What Does It Feel Like to Finish Your First Novel?

I have completed the first draft of my novel, revised that draft, and sent it to my editor.

*screams into the Void*

I asked my writing support group slash academic mentoring team slash friends I run amok at conferences with if this is what it feels like when your baby goes to kindergarten for the first time.  The parents in that group “reassured”  me that no, in fact, sending your book manuscript to the editor is much, much more difficult than your kid’s first day of kindergarten.

That explains why my organs are liquefying, I said.

It’s been about 36 hours since I emailed that draft, and so far, I have had feelings I did not know existed.  Feelings I don’t have names for.  Feelings that do not appear on this chart:

The chart is a lie.

Having actually finished a novel draft is simultaneously overwhelming and relieving to me.  Overwhelming, because this is something I’ve been trying to do since I was six years old.  That is not an exaggeration.  Six.

Overwhelming, because for all the years between six and 34, “writing a book” was integral to my family’s definition of me, and so it was integral to my definition of myself as well.  As long as I can remember, the fact that I hadn’t produced a book yet marked me as a failure, a disappointment.  I was “not living up to my potential.”

Now, I’ve pretty much shat on my own potential in a lot of other ways.  Like being multiply disabled (ooooooops), or discovering the hard way that litigation is absolutely not where I belong, or losing everything in the housing market collapse and having to live in my parents’ basement until I could get back on my feet.  (The fact that I rebuilt everything I have by writing, ironically, did not change my sense of myself as a non-writing disappointment.  I wasn’t getting paid to write fiction.)

“Writing a book” been integral to my adult social circles too, but in a different way: all English majors aspire to write a book, or assume they will write a book, or know people who are in various stages of writing a book, with various doses of pretentiousness attached to that, or know people who said “screw it, I’m going to be an editor instead.”  In grad school, of course, it’s presumed that you will write a book, because it’s presumed you will be a professor, and you’ll need that book as bait for the ever-elusive tenure unicorn.

Relieving, because for the first time in nearly thirty years, I’m not “writing a novel”; for the first time ever, I have written a novel.  And that chunk of me that was a disappointment for having not written a book yet is full of success.  And void-screaming.  And caramel.  Also bats.

Relieving, too, because everything that everyone finds so daunting about writing a first novel, everything I found so daunting about it, is behind me now.  Now I get it.  Now I understand why all the books and workshops and blogs and fun generator widgets in the world are just amusing distractions from the business of writing.  Now I understand why people who have actually written novels don’t give advice, other than to KEEP WRITING YOU SCHMUCK.

They do it – we do it – because no other advice is actually going to get the dang thing written.

It really is as simple as putting words on paper till you’re done.  Because until you do, until you’re done with that first novel draft, until you’ve reached resolution of the plot arc and everyone can take a deep breath and go home now, the insecurity demon is going to plague you.  It just is.  There is only one way in the entire world to know whether you can actually sustain a credible plot arc, with relateable characters and a readable pace, through 70,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 words.  And that is to do it.

Until you’ve done it, you don’t know you can do it.  I didn’t know I could do it until I finished the first draft.  Even then, I wasn’t sure I had done it until I reread that draft and revised.

Even now, I’m waiting for my editor to get back to me with the exact same major questions I have about that draft.  (Yes, ma’am, I know the ending is rushed.  Pls to help.)

And it was that anxiety about not knowing whether I even could fling myself into the unknown sea of words and come out with something worth flipping 250 pages for that made writing the first one so difficult.  Until I finished the first draft, my anxiety was that the finished product would be fatally flawed.  That it would (somehow; anxiety is of course never clear on this) manage to get published, only to be greeted by everyone in this business whom I respect with “this isn’t a book. This is shit.  What even is this?”

The moment I finished revising the draft, however, that anxiety evaporated.  That’s not a criticism I’m going to face.  I know it; I’ve been in the literature business long enough to recognize a cohesive plot when I see one, and I wrote one.

Now, I’m not actually worried about this novel’s reception at all.  Every individual response to it is going to be a matter of personal preference.  There is no story ever told that is universally loved, so mine won’t be either, and that’s okay.

At least, that’s what I keep telling my liquefied organs.