I have a special problem with video games: I like them too much. Twenty-one years ago I became addicted to a game called Civilization, which I played on my 386 PC (remember those?) The game starts at the dawn of human history; you have to establish a simulated civilization by building cities and mustering armies and increasing your technological know-how. You also wage wars against competing civilizations, and over time -- each turn represents a hundred years, I think -- your weaponry grows ever more powerful. I absolutely loved that game. There was something intensely satisfying about starting out with phalanxes and chariots and then working your way up to riflemen and tanks and aircraft carriers.
One night in November 1991 I played the game until morning. I started playing when my girlfriend (now my wife) went to sleep, and I was still at it when she woke up at 7 am. She gave me an incredulous look. “What on earth are you doing?” I must’ve looked a little scary. My eyes were bloodshot, my hands were shaking, and my back muscles were full of knots from bending over the keyboard all night. “I did it!” I yelled in triumph. “I conquered the world!”
Later that day I removed the Civilization floppy disk (remember those?) from my computer and threw it in the trash. I realized I couldn’t allow myself to play video games of any kind, because if I did I wouldn’t do anything else. This self-imposed moratorium lasted until a few years ago when I broke down and bought a Wii system for the kids (and then we got an Xbox too). It was jarring to see the new games that have been developed over the past two decades -- the graphics are so much better! But I’ve mostly resisted the compulsion to play. I’m too old to stay up all night. Besides, the kids hog the electronics now.
But getting back to my point: the world is full of entertaining distractions, and many of them would give me more pleasure than writing my novel would, at least in the short term. Yet I convince myself that this isn’t true. I put down my newspaper and tell myself, “You know what? My novel is more interesting than the CIA director’s scandalous affair. So what, the guy fooled around with a fawning younger woman, what’s so interesting about that? Come on, stop searching the Internet for lubricious details. Stop exchanging snarky e-mails with your friends. Get back to work!”
And this brings me to the second lie I tell myself. At some point in the process of writing a novel I become convinced that this book is the best thing I’ve ever written. No -- the best thing ever written by anybody. Crazy, right? The lie is so absurd I can’t seriously entertain it for very long. But it’s a useful delusion to have, especially when I’m struggling with the book and the deadline is approaching and I have to devote practically every waking moment to finishing the damn thing. Why put in all the effort if the novel isn’t fantastic?
Then I finish the first draft and stop telling myself the lies. They’ve served their purpose, so I don’t have to believe them anymore. I wait a few weeks, and then I’m ready to look at the manuscript again and confront the truth: the book is a mess. Some parts don’t make sense, other parts are boring. I don’t love the book anymore. But I don’t hate it either. Now it’s time for some tough love. An intervention. I have to whip the manuscript into shape.
And then, after all the revisions are done and the final changes sent to the copy editor and the advance reading copies distributed to the reviewers, then I’m ready to fall in love with the book again. But this time it’s not a blind, self-deluding infatuation. I’ve done my best to fix the novel’s flaws, but I know it’ll never be perfect. I love the book despite its imperfections and infelicities. I’m at this stage now with my next novel, which will be published in February. I’m still collecting blurbs and composing the jacket copy, but I can’t make any major changes to the book. This stage is the literary equivalent of zipping up your lover’s dress and clasping the pearls around her neck, getting her ready for her big night on the town.
Go out there, beautiful. Knock ’em dead.