Ocean Waves Lapping Against a Brick Wall

Finishing a work of literary fiction is one of most anti-climactic experiences in the world.  It is not like a Broadway show, a ballet performance, an opera, a rock concert– there is no applause at the end.  It is not like a marathon where there is a finish line. You’re just done. The writing is finished. That’s pretty much it.  Even if you sell the book and it’s out there, you don’t know if people read it or if they liked it. (This is why writers are so desperate for reviews.)

[Visual artists may face something similar, in that there is no applause for the completion of a painting or a statue, but this type of art differs from writing in an important way.  Even if it is not sold, a painting can be seen and experienced. Writing is unique, I believe, in the level of commitment required of its audience. You not only have to complete the book and show it to someone, you have to persuade a person to invest hours into reading it before you can get any kind of response to your work at all.]

I have finished writing another novel.  I’ve read through it, tweaked it, and I’m happy with it.  I started working on this novel in concept a good 20 years ago. So you might expect me to be celebrating today.  Some writers probably do go out and have a beer or dinner with friends. Generally, when I complete a work of fiction it is cause for depression rather than celebration.

The completion of the novel is moving from the flow of creation to the stage where the waves hit the brick wall of the marketing of the book as a product.  You move from the pleasurable (though sometimes frustrating) process of following gentle threads of ideas, coaxing inspiration, selecting perfect words to the powerless process of submission and rejection, financial negotiation, begging to be read.

The processes of creating fiction and non-fiction are different. Non-fiction is, in some ways, more satisfying. You come up with a concept then you query editors and/or agents. You persuade them the book is worth doing and that you’re the person to do it, and only after you’ve gone through that process do you begin to write. You write with the confidence that comes from knowing that the book is wanted, at least by the editors who have asked you to write it.  It is nice to get all of the business out of the way and to be rewarded with the opportunity to get down to the pleasurable process of writing with full knowledge that you will be paid for doing what you do.

In fiction, everything is reversed. Flow first. Finance second. This makes the process of writing more fraught and insecure. You have no guarantees that anyone will want what you’re creating and you need to devise all kinds of mental tricks to persuade yourself that it is worth doing no matter what.  One of the mental tricks frequently employed by authors is to fantasize about how this book will be “the one.” This time it will be different. This one will click with a publisher who wants to promote it to the hilt. This one will go viral. This one will be big enough to introduce an audience to my back catalog.  This one will… name your fantasy.

One of the reasons authors tend to defensively insist that they are not writing for the money but for love (see my last post) is that these fantasies of success feel unseemly. They are, generally, unrealistic and writers want you to know that they are not delusional. They know that there is a mountain in front of them.  They feel embarrassed in advance for the non-reception this thing they have talked up so much is sure to receive. They’re lowering expectations so they will not become the boy who cried wolf.  “My last novel sold about 1/3 as many copies as I have Facebook friends, but this one I’m working on now…”

This is how the process works: most writers are not motivated to write by fantasies of best seller status and appearances on Oprah. They use fantasies of best seller status and appearances on Oprah to justify taking the time to write the book. The fantasies are a tool to persuade writers that they need to keep doing something completely isolating, labor intensive, and not likely to be financially compensated. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a pay off down the line and all of the time ignoring friends and loved ones, sitting in your own little corner, going broke will be justified.

The completion of the novel is when that wave breaks and the fantasies of the importance of doing the work will be given a real world test. Will this thing that consumed you, often for years, have any purpose? Will anyone read it? Will it be a document that sits on your hard drive until it is forgotten?  What will it do to your sense of self if it does, and what will you do to bring back the illusion that will allow you to write again?

Finishing a work of literary fiction is one of most anti-climactic experiences in the world.

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