What It’s Like to Finish a Novel

Finishing a book is one of the most befuddling experiences in life. I have just experienced it for the seventh time (five published and one unpublished books, plus this new one), and it is always the same. 

Regardless of my vows to keep my life balanced, by the end I have failed utterly, as always. I still exercised, but less, still had human contact, but less, still took care of business, but less. But even a minimum of an hour a day on each of these leaves a whole lot of hours every day to be obsessive, especially considering that the “get up and get back to your book” alarm in my head was going off around 5AM. 

In some ways it’s the same as the tail end of any long stretch of concerted mental effort, knowing you must be exhausted but being too wired to feel it. The exhaustion shows up in weird ways, like disorientation even in familiar surroundings. I walked into a plexiglass wall a few days back and still have the tender forehead to show for it, though the lump and bruise have faded. The other day I decided not to go on a new hike with a group because I would have to drive on a highway to get there, and I didn’t trust myself to pay adequate attention to the road.

The late Sharon Kay Penman, an author much admired by historical novelists, once said at a conference, “While you’re writing about the past, don’t forget to live in the present.”  She knew how hard that can be.  My characters are more concrete to me than my own body, more real to me than the people in my life. It is an extraordinary state to be in, and I am not complaining. It is a privilege to be able to go into another world. It’s the coming out that’s hard. 

I look around and wonder, “so, what do I do now?”  I have enough neglected business and errands to fill my days for a while. Every day I’ve been pushing forward on my calendar all the phone calls I should have already taken care of, the appointments and reservations I need to make or cancel because the ground is always shifting underfoot whether I’m paying attention or not.  it’s been so long since I pulled out the cleanser that the bathroom and kitchen are an embarrassment to myself.  The problem is, I don’t want to do any of it. I have been in this amazing place of my own creation and I don’t want to come back to boring things. 

Dealing with strangers is the hardest part. I have a few friends who have done a wonderful job of not letting me float off the planet, but I reach a point where I can’t shop for groceries because I would have to speak. The spell gets broken by every little mundanity, and I don’t want to do that.

In a way, this state is much like fresh grief, when being alive doesn’t seem real. I offer this only as a means by which you might glimpse this state, and hope you don’t read too much into the analogy. Maybe in a sense I am grieving the end of something big and important. I don’t deny that. But really, it’s more of the reverse. I have gained something huge—a completed book!  My life is bigger because it now has this in it. I will find my way back to a normal that doesn’t feel at all impoverished, but enriched. 

I know this befuddlement is brief and fleeting. Unlike grief, I will “get over it.” I’m going to fill this day with healthy goodness and maybe even make a few boring phone calls, solve a few nagging problems, and possibly get the toothpaste splatter out of my sink. 

Or maybe that can all wait. The sun is shining, and I’m meeting a friend this morning. The world is offering its welcome, and I am going to stop writing this and step out the front door, letting all my senses remember that I am still here.

What i did today The dahlias at Butchart Gardens were like a fireworks show just for me.

Tod Inlet August 2022

i have a lot of favorite places in the area around Victoria. I have gone more times than I can count to Elk/Beaver Lake, Thetis Lake, Witty’s Lagoon, Swan Lake, Mystic Vale, and Island View Park, to name a few, but there’s one that is in a category all its own. it may sound macabre, but I have anointed Tod Inlet as the ’hold my memorial service and scatter my ashes here” favorite.

I have been getting up (without alarm) around 5 and working until 10 or 11 on my new novel, at which point I am worthless to do more for a while. For the last few weeks I have used that as the marker at which I go to the gym to swim and work out, or go for an amble along the shore or in the forest.  

Today i finished the heavy duty revision and am down to tweaks and line edits This is such a huge marker point that I decided to go do a forest bath at Tod Inlet. Remembering a promise I make to myself but have always forgotten to this point, I took a picnic lunch. In the final stages of writing a book, the fridge is in pathetic shape, and what I had today was the rest of a precooked chicken, some snap peas from a farmer’s market a few days back, and the last little bit of a bag wine. Perfect! Off I went!

The path to Tod Inlet changes so much over the seasons.  At this point, the rushing stream has become a trickle so the woods are silent except for the occasional bird. As I walked along, I thanked the forest for being there for me and realized that wasn’t right.  I tried again and thanked the forest for reminding me that I was part of it, and part of everything. 

 I ate my lunch, and I swear that chicken was far more tender and the pea pods far less past their prime than they would have been at my kitchen table. The solitary wasp that showed up though it was pretty good too.

A dragonfly hovered, and as happens so often, I thought of a poem. ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,” I thought to myself and had a good laugh imagining how a book editor would react to that line. “That repetitive K F K F/ D F D F alliteration is annoying—can you rephrase?” Ah, the difference between poetry and prose!

The ground had that look and smell I remember from campgrounds in my childhood—dry dirt and small stones, a little parched yellow grass at the edges. Memories hovered at the edges of my mind but never quite broke through. 

The bushes were rife with climbing wild sweet peas. Once when I was in France I saw sweet peas at a florist and was shocked that they cost more than roses.  When I asked why, the clerk told me it was because they were “tres raffines.” Very refined?  The seeds even a child can grow? I thought of that today as they flourished in the wild. I suppose everything in nature is refined  if what we mean is perfectly suited to its place, which is definitely not in a florist shop. You can see them along the bank here

Today was a funny mix of juxtapositions of meaning and being, but it makes sense. Finishing a book is like surfacing, and I suppose it should come as no surprise that today dragonflies have editors and sweet peas have judges. Soon I will experience again the mix of gain and loss that accompanies a project as big as a book It changes me, and I will have to find my way back. Or more appropriately, find my way forward. With places like Tod inlet to go to, that shouldn’t be hard.