Tuesday, November 3, 2015

On the Road to The End

There's a question that comes up repeatedly among writers. How do you know when something is done? Really, really done. The answer is usually, "You just know." It's a bit like falling in love. If you don't know for sure, you aren't there.

I always thought this was pretty much pure bunk. At least I did, until this past month when I felt the novel's energy shift, and realized that I was, for the first time in my life, getting to the end. Not just finishing a draft, but ending a novel. The change was unmistakable. There have been moments of pure elation, and moments of devastating sorrow. Total joy, and total immersion in the world of my novel, the characters, what's happening to them, and finally knowing, really knowing, that I have taken this novel as far and as deep as I can, and that it has repeatedly wrung me dry. 

The photograph at the top of this post is from the moment when it really hit me that the novel is coming to an end.

My family and I were in Reno for the weekend. We used to live there. My in-laws still do. And my novel is set there. A key moment in the novel happens looking at this view of Sierra Street on the skyway between the El Dorado casino and the parking garage. We were heading back to my car when I looked at the street and realized this was the last time I would visit Reno and look at the city with both my eyes and the eyes of my narrator, Matt. I've had this thought before. But this time it was real. How do I know? Because I promptly lost it. Completely. Embarrassingly. Trying to cry silently looking out the window at Sierra Street because I had just realized what the mourning process is going to look like when I say goodbye to these characters who have lived in my head for so long, who have been my constant companions for the past three very intense years of writing. 

I've finished drafts before. When I finished the third draft of this novel, I thought it was done and started querying. But, in my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn't. I'd been working on this story as a novel for two years at that point (this novel started out as a short story, then morphed into a novella, and finally, five years ago, declared that it was a novel. Which is a post for another time because I know a lot of writers who go through a similar evolution with stories -- it's almost like our psyches have to trick us because the declaration that "I am writing a novel" is so intimidating we would never start), and I wanted to go back to the novel I had enrolled in grad school to complete. 

But I knew it wasn't done. 

There were lots of clues -- the lack of elation when I got to the end of the draft; the fact that when my best friend asked what I was going to do to celebrate finishing, I just shrugged and said, "Go to Disneyland?"; not having a lot of enthusiasm for writing query letters; the fact that when I was asked by an editor at Squaw if I had passion for this novel, I nearly broke into tears because I felt so drained and tired of it (as opposed to drained and I want to tell everyone about my novel because I love it so much) -- things like that. In retrospect, I should have known. 

As a submissions reader, I see lots of novels that are being queried one draft too early. They are almost there, but the pacing is a bit off, the major themes underdeveloped, the opening not as crisp and fully-formed as it needs to be. There are still lingering traces of the birthing process -- the moments when the writer flails because he or she doesn't know quite how to get the characters from where they are to where they are going. These are novels that are going to get form rejections for the most part. Maybe a few of them will get a more detailed response, but most of them are going to get a pass from the agent for the simple reason that, yes, they show promise, but they need another revision. 

I was very fortunate to meet an agent while I was at Squaw who took the time to tell me my novel wasn't finished, that it needed another revision, and has been exceedingly patient with me while I completed TWO more complete rewrites on it to get it to where it is now. 

Having gotten this far in the process, I do have to say, if you do not know, in your heart of hearts, that your novel has ENDED, completely and totally ENDED, it probably isn't done. As frustrating as it is to hear (and I know it's frustrating -- I spent six months resisting the idea that my novel wasn't done and I would have to go back into it and rebuild it from the ground up before I wrote a single word of the fourth draft), you will know when it is done. It will be a slap across the face, a gut punch, an unmistakable knife through the heart. It will leave you both shattered and wanting to embrace the entire world. It is different for every writer, for every novel. 

What it isn't, is a shrug of the shoulder, an "I guess," or simply typing 'THE END' at the bottom of a page.