagine. Famed sportswriter Red Smith once said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." This manuscript looks like someone bled all over it.

For a writer, the first read-through by others is the equivalent of an employee's annual review. All the work you've put into the book for the past six months or more is judged at once, every failing boldly noted in red. And, as with those dreaded annual reviews, I can't see the compliments or the unmarked text. I can only see the slights and the "suggestions for improved performance."

I once got an employee review from a boss at a news organization where I worked, and the only thing he marked down was the way I dressed. I still can recall the words: "As he matures, Steve will dress more like a businessman." That chiding followed me around for years. Heck no, I wouldn't dress more like a businessman. That's one of the reasons I went to work in news -- so I wouldn't have to wear a suit. That boss should see me now, working at home in my bathrobe.

So here I sit, in my bathrobe, with 300 pages of performance review staring me in the face. My next task is to go through the manuscript, making changes, adding whole chapters, cutting passages that seemed precious when they were drafted. If I'm diligent and disciplined, I can have the next round of rewrites done in a month, working in the hours around dawn while my sons are still asleep.

And today's the day to begin. So I used the age-old formula followed by at-home workers everywhere when faced with a daunting task. I got up early, poured myself some coffee, sat down at the computer and played Solitaire for an hour.

OK, maybe that wasn't what you expected. I'm usually one of those work-at-home people who stress discipline and determination and time management. At writers' conferences, I often tell aspiring authors that you write with your butt -- keep it in the chair until the words come. But faced with a month of revision, a month of responding to the flaws in my own work, I'm too cowed to start. Even after I erased the game board from my computer screen in disgust, I couldn't begin. I started writing this column instead. Anything -- even writing something fresh -- seemed preferable to delving into all that red ink. So I stall. I carp. I tell you readers about it. And you, without knowing it, become my enablers, allowing me to put off the rewriting when I should be plunging into it.

One of the blessings of working at home is that there's no one watching over your shoulder while you labor. But it's also one of the drawbacks to working at home. Without someone there to monitor my work, to prod and cajole me, it's easy to procrastinate. At times, I find myself wishing that I had a boss, someone who'd crack the whip when I needed it. Instead, I'm stuck searching for motivation, some way to break out of this deep freeze of hesitation and reluctance. It's almost enough to make me want to dress like a businessman.

And now the boys are awake. I hear them scurrying around the other end of the house, giggling and whispering, ready for another fun-filled summer day. They're my most important job, right? They give me a good excuse to put off the rewriting until tomorrow.

Tomorrow's another day. Tomorrow I'll be fresh and well-rested and ready to tackle the big job. And if I'm still not ready? Then I'll play Solitaire some more, berating myself until the kids come to my rescue..

(Editor's note: This column's from 1999, but not much has changed. My latest novel, which will be my 17th, is being read by my best friend right now. It'll come home soon, covered in red ink.)

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