I’m now in that phase of writing a book that I enjoy most. The research is more or less done, and I’ve written a passable first draft and a decent—maybe even good—second draft. Now I have a book. It has a beginning, middle, and end. And now I can go through all my notes and files and look for those evocative little items that for one reason or another did not get into the first couple of drafts. This is the fun stuff. Sometimes all it takes is one strange little fact to make a chapter come alive. Sometimes a similar effect can be achieved by moving one segment of the narrative to another location (preferably not the trash can, though sometimes that too can make all the difference).

As some of you may know, this is also when I deploy my secret weapon, my wife. As I write this she is reading Part One. We have rules about this. She is not allowed to read the manuscript in my presence. Right now, for example, she is in Washington, D.C., at a medical conference. We have this rule because I am very thin-skinned and cannot afford the emotional stress of watching her as she reads—shaking her head in disgust, exuberantly crossing out whole pages, muttering “no, no, no, no, NO” and, finally, falling asleep, as the pages slew across the room.

Her job is to place marks in the margins to indicate what she likes and dislikes. A smiley face is great. It means she found something funny. A sad face with tears streaming from the eyes is even better, because it means she was moved by something in the story. The worst are her trailing lines of zzzzzzzzzzz’s. Which mean only one thing, of course. I have learned from experience that where I see z’s in the margin, I cut text. No matter how hard a passage pleads to stay in the book, it must at this point be killed off. Sometimes, however, I sneak these passages, in distilled form, back into the book as footnotes. Sometimes. I do not want these passages to get their hopes up.

It’s vital for me to have my wife read my manuscript at this point, because by now I’m so familiar with the story that the “I didn’t know that” elements that made me write the book in the first place are dead to me. I need to be reminded that something is sad, or funny, or strange, or compelling.

One very important part of our ritual is the return of the manuscript to me. She is not allowed to say anything. She cannot say, “Here it is. I just love it.” Because I’ll know she’s lying. She is to give it to me without emotion, like a traffic cop issuing a summons. Then, heart-pounding, I go somewhere quiet and read all her margin notes, and hope that I see smiley faces and sad faces and up-arrows galore, but no down-arrows and no zzzzz’s. Or at least not too many. Because even though I love this phase most, I am fragile and I have 66 single-spaced pages of things I have already cut from the book, and at night I hear those passages keening in the darkness, begging to be allowed back into the book. They are to me what the lambs were to Clarice Starling.

Clarice Meets Hannibal: “Silence of the Lambs”