How to Survive the End of Your Novel
by Diane Glazman
[With fabulously auspicious timing given the recent end of NaNoWriMo, Diane Glazeman joins Writing About Writing to talk about how to survive the end of your novel. Before you go right on writing or try to clean that novel up in time for a mid-December release, you might want to give this a read.]
Coming to the end of a long project, like a novel, presents some unique challenges. For some reason, advice for the writer is a little thin on the ground in this area. Maybe it’s because not everyone reaches the end of a project that has been all-consuming, maybe it’s an assumption that, if you’ve been able to keep yourself motivated for the years it takes to bring a long project to fruition, then you’re an accomplished enough writer to know what to do when it’s over.
Most advice, if any is given, falls into the “write hot, edit cold” version of things – which means, basically, put the project aside for some time before you jump into editing mode. But, I’m here to tell you, assure you, confess to you: there’s more to it than that.
Many of you have just finished up the NaNoWriMo. If you completed the challenge, have probably been running full-out for the past week, completely obsessed, mainlining coffee or Red Bull, so immersed in your characters and stories that your novel feels more real than the world around you. And now it’s over.
Did you get to type the words “The End” at the bottom of that last page?
It felt really good, didn’t it? Euphoric even. You probably walked around grinning like The Joker, high fiving the air, or dancing with your cat. If you’re lucky, it lasted a couple of days before you fell into The Void. Are you there? Are you lying at the bottom of a deep well with no desire to get out? Lonelier than you’ve ever been in your life? If not, don’t worry, it’s coming for you. No one escapes The Void
Don’t think you’ll be the exception. Having finished my third novel about ten months ago, I thought I’d be immune, as if the previous two novels provided some kind of vaccination. I’m here to tell you, there is no such luck. It shouldn’t have surprised me. The novel I finished started out as a short story more than a decade ago. It was a doozy of a short story, got all sorts of great rejection letters including a personal note from a New Yorker editor. In the course of revision, it morphed. First, it became a novella, and then, late in 2008, it declared itself to be a novel and demanded to be the only thing I worked on for the next several years. All my creative energy went into this novel. Like a previous novel, the longer I worked on it, the more focused I became until, gasp, I developed a disciplined writing routine. Every day, I was at my desk working from nine to at least noon. If the writing was good, I could be at my desk until my kids came home from school at three. It was glorious. It was everything I dreamed I could be as a writer. The endorphins flowed, the characters danced inside my head. I loved them, they loved me. I cried when bad things happened to them. Every day was an orgy of words and creation.
And then it was over.
My characters went away. For the first time in more than a decade, I was alone in my head. I wasn’t seeing the world through my narrator’s eyes, a kind of double-vision in which I would see things both as myself and a 14-year old boy.
And it was lonely. And I fell into The Void. Worse! I denied The Void even existed and started to beat myself up for not being able to get back to work the next day on another novel or any of the dozen or so ideas that had nattered around my head while I was working on THE NOVEL, and which I had kept telling, “Later, I’ll work on you when this is done.” Now that later had come, my head was curiously and ominously silent. The Void had me firmly in its grip. As the days and months started to tick by, I worried it was the new normal for me and my writing. I considered giving up writing. Yes. Seriously. Even with an agent asking for a revision on THE NOVEL, I was thinking about quitting and walking away because It. Just. Wasn’t. Working.
A curious thing happened a couple of weeks ago, though. I woke up. Suddenly, I had ideas for various writing-related projects and the desire to do them and, more importantly, the revision started flowing. The Void had lifted.
So here’s my advice. It won’t make The Void go away, but it might make it a little easier for you to get through.
What everyone will tell you and why it’s important:
Put the novel in a drawer and leave it. Yeah, I know, you’re excited. You want to tell everyone about this great thing you’ve written. Heck, you might even want to start sending it out to agents and editors tomorrow. STOP. In 2010, Laura Miller wrote this piece for Salon (http://www.salon.com/2010/11/02/nanowrimo/). Snarky, yes, but there’s some good advice here: Put the novel away for a bit. It’ll keep. Trust me. Almost all books on writing give this advice. Even Stephen King says the same thing in On Writing. Six months, if you can stand it, a week at least, if you can’t.
Why do you need to do this? For one thing, you need to recharge your creative battery, fill the well, so to speak. The odds are you’ve been writing full-out as you came into the home stretch. Amy Tan says she sometimes writes for 20 hours straight during this phase of writing. The endorphins keep you going, give you that “writer’s high,” and, after they go away, you will crash.
Another reason to put it aside: “Write hot, edit cold.” This was advice given by one of my writing instructors, and it’s 100% correct. King puts it, “Write with the door closed, edit with it open.” You need the distance to be able to see the work clearly. In the post-partum fog of creation, all novels are Pulitzer Prize winners. In clear-eyed post-vacation rationality, you see where it’s not working, where the warts are and, because you’re not so besotted by endorphins, you won’t make excuses for the work.
You’ll just make it better.
So…here you are in The Void. You’ve put the work away for a bit. Good. Now what? The obvious answer is: Start something new! For some writers this works. I finished THE NOVEL and thought I’d get to work the next day on the novel I’d wanted to write when I started grad school in 2008. Hah! The universe laughed heartily in my direction, and promptly sent The Void to set me straight and make me humble again. It was too soon. I was still too in love with my characters to fall in love with new ones, even if we were already great friends.
Which brings me to my list. These are things I’ve done, or wish I’d done, to help with The Void left by the end of a novel.
1. Let yourself mourn. If you have invested your heart into this work, made the characters live through your own breath and blood and sweat, you will feel their absence almost as deeply as the death of a loved one. This is perfectly normal. If I am ever so fortunate to meet J.K. Rowling, I will ask her how she survived the end of the Harry Potter series. I can’t imagine the incredible euphoria and then the crushing despair that followed the end of Deathly Hallows. So mourn. Create a ritual if it will help. Do something that marks the end of the novel in a concrete way. But, above all, be gentle with yourself and your inner writer.
2. Don’t write. I will absolutely guarantee, if you pick up your pen the day after you write “The End,” whatever you write will feel flat, clichéd, disgusting. Force yourself to keep going, and you might even do damage to yourself as a writer because you will convince yourself you suck. See. The proof is right there. You only had one good book in you, you’ve written it. You’re done. NO. The proof is not right there. It just feels that way. If you’ve spent a couple of years writing a novel (or reached the 50,000 word goal of NaNoWriMo in a month), you’ve invested hundreds of hours in this story and these characters. You know them inside and out. If someone asked you what’s your main character’s favorite food, you could probably answer that. And, you’ve forgotten what the beginning of a novel or story feels like. It’s ucky. It’s uncomfortable. Nothing fits right because you’re still world-building. You’re figuring out story and character and themes and imagery. So don’t write, if you can help it, for at least a couple of weeks. CAVEAT: If you are new to writing or have trouble with procrastination, set a deadline for when you will start writing something. Mark it on your calendar. A week. A month. Make a date with your writer self to get together for coffee to discuss a new project.
3. Don’t try to do any serious writing. If you are one of those writers who has to maintain a routine or a day off turns into a year, by all means, pick up the pen again, but give yourself permission to PLAY. Do exercises, freewriting, creative responses, try something in a new genre. Play, play, play. This can be a chance to try a different genre. Write fantasy? Try romance. Write mystery? Try a western. Switching genres confuses that hyper-critical inner voice which wants to tell you that, no matter what you do, it won’t be as good as the masterpiece you’ve just written. It also works different muscles. Kind of like cross-training for writers.
4. Keep your writing routine going. Again, this is for those of you who can’t skip a writing day without it becoming a career change. Even if you’re not writing, do something writing-related during the time you set aside for writing. Do not, under any circumstances, let playing on the computer or checking Facebook occupy this time. Trust me. It’s not pretty.
5. Find a new activity. Consider that you’re now a finely-trained athlete. Coming to a full stop on the creativity can be painful. But, also consider that you’ve just spent a considerable amount of creative capital. Take some time to fill the well. Find a new activity, something fun, something you’ve always wanted to do or just didn’t have the time to do while you were working on your novel. Take a class. Take a walk. Take a vacation. Do something that feeds your creativity.
6. Read. A lot.
7. Go to a workshop or conference. Take some time and learn about your craft. Even if you think you already know everything, taking a class or going to a writers’ conference keeps your mind thinking like a writer.
8. Find a writers’ group. If you aren’t already in a writers’ group, this would be a good time to find one (or start one – find other NaNoWriMo participants in your city and see if you can get something going). These people understand you. Most likely, they’ve gone through this themselves. If you’re reading other people’s work, be generous with your feedback. Chances are you’re going to find the tools you need for editing your own work in the advice you’re giving.
9. Don’t get too attached to The Void. Sure, you say, like that will happen. But it does. You get worried. You get stressed. You think The Void is all there is. This is your permanent state of being now. You can’t write. You don’t want to write. You’re going to take up weaving, so you need the space where your desk is for the loom. Stop. Take a deep breath. The Void will pass. It’s not all there is.
10. Listen. The work will tell you when it’s ready. There will come a day when you’re out for a walk and the sun seems to be particularly warm and friendly. Or, you’ll be reading a book and realize you can do this better. The wheels will turn. And you’ll realize you’re ready to get back to work. Go. It’s time. You’ve made it to the other side.
[Diane Glazman is the author of the Confessions of a Word Slut blog (www.thewritenote.blogspot.com). She met Chris Brecheen when she was his TA (she was a high and mighty MFA candidate while he was a lowly undergrad) for a class in characterization. She has since completed her degree and the novel that was her master's thesis, or thought she had until she started sending it out to agents. Now she is working on a revision. She has guest blogged for W.A.W. previously as Lady Felicity St. John-Smythe]
[If you would like to guest-blog for Writing About Writing, then W.A.W. wants you! Check out what few limitations there are and contact Chris Brecheen at email@example.com]