Recently, I took my mom to see The Great Gatsby. As we watched the scene where Nick is asleep on the couch, wan and pale and surrounded by manuscript papers, Mom leaned over to whisper, “I bet that’s how you looked when you finished your novel.”
She was right. I looked that bad. My poor house looked even worse: there was a Rocky Mountain Range of clothing heaped on the laundry room floor. The tea cups were scattered around the house. I found a strand of uncooked spaghetti in my computer keyboard.
What is it like to finish a novel? Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, probably said it best in this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. For her, the best thing about writing a book is “The moment, at about the three-quarter point, where you see your way right through to the end: as if lights had flooded an unlit road. But the pleasure is double-edged, because from this point you’re going to work inhuman hours, not caring about your health or your human relationships; you’re just going to head down that road like a charging bull.”
Oh yeah. That’s it exactly.
Before that snorting headlong rush, though, there’s a lot of stopping, staggering, and starting over as you confront various ornery character developments, unfortunate descriptions, and tangled plot mazes. As you’re writing a book, you inevitably hit a roadblock (or six). You chew your nails. You eat too much chocolate. You swill coffee and tea. You take the dog on too many walks even for the dog. You can’t imagine how you’ll ever pull things together.
Then, quite suddenly, you see the way forward, and that’s when you reach Mantel’s sublime state of mind.
What is it like to finish a novel? The first time you do it, you feel utter euphoria, and you should. You have actually written “the end” on something that somebody, someday, might somehow read. (Yes, there are that many “some’s” and even more “if’s.”) Tell the whole world. You might even hold a book party to celebrate and show everyone the manuscript.
Unfortunately, what follows isn’t always instant acceptance by an agent, an editor, or even your beta readers and friends. Usually what happens is the calm before the calm, a big yawning hole of deafening silence as you wait for somebody, anybody, even your mom, to please please please read the book and tell you what they think.
Meanwhile, you experience doom-and-gloom sentiments: “What good am I? I can’t even pick up the living room!” Maybe you think, “The novel is dead. Why do I bother? Nobody reads anymore.” Or, “I’m not earning money doing this. In fact, I’m costing myself money! I should quit before my family has to live out of the car!”
Most of all, you feel bereft, because the characters you’ve been living with for the past nine months or nine years have stopped living in your head. The voices are quiet. Gardening and housework can help ease the pain of saying goodbye to those people you came to know better than your own friends. So can reading—because it brings you back to that place where you can marvel at other people’s sentences instead of gnawing over your own.
Eventually you realize that, after finishing a novel, life is just the same as it was, only you’re extra tired.
The exhaustion passes. And then what? You’ll hear back from your agent, your editor, your beta readers. Even your mom will have comments. Finally, you happily begin the tough process of restructuring, revising, revisiting your prose as you sort out the next draft (or six) of your book. The voices are back in your head, even if they’re not quite as loud as the first time through the story.
And what then, after you’re really, finally, totally done with your book?
There will be another story to write. That’s just the way it is: Writers can’t help ourselves. We know the housework can—and should—wait when there is a book to write. The world needs stories now more than ever.