Ready for trouble? Lamott is about to tell us a story about one of the most awful things that could happen to writer. It's worse than flunking your English final, maybe even worse than having to repeat 12th grade.
Lamott starts off by telling us that her students assume well-respected authors know what they're doing and where their plot is going when they sit down to write. Guess what? This isn't true at all. All the experienced writers she knows flail around and complain and get desperate when they start a new book.
Sometimes writers have a particular scene or something they're writing toward instead of a plot, and sometimes by the time they get there, they realize it's all wrong because of everything else that has happened to their characters along the way.
Lamott then describes what happened to her while she was writing her second novel. And boy, is it grim. She was writing the novel with a particular image in mind, and when she finally got there, it just didn't work.
So, Lamott waited for a few days and eventually felt she knew how the book should end and how it would all come together. This is two years into the writing process. She's been sending small chunks one at a time to her editor at Viking.
The editor has been loving the characters and the writing style, but after he finishes reading the full second draft, something terrible happens. He sends Lamott a letter that starts off, "This is perhaps the hardest letter I've ever had to write" (12.4). Basically, the editor hates to say it, but he thinks the book just doesn't work. He recommends that Lamott start over. From scratch.
Lamott is pretty upset about this. Especially since she's already spent most of the advance on the book. She goes into panic mode, plus grief. She calls someone who loves her work, and that woman tells her to take a month off and then come back to the book, and everything will somehow be okay.
Lamott rents a room in a beautiful rural setting and takes a month off. Finally, she looks at the book again. She still loves what she's doing in the book, and she's confident she can get it to work with more effort. She calls her editor and explains this, and of course, he's genuinely happy.
Lamott takes the pages of her 300-page manuscript and starts laying them out on the living room floor, physically moving various scenes around until she has the plot of the novel together the way she wants it. She adds in transitions and makes notes and improves the story, and then she starts writing a third draft.
After working hard for eight or nine months and sending sections to the editor (he loves them), she sends the final section along. This happens to be right around the time she breaks up with a man she's been with for a while. She decides to borrow the money for a ticket to New York, spend a week there working with the editor, and pick up the last third of the advance from Viking.
Lamott borrows $1,000 from her aunt, tells the man she's seeing to get all his stuff out of her house, and flies to New York.
Lamott arrives at the editor's office, ready to start final editing on the manuscript, and something even worse happens. The editor says, "I'm sorry." Then he says, "I am so, so sorry." Then he says, "But it still doesn't work" (12.13).
The editor doesn't understand why the plot does what it does and why not much seems to happen in it. He feels bad about it, but he can't change the fact that he just thinks the book doesn't work.
Lamott is completely shocked. She pretty much falls apart. At first, she can't even cry. Then, she starts to cry and says she has to leave.
The editor says to call him the next day. Lamott says she will, though she tells the reader that she didn't actually expect to be alive by then.
Lamott then goes out and gets tanked.
Unsurprisingly, Lamott wakes up depressed the next morning. She looks at her manuscript and then gets furious. She calls her editor at home. He's also depressed and isn't planning to go to work that day. Lamott announces she's coming over to see him.
The editor is silent for a while, and then he very hesitantly says, "Okay." Lamott says it sounded like he wanted to ask if she would be bringing her knives.
Lamott arrives at her editor's house, and he tries to talk her into sitting down. Instead, she stalks around his living room, making a case for why the book actually can work. She explains things that she had thought were clear in the manuscript, and she fills in details she had forgotten to put in. She thinks aloud about how she could improve some of the big problems her editor has spotted.
Finally, Lamott finishes her rant, and her editor thanks her. They sit silently for a while. At last her editor says, "Listen. I want you to write that book you just described to me. You haven't done it here. Go off somewhere and write me a treatment, a plot treatment. Tell me chapter by chapter what you just told me in the last half hour, and I will get you the last of the advance" (12.17).
Lamott does just that over the next month. It finally works. Her editor is impressed, and she gets the last of the advance. She can pay back her aunt and pay her expenses long enough to write another draft.
Finally, there's a happy ending: the book comes out the next fall and turns out to be the most successful of Lamott's novels at the time Bird by Bird was written.