“Do you know why Albert Camus was so prolific?
He wrote to keep from screaming.”
You’ve finished your first novel. Now what do you do?
Breathe, relax, have sex, take a day off if you really must. But then get straight back on it. You might feel spent from the weeks, months or years of work — if it’s been a particularly long and draining experience, one that has sapped your energy and will, and you’ve been working on the thing for long enough that your baby is now a toddler, then maybe take a week or two off, but no longer than that. Go on holiday, perhaps. Turn off your brain for a fortnight and chill out with drinks and good company.
But then start on it again. You probably won’t want to go directly to your next novel. Not so soon after finishing the last one. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep your writer mind sharp and able. Jot down an article, write some short stories, review a book or movie — the important thing is to keep writing.
On the side, begin to scribble down ideas for your next book. If you already have an idea of what it’s going to be about, that’s great: write down brief outlines, ways you plan to construct it, character profiles, whatever you can think of to build this novel in the background while you’re on a mini-break period. You’re merely keeping the engine lubed. After a month or so, or once you feel like you’re fully recharged (you might not ever feel like this, so don’t rely on some magical feeling to perk you up), you can then write your second book. Don’t even go back to look at the first until the second is over.
Then during the aftermath of that book (your second effort), take off another week or two (again, depending on the size of the task: a novel written in a month usually requires less recharge time), and then instead of writing articles or short stories like you did before, you can take these few weeks to edit your first novel. Work hard on it, pick it apart, but take time to jot down notes for your third book. Begin the same process as before: gradually building layers and outlines. Once you’ve finished editing the first, you can now write the third, knowing that after you complete that book, you can edit the second. If it’s too daunting to get into just yet, lay it aside and go back to writing short stories or articles. Alternate between the two, but never spend more than 8 weeks on the small stuff. If you devote too much time to casual writing, you might end up as a casual writer — producing short pieces of work and nothing else.
Essentially you want your writing world to be an endless revolving door.
And I’ll tell you why.
“Success is a function of persistence and doggedness, and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.”
~ Alan Schoenfeld
Too many aspiring writers fixate on getting published. Their first thought, before anything, is about their novel being bought, sold and put on the shelf. This is a typical example of running before you can walk. Instead of taking the time to write a decent novel, you’re rushing ahead to the end zone, cutting corners on the way — sometimes without even knowing it. You need to practice your craft and you also need space from your last project. You’re too close to it, and you’ll find it hard to be objective about what parts are bad or unnecessary. You’ll tell yourself certain scenes are good enough even if you know they need rewriting. Or sometimes it’s the opposite: you hate every scene and want to tear the whole thing to shreds and start all over again. Both ways are wrong.
You shouldn’t be sprinting through the creative process just so you can see results. It’s like the Tortoise and Hare race — you’ll become complacent, sending out half-finished manuscripts, rough edits, etc., and the guy who took those extra few months to distance himself from his work and then thoroughly edit it, will surpass you at the finish line. Ironically, those who don’t move on to another writing project often spend longer on editing overall: they’ll work on the same novel repeatedly, constantly reading and re-reading; sometimes liking their work, other times hating it. The more they think about publication, the more they try to perfect their story and undo everything they’ve done up until that point. Or, on the flip side, they’ll think it’s great as it is, send it off too early, and then wonder why they’ve been rejected by every agent and publishing house.
That’s why you should move on to another book. Or short stories, or articles, or whatever will help to maintain your sharpness. Keep your mind occupied on something new. That will wipe your memory of its connection with your old work and free up your critical faculties for when you go back to edit it later on.
If you’re always looking ahead to the next book, rather than to finishing this book, there won’t be so much pressure on you. You won’t overthink every edit, every scene. You’ll know you can rewrite it, send it off, and that you have more to follow after. In a way, having more completed novels is freeing: it takes the pressure off your back. The more books in your arsenal, the more possible chances of success. And if it does sell, you’ll have another couple to sell straight after it.
Also, there’s another reason for steaming ahead with something new.
“If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life.
There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”
Objectivity is something that you cultivate. You can’t do this by repeatedly reading over your own inferior work and praising yourself for it (or worse: beating yourself up about it, which will only put you off writing anything else in the future). The fact is, most first novels are terrible — yours probably is too. Unless you’ve been writing short stories all these years, if this is your first major writing project, it’ll no doubt be a waste of paper.
I wrote about four or five novels (some finished; some half-completed) before I wrote anything decent. Even now I’m on my eighth “good” novel and I still think most of what I’ve written is trash. My goal is to keep learning, to strive to be a better writer, and that doesn’t come easily. But what helps is my forward momentum. I file one project and start on the next. I let the first one breathe for a while with the plaster off; later on I go in with the gauze and scissors and bandage up the cracks.
On top of that, with every new book, story or article I write, I learn more about the writing process. I notice mistakes in my construction or a lack of characterisation or an overabundance of swearing or repetitive angles or scenarios that crop up in my work. This means that when I return to edit my earlier stuff months down the line, not only do I have a clearer vision of what’s wrong (having been away from it for so long), I’m also able to see the story with a stronger eye toward revision. That way my old work has the powerful attributes of my newer stuff.
With the influx of self-published novels these days, I’m sure there are many amateur or over-eager authors who look back on their early published work and regret having sent it off to print without setting it aside for a while. In hindsight, they spot all the mistakes and issues they’d been too close to see before. And now they can’t take it back. Their book is forever in the world, unedited, uncut, in all its horrible nakedness.
Don’t be that guy. Don’t look at your baby and wish you’d aborted it.
“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”
There’s another issue with just sticking on one project: once you get past the insecurities and procrastination aspect of it all, the problem is that you’re thinking about fame and money above all else. You’re not thinking about writing beautifully, or doing anything productive. You’re beating a dead horse and expecting it to get up and dance for you. A writer writes. Don’t hone your first book a thousand times hoping to catch a million-pound book deal. Just write and write some more. Then move on, go back, go sideways — always be working. Writing, editing, sending off, alternating between the three until you have a body of work.
By the time you start novel three, novel one will be in circulation. If that sells, you’ll already have novel two to go out for sale by the time you start on your fourth.
That makes you one step ahead of the game every time.
Which is the smartest and most lucrative place to be.
“The average person puts only 25% of his energy and ability into his work.”
Why are you still here?
File that novel of yours, have a small celebration, and move on to the next piece. It won’t write itself. And if it does — well that’s a freakish story I’d love to hear about.
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