Are Our Books Really Children? And If So, Whose Children…?

 

We’ve all heard it before.  Maybe we’ve said it.  We get a manuscript back from our editor and it’s covered with comments and criticisms and suggested changes.  And in explaining away our initial reaction (which is something along the lines of “What the hell did he do to my book?”) we say, “Well, no one likes to be told that their baby has warts.”  (And by the way this is true.  One of my daughters had warts on her fingers when she was younger, and they were a pain to get rid of.  The over the counter medicines didn’t work well, and that freezing stuff the doctor used was pretty unpleasant. But I digress.)

 

But in comparing our manuscript to a baby we’re making an assumption — well, an analogy, actually — that I’m not certain is valid.  Are our books really like our children?  And if so, are our children really like our books?  Let’s start with the first question.…

 

It’s easy to understand how this analogy originated.  Our books are, after all, the products of our labors, and these labors are, at times, excruciating.  We nurture our creations, we shape them with care and love, readying them for the time when they will be sent forth into the “real” world.  Sometimes we have to deal with the crappy byproducts of our creations.  (And here the analogy really works for me, because when I’m editing a book that’s still in its infancy, a lot of what I throw away belongs in a diaper genie.) Eventually we try to get our creations contracted, although sadly (for this extended metaphor that is) the Keating-Owen Child-Labor Act of 1916 makes this easier to do with books than with children.

 

But returning to our analogy, one can take the editing/revising metaphor a bit further.  Some books suffer from too little editing, just as some children suffer from too little parenting.  They emerge from this stunted process unruly, rough around the edges.  At other times we over-edit, turning out a product that is too precious, and robbed of its spontaneity and joy.  But here the analogy begins to break down, because while a novel will allow itself to be edited and revised to death, a child will not.  I’m now the father of a teenager, and when I try to “edit” her too much she gives me a look that says “Stet!” in capital letters.  Actually what it says is more akin to “Stet off!” or “Stet you!”, but we don’t need to go there.

 

There are other ways in which the analogy doesn’t work.  For one thing, I have two children, and that’s really quite enough.  But I’ve written a dozen books and I plan to keep on writing more and more.  I don’t plan to stop until I’m well into my dotage, and, well, nobody wants to think about men in their dotage fathering children.  I know I don’t.  

 

The other thing is, with each new book I write, I find that I am less and less fond of the earlier ones.  The new ones are more polished, leaner, easier to read.  I look back on those early books and I see all their flaws and none of their charms.  And while I can see where this might be true of children, too (I did mention that my older child is in her teens, right?) I have the sense from talking to other parents that having favorites and growing increasingly critical of our older children is not a healthy parenting dynamic.  We’re supposed to love all of them, crazy as that sounds.

 

One more troubling part of the analogy:  If books are like children, then what on earth are short stories?  Pets?  Appliances?  Small, beloved electronic devices?  The implications are disturbing to say the least.

 

And so, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that, in fact, books and children, while similar in some ways, are not the same thing.  (Although I will admit that I’d love to see what a Kindle could do with the adolescent years…)

 

This of course begs the question, if our books aren’t children, then what are they?  I would love to hear your answers.  And perhaps in a later post we can discuss the other important question: If our children aren’t books, then what in the world are they?

Filed under For Novelists, Not Remotely Writing Related, writing humor, writing life. You can also use to trackback.

There are 16 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. SMD

    Think of them as kids you gave up for adoption. That’s probably the best analogy.

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Yes! I like that. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. 3. Merrilee

    Great analysis of the analogy :) I think the problem is more that some writers treat their works like beloved children; perfect in the parental eyes, annoying monsters to the rest of the world.

    I think authors forget sometimes that what they are creating is art, just as much as a sculpture or a painting or a song. You get an idea, and inspiration, you make a few rough sketches, then you get to the business of creating. The finished work contains just as much blood, sweat and tears as any other art form.

    Of course, I don’t know if artists think of their paintings as children…

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    Thanks, Merrilee. I think you’re right about this. My brother is a professional artist. I should ask him about care and feeding of his works….

  5. 5. glenda larke

    Well, having just submitted a 180,000 word second-book-of-trilogy to my editor, a couple of months late, I have to say that delivering a child is a darn sight less painful and they never go more than two weeks overdue…

  6. 6. Satima Flavell

    I like that, Glenda! A book keeps you pregant longer than a child and in labour longer than a child – but fortunatley it doesn’t take quite as long to set free on the poor unsuspecting world to stand or fall on its own merits.

    David, I’d love to read a post on children being books! If they are, do you think they get pirated and translated in to a foreign language at puberty?

  7. 7. Kari Sperring

    I have come to the conclusion that my books are my insanity — the voices I hear, the spaces my head goes to. Non-fiction as well as fiction…

  8. 8. Alan

    1 – I write for the consumption of as many people as possible. I want as many people as possible to enjoy my books.

    2 – I breed for the consumption of as many people as possible. I want as many people as possible to enjoy my children.

    Nuff said.

    :)

  9. 9. Liane Merciel

    Also:

    It’s not only accepted but *recommended* that people should quietly bury their early, unsuccessful attempts at novels. This is seldom true of children.

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    Glenda, I would have to agree with this from all I’ve read and heard. My wife, as it happens, hit both he due dates spot on with our daughters. I should be so timely with my books.

    Satima, I was kidding of course about that post, but it would be fun to write, I think. My experience again: kids are more like audio books. They’re rarely as quiet as a simple book….

    Kari, I would definitely agree with that. I think most of us who write would go nuts if we didn’t.

    Alan, I’m going to have to disagree with #2 in your comment. I’m the father of daughters. No one will “enjoy” them. Ever. And I’ll be buying a big old gun to make sure of that….

    Liane, I LOVE that. Thanks for the comment.

  11. 11. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I grew up on a cattle ranch. We raised the lovely little calves and fed them and cared for them, and wormed them, branded them, snipped off bits and so on, and then, when they were old enough and fat enough and ready, we either ate them or sold them for other people to eat. And this is how I think of books.

  12. 12. Rabia

    At least you don’t have to invest a college fund for each of your books. :D

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    Di, that might well be my favorite book analogy ever.

  14. 14. Lydia Sharp

    Short stories are pets? That’s brilliant. Some of them work for you. Some just lay around doing nothing. And you always have too many.

  15. 15. David B. Coe

    Rabia, very true about the college fund. On the other hand, my children self-promote; my books, not so much.

    Lydia, thanks. Glad you liked that.

  16. 16. PB

    I have come to the conclusion that my books are my insanity — the voices I hear, the spaces my head goes to. Non-fiction as well as fiction…

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

Topics

Archives

Browse our archives:

RECENT BOOKS