I'm feeling pretty weird right now; I've just finished a novel.
(Writing, not reading.)
Of course, a novel isn't really finished when the author writes THE END — it goes through a whole series of editorial stages, then shows up for the first time as a real book, and even then it isn't over; there are errata and unspotted typos to fix in subsequent editions, translators' queries for versions in other languages, and so on. But there's something distinctly final about the sensation of writing THE END when you get to that point in the first draft beyond which the story doesn't want to continue.
This novel is unusual in that it was premature — very premature. In fact, I'm feeling slightly guilty about having written it, in fact — it diverted time from other scheduled projects, time I can't easily claw back elsewhere, and I suspect it means I'll be working over the festive season. But despite being premature, it's not an unwanted novel — it is in fact one I've already sold, there's a contract and everything — but the deadline is July 31st, 2010. I've got two other novels under contract that I really ought to have written first. If artistic inspiration ran on railroad tracks I wouldn't be setting finger to keyboard on this one until October next year.
Be that as it may; this book (which I knew I was going to write eventually) crept up on me out of nowhere and mugged me last month. I was sitting in front of the word processor, dully staring at an empty file and wishing I was somewhere, anywhere else — and some imp of the perverse prompted me to open a 2000 word stub of notes that I'd jotted down six months previously, and then it seemed the most natural thing in the world to write some more, and more, and moreandmoreandmoreandmore ... and suddenly I was unable to stop.
Creativity is a weird thing. You can plod along a steep uphill road for months, or it can hit you like an express train. I've learned to go with the flow when this happens: if a story wants to escape it's best to let it out, to go with the flow and worry about cleaning up the schedule afterwards. Once you pass forty, it doesn't seem to happen so often. This is the first such novel-length outburst I've had since I wrote the first draft of "Glasshouse", back in 2003, and I hope to live long enough to experience it again some time ...
Anyway, I've been writing compulsively, for about six to eight solid hours a day, pretty much seven days a week for 32 days. (When I say "six to eight solid hours a day", I'm not talking about the typical intensity of work you'd expect to put in during a day at the office; I'm talking about six to eight hours of being present in the office and nattering to fellow employees around the water cooler; I'm talking about the kind of work flow when you eventually glance up from the keyboard, uncramp your fingers, realize you're hungry, and wonder how the hell it got to be so late.) And during that time I bolted together the first 101,000 word draft of "The Fuller Memorandum", third book in the series beginning with "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" — a job that would normally take about four to six months.
(Whether it's any good or not is a question I can't answer yet. Sometimes writing in a rush lends coherency and intensity to a project, but it can equally well result in clunky prose and over-hasty visualization. I'm still too close to it to judge the quality of handiwork; whatever happens, it's going to take at least one very careful editorial pass before I'm ready to hand it in. And that's not going to happen for a while. As I said, I have other books and other deadlines: now I've got this one out of my system I have really got to work hard to get the next one out on schedule.)
What I really want to talk about here is the sensation of finishing a project.
Writing a book in a month is hard time, roughly equivalent to putting in an eighty-to-ninety hour working week for four or five consecutive weeks on a normal job. But it's a job with a very well-defined ending. You work yourself up to a peak of mechanical performance, managing to produce a regular week's output every two or three days: and then suddenly ... you've run off the edge of a cliff. And as soon as you look down you're in free fall, just like Wile E. Coyote.
My first reaction: naturally, I want to crow about it from the rooftops! This is perfectly normal and age and experience have taught me that, present company excepted (hey, you're here to read my blog, right?) most people don't want to hear about it. So consider yourselves crowed at.
My second reaction: I need a vacation! (Writing is weird. It creeps into your skull and inhabits your dreams. This week I've had some really weird ones ....) Luckily all I have to do is finish working over a fat pile of page proofs in the next week — checking for errors and redlining them — them I'm off to the Bokbierfest in Amsterdam for the weekend, with my wife for company instead of a laptop. (I hope she remembers my face. When I'm head-deep in the guts of a novel I'm very poor company. Even the cats complain.)
Finally, there's the third reaction: emptiness. This job has an addictive quality to it. It's an art form as well as a business, and it's one in which you eventually get to hold in your hands a physical product and know that it's touched thousands or tens of thousands of other people, and there is the moment that you learn to live for, those two ultimate words: THE END. They zip past really fast, and then they're gone, until the next time. And you know what? It's a lot of work to get back to that place ...
So: the crash. Me, I just start another novel. (In this case, I'm taking a luxurious, lazy two weeks off then diving straight into "The Trade of Queens".) How do you deal with it?