My Book Is Not My Baby, Though Sometimes It Does Reek of Poo.
“My book is my baby.” You hear that a lot from authors, especially of novels, and as one of that number, I get it. Most of us don’t mean it more than a very loose metaphor, an image-intense description of what it’s like to create something out of almost nothing and have it become something much more. We imprint hopes and dreams on this creation, and we feel great affection for it. Ergo, baby.
While I won’t try to stop anyone else who insists on calling their books their babies, because it’s still a free country, etc, I am not one of those people. And because I just read something about books being babies that kind of made my eye twitch, I feel like clarifying why I am, in this particular instance, anti-baby.
When I write a story, there’s definitely a big stage where the thing is unformed, but it’s not an infant I’m teaching to walk or hold its head upright. I’m trying to find eyeballs and get rid of that weird third ear on top of its head. It’s clay, not flesh. Absolutely I talk to it and nurture it, but I also rip it apart, and kick it, and yell at it—if my books were my babies, they’d all be taken away by child protective services.
But even if I were to pretend that was all somehow okay baby-tending behavior, what I do next is even worse. I guess I could go with the editing and proofing and beta-reading as sending the kid to school, but…holy hell, I’m not letting it learn. I’m forcing it into a mold, making it acceptable to society in a way which, again, would probably get me arrested if I tried it with my actual flesh and blood child.
Because before I got to the force you into something respectable phase, first I turned it into some free-range hippie. In the drafting phase I let it run amok though the fields and forests, let it shit in corners and climb weird trees, and the whole time this happened I stood by with a notebook, not caretaking. “Oh, look. That made its head break open. Best not let it go there again. Ah, but look what happened when I let it run naked through city center! That was amazing. Let’s do that again, only this time with a big BELL.”
Let’s recap: for this baby, first I design its DNA and rearrange it while it’s alive on my mad scientist table. Then I let it tear around without much shepherding so I can see what it can and can’t do. Then I tie it down, force it into a box, or a series of boxes as I attempt to make it no longer a wild, free thing but an acceptable little Stepford Baby.
I’d love to end the analogy breakdown here, but alas. I’m not done torturing this poor child.
Because next, I abandon this baby and sell it to anyone who will have it. Dressed in a uniform, labeled and wearing enticing signs advertising what it can and will do. Give me the right kind of money, and you can have it for as long as you want it. And I want a lot of people to have it. I want them to enjoy it in whatever way works for them. I made this baby just for them, and I want them to get the most out of it.
At this point, honestly, the analogy is seriously making me want to skip lunch.
Still not done, though.
This selling my offspring wholesale is just one horrible outcome, and it’s the best one. Because sometimes I abandon the baby entirely. If it’s not working for me, I throw it away. Some I keep around for parts and use them on other babies. Sometimes I abandon them for years, leaving them in a limbo of will she finish me? Won’t she finish me?
Okay. Uncle. I can’t go any further. I’m grossing myself out more than I can stand.
Bottom line: my books are not children. Yes, there’s this sense of sending something I care about into the world in a wistful way that has a few shaded areas like sending a child to college. That, I will buy. There’s always a moment where I get the book back from its final proofing and I feel like I’m waving at it from shore. Good luck in the new world. I hope you meet nice people. I hope you do well.
But that is a very different metaphor. A baby implies dependence. Caretaking. Tending. Monitoring. Allowing it to grow but in this very loving way that allows it as an entity, a living creature, to become its own thing. Some of that, sort of, applies to the act of creating a book, but it breaks down really quickly. And, as illustrated above, painfully.
The problem with calling a book a baby is that it doesn’t allow it to grow up. To walk out on its own and succeed or fail. I will stand by the idea that books become their own things, that there’s a point where we can only control so much of them. How good their odds of survival are do come from us—that’s our skill, our instinct, our work ethic. But at some point they sail on, whether or not we’re ready, and we simply watch to see how it all turns out. We can wave signs saying the books are here, can answer questions about them, plaster them in front of people, offer free samples. But that’s it. Anything else is getting in the way.
Once my book is out, it doesn’t belong only to me. Legally, yes, it’s mine. But once you read it? It’s yours as well. My Sams and Walters and Randys and Vinnies and Adams and all of the characters I’ve written—once you read them, they also belong to you, if you choose to keep them.
Anyone tries to take my daughter, or say she’s theirs—well, to be quite frank, I will bloody you. Unless she says she wants to be yours, and then I will watch you very carefully. Because in about a billion metaphorical ways, she is not a story I am writing. She authors her own story, one I am privileged to witness.
I can see how some people might feel I broke the analogy down too harshly. I imagine some authors feel it’s their job to protect their work the same way I protect my daughter, wanting only kind eyes to behold her. Except even that isn’t good—for books, or for my kid. Much as it kills me, I have to let bad things happen to her. She is not an egg. She is no longer a baby. She has my heart, but she also has her own.
Letting the book-as-baby metaphor be more than a cute, clumsy shorthand for the creative process can lead to a kind of overprotection which helps no one, not author, not reader, and not the book. Books are meant to be read. To be reacted to. Hated, loved, ignored, treasured. That is their life. Coddling them, sheltering them, helicopter parenting them is not allowing them to live.
Publishing a novel is not a ticket-punch which ends with adoration and success. Publishing a novel is a chance. It’s an adventure. It’s a risk. It’s dangerous, weird, strange, and often psychotic. Babies should be nowhere near this process.
Pacifiers, though, should probably be purchased in bulk. And having said my piece about this book baby thing, I’m going to brew another of my own patented pacifiers and go back to watching my current book make a big mess in the middle of the second act. It’s a little stinky at the moment, I’ll be honest. But by the time I let you see it, I’ll have it all cleaned up and shining. Once it’s for sale, you can buy it and do whatever you want with it.
Including, if you insist, call it your baby. Just please don’t call it mine.