Over the weekend, I submitted what I hope will be the final version of my 23rd novel. The working title is Double Dirty, but I’ve struggled so much with this novel that I’ve been calling it Ugly Baby. My mother told me that I was such an ugly baby she couldn’t bear to have pictures taken of me; she didn’t want the reminder, so my earliest baby photo is from my first birthday. I was apparently a breech birth and my head was squeezed into a point. She showed me my baby bonnets, which had pointy tops because of where my head had misshapen them. As a small child, I kept thinking the point had sunk into my head and that it would pop out some night, and in bed at night I would keep feeling the spot, wondering if a mountain was about to emerge.
I sent a draft of Ugly Baby to my editors back in April. They were very thorough in their critique, and over the last 3 weeks I tore the ms apart and rewrote big chunks of it. As I read through it, I was dismayed by the incoherence of the April draft and wondered how I could possibly have read it through – not once, but 3 times, and with an outside reader going through it at least 3 times – and thought it was a finished novel.
This experience reminded me of the melancholy events that surrounded another writer’s last novel. I won’t put her name here, just say that she was perhaps twenty-five years my senior, so I only knew her during the last decade of her life. Her agent and her editor were both good friends of mine. When she submitted her final novel, her agent was dismayed to find it was incomprehensible. He sent it back with some gentle comments, and she returned an even more incomprehensible draft. When he followed up with people close to her, he learned that she was suffering from significant cognitive impairment. He explained the situation to her editor, who was a wonderful woman. The editor rewrote the book from beginning to end, and it was duly published.
I find this story heartbreaking, not least because the agent and the editor both died long ago of cancer. However, now that I’m in my 70’s, when I turn in a manuscript that’s largely gibberish, I can’t help being scared. Is that demon that takes our wits starting to remove mine? I hope not, but how can I be certain?