After I finished writing the first draft of my latest novel, I thought I had succeeded in crafting a new genre.
How unaware I was of the dangerous second draft.
Upon rereading the manuscript, I noticed the story fell apart in the middle, although the ending was exceedingly strong. My intention was only to fix the glue between “Once upon a Time” and “The End.”
After editing the first 100 pages, I hit the middle. The sludge depressed me. How was I going to make sense of the mess? The characters had evolved, but not consistently. The conflict had escalated, but unrealistically. The complications were more complicated, but required charts, graphs, and a Power Point presentation to understand it.
Luckily, my daughter came to the rescue. She sat down with me one evening and asked me why my mood reflected the rain clouds in the overcast sky. I confided how I was mired in the middle of my story.
“What should I do?” I asked.
My daughter thought it over. “If I was the main character, I would go to my best friend.”
It seemed like such a simple action, but it cut through the dense confusion that I almost cried from relief.
Immediately, 50 pages disappeared from the manuscript. I started writing where my daughter suggested and a whole new middle unfolded effortlessly.
By the time I reached the third act, the characters had evolved and the conflict needed a new resolution. What was I going to do? I loved the original ending. It was strong. It was unconventional. But it no longer worked.
I had to write a new ending.
Is the second draft perfect? Hardly. But it is one step closer on the road toward publication.
Writing a novel is like being pregnant. You can write whatever you want without anyone judging you just as you can eat whatever you want without anyone judging you. People ask with interest about the progress of your novel just as people ask about the stage of a pregnancy. “Oh, I’m halfway through the first draft,” you say, which is the equivalent of saying, “I’m in the start of my second trimester. The queasiness is over. The fatigue is gone. And I feel great!”
The closer you get to the finish, however, things change. People become annoyed by how many social obligations you miss and how distracted you seem to be because you’re caught up in another world. Just as at the last stage of pregnancy, you become irritable and uncomfortable, unable to eat without heartburn and unable to find a comfortable position to sleep because you are so big you feel like a beached whale. You want to finish the book; give birth to the baby. Have the excitement and the misery end.
But once you type, “The End,” the elation and relief ebb away. Anxiety and depression sometimes follow. All those months spent on high alert, jotting down notes in the middle of dinner, waking up in the middle of the night hearing your narrator’s voice, suddenly evaporate. The adrenalin rush crashes, and suddenly you find yourself deflated and empty. The road that stretches before you is miles and miles of toil and work. The baby has been born. Now the anticipation has been replaced with the real work of the frequent feedings, diaper changes, and mothering to raise the child into a good human being. Just the anticipation of writing a novel is replaced with the real work of editing, publishing, and marketing.
Finishing a novel is a lot like giving birth. You have the same feelings of fear and anxiety, elation and relief once you get to the final chapter and type “The End.”
I always go through postpartum depression whenever I finish a novel. All those weeks leading up to the finish, full of adrenaline and excitement, working non-stop around the clock between my everyday life and the life of my fictional world suddenly deflates once the book has been written. Gone is a whole half of what I have been engaged in, and the lost is enormous.
Now I wake up and glance at the clock and wonder who will greet me when I rush to the computer. Sure, I could start the edit or the next book in the series and plunge right back into the world, but I prefer to work with breaks. Sometimes the breaks stretch too long and suddenly I am stranded in what would look to others as writer’s block. Most times, however, I engage in smaller, more manageable projects to keep my creative juices flowing. This time I feel the need to return to my painting, which has been sorely neglected during this last novel.
Sure, there are other tasks that involve writing: the one-sentence pitch, the back copy blurb, the marketing materials that will be printed on bookmarks and postcards and press releases and online in blogs and forums. But that’s different. It is the business side of writing, and it is very different than being immersed in a separate world where things are happening, stakes are high, and emotions even higher.
The postpartum phase of finishing a novel is a natural part of the writing process. It does not have to end in depression, although mine always tend to. I think it’s because I immerse myself deeply in my work and experience “The End” as a loss rather than a celebration. Joy comes from writing, not having written. If I am not writing, I am not a writer. I’m only a part of who I am, and I think that adds to the sense of loss.