Breaking Up With Your Novel

breaking up with your novel

Last week I finished penning the third book in my epic fantasy series and sent it off to beta readers. Paths of Alir was two years in the planning/writing, and the final clocked in around 300,000 words. (It is an epic fantasy. Providing a series is well-crafted, anything short of 250k and epic fantasy fans somewhat turn up their noses). A well-written novel of any genre and length will present characters the reader can identify with, but let me tell you, by the time you’re three books into a series of this depth, you and your readers are deeply invested.

Investment is exactly the point—and the problem. I sent off the manuscript last week expecting to feel that remembered sense of accomplishment, and…

Nope. Nothing like it. Instead of a warm glow, I experienced only a haunting sense of loss.

I don’t know if every writer encounters this agonizing moment upon departing the world of their novel. Perhaps it’s worse when you’re square in the middle of a five-book epic fantasy that’s already pulled nearly a million words out of you. Or perhaps it’s no different from finishing one novel that you poured your heart into for two years, or ten.

Writers often equate their passion for the craft with obsession, even at times addiction. I’ve heard writing a novel analogized as a mistress who jealously demands your creative attention. These are justifiable parallels. As the author, you become truly intimate with your characters. You spend all of your free time with them and (to be honest) quite a lot of time that wasn’t yours to devote (i.e. when you should’ve been focusing on some other task). I regularly warned people in my “real” life that I was only about 60% there. It was a generous estimate—40% was often more true.

In looking at the nature of this author-novel relationship, certain things should’ve been quite obvious to me, yet it never occurred to me until I closed the door on my world how deeply I was in love with it. So much so that pulling mentally out of the world (even knowing it necessary to gain perspective) felt agonizing. I felt like I’d broken up with my novel.

Suddenly I stood in that moment we’ve all experienced: you’ve just shut the door behind a departing lover…perhaps experiencing that duality of conscience in which you start second-guessing your decision to eject this person from your life…realizing with a visceral and all-encompassing regret how much the other person meant to you… I had closed the door on my novel and stood leaning my forehead against that door feeling all of these same emotions.

It should’ve occurred to me sooner that my novel (or in my case, my entire series) and I had been having an intimate relationship. Mayhap I’m the last author on earth to figure this out. In any case, it got me to thinking about the parallels between our novels and our loves. Here are five ways finishing your novel is like breaking up with your significant other:

1. When you’re in a passionate relationship, it’s all you want to talk about. Likewise while you’re passionately engaged in writing your novel. You’ll inundate your friends with unsolicited gushings that sometimes push them to the fine edge of patience. You live and work and eat and breathe with these characters in your head twenty-four/seven. It only follows that they’re the first thing on your mind when it comes time to reluctantly pull out of the world and engage with people who actually breathe oxygen.  

Of course, now that you’ve finished writing the novel, here comes that enforced separation. You and your significant other have decided you both need a little space, time to reflect, time to work on yourselves, perhaps. You seek comfort in friends, ex-lovers…new lovers (relationship rebound)—new books, new manuscripts, but none of them hold the same luster as the novel you just completed. And no matter who you’re with, now that you’re no longer together with your novel, all you can talk about is how you’re not together anymore.

2. Intent on staying out of the novel’s world for a while, you find yourself going to all the places you used to go together, only now you’re going there alone. Your morning tea or coffee…your stop by the bakery…your shower, your morning run or drive to work… Always before, you and your novel shared an intimacy in each mundane moment. Now you feel the novel’s absence in everything you do, and the world has lost some of its magic.

3. Suddenly you can’t listen anymore to the soundtrack you’ve been glued to for the last three months—or any song that reminds you of your novel, your characters or the world. Instead, you find yourself returning to those old breakup favorites, mulling over the pervasive feeling of loss that is gripping you, wishing your beta readers could read faster so you could at least talk with them about your novel love.

4. While you’re waiting for your beta readers, maybe you’ll return to an earlier manuscript or a short story with the same characters and linger there like a voyeur, observing the characters from afar like you’d watch your ex at a restaurant or a bar with friends, not daring to intrude or interact. They were your friends, too, but now you feel estranged from them. 

5. Lastly—almost worst of all—you’re beset by the nagging, ruthless worry of whether or not there’s another novel out there for you. Will you ever be able to find the same magic in the next book that you found in the one you just finished writing? Can your next book ever be as well-crafted, as wondrously inspired? Will you ever find another novel idea that feels as true, or that touches you as deeply?

How can a conglomerate of symbols representing thought take on such life and feel so real as to engender such an emotional upheaval at its end?

And how often we writers equate our novels with lovers or children or the labor of birth, implying an explanation-defying yet truly intimate connection with a work that has no substance, no mass save printed ink on paper, and no recognition of us—its author—whatsoever, and yet is unequivocally an entity with which we’ve interacted, reasoned, worried, slaved over and—ultimately—fallen in love with.

Have you had a similar experience finishing a creative work? What parallels have I missed? Please share your thoughts. Misery loves company. ;)

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14 Responses to “Breaking Up With Your Novel”

  1. RYCJ says:

    Totally appreciate this post. I know the feeling (very well), really no different than those obsessed with other jobs. The only difference between our books and relationships though; they will never abandon us… NEVER… not so long as they are in print and we are above soil. That’s the greatest comfort with this love obsession.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Oh I couldn’t agree more. What an excellent point about abandonment…in our creations we have something eternal. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Rachel Karl says:

    I can only speak from being on the opposite side of your novels that your concern, “Can your next book ever be as well-crafted, as wondrously inspired?” — you have nothing to worry about there. But just as “You’re going to find love again!” falls on unwelcome ears from one friend to another who has lost a love, I’m sure that’s how it feels as well. I LOVE this post. I’m sure that whether it’s Author ending the writing process or Reader ending the reading, or Lover ending a relationship, we can all relate in one way or another, but… as an avid reader of your incredible novels and as friend, I want you to know that I feel your pain and I love you and I’m here for you. I also selfishly want you to not take too long mourning because we are all as anxious to dive back into this world as you are! With love and utmost admiration (and impatience mixed in), Rachel :-)

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thank you, Rachel. It’s an interesting point you make, because we’re authors but we’re also readers of our own novels. So it’s almost as if you have that dual separation when you’re finished (if only for a little while before launching onto the next). I certainly appreciate your “girlfriend” support. Definitely salted caramel.

  3. Rachel Karl says:

    P.S. Cherry Garcia, Chocolate Fudge Brownie, or Salted Caramel?

  4. Hi Melissa,

    I am just starting out on the journey. My first novel, Price of Vengeance, went to a couple of publishers before Tate Publishing picked it up. Sending a book to anyone new is a wrenching experience. I would describe it as your child rather than your lover. You are sending it out into the world. Did you prepare it properly? Is it good enough. Did you leave too many -ly words in? Is this or that scene going to work? After all the blood, sweat, tears, and ink (or toner if you use a laser printer) are you going to have to pull it apart and start over? Mostly, are people going to like it? Even now that it’s launched, that feeling is there ten fold.

    I can only assume that since you were successful once, you will be again. As an author who believes in a plot driven story with a character driven plot, the only advice I can give is: “Put your faith in your characters, and they will put their faith in you.” I don’t know about a particular book, but I think it will help in the long term.

    Good luck.

    Kurt

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Hi Kurt, Congratulations and good luck with your upcoming release. You’re so right – any time we let go of our work and make it available for others, we’re opening ourselves to a host of criticism (most notably from ourselves). The oddest part of being a writer is setting so much communication into one place and then sending it all out there at once. Imagine if we handled in similar fashion every conversation we were ever going to have on a particular subject. A hundred-thousand+ words without a single acknowledgement…really quite an odd way to communicate when you think about it. Yet this is the path of the writer. No wonder we’re all rumored to be a bit crazy.

  5. Heidi Kemp says:

    Aaaahhh the pain! You are so right. I must comment, even though I shall not only fail to offer comfort, but slight the comfort already offered. Because while it’s true your exquisite affair resulted in something beautiful and lasting, it’s still OVER! The blissful discoveries, the infuriating flailings of uncooperative characters, the inspired moments, the suffering of those agonizing choices, the beauty of redemption…. ahhhh so magical and amazing! Even this plethora of adjectives doesn’t suffice! And now that symphony of emotion and action and vision is stilled and you have to walk away. Suffering is entirely appropriate! I confess I’m pleased – it makes me hopeful you will launch back into the world with greater alacrity. Because while you are filled with loss right now, consider your faithful readers! Just think of how we’ve suffered over these two years that you’ve been blissfully cavorting about in Alorin, while we are locked on the outside, waiting to hear what happened! So wallow for sure, because it’s only right, but then stop being selfish and realize there are others out there experiencing similar pain who are far less able to do something about it, and launch right back in so we don’t have to wait two years for the next one!! We love you and are here for you and it’s our world too so let’s visit as much as possible!

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Heidi…Touche! I feel eloquently chastised. You’re quite right, of course. My readers – my poor, devoted readers – always suffer so much more than I can ever imagine, and I’m so grateful for their courageous and patient endurance.

  6. Thom Pastor says:

    I completely disagree with your breakup analogy. I finished my first “real” book last winter and it doesn’t feel like a break up at all. It feels like marriage.
    Now that book is ‘my book,’ for better or for worse. All the good, and all the bad that comes with putting myself out there is just part of the package.
    Promoting the book is just as much work as writing it, just a different type of work. Just as being married is just as much (or more) work than dating, just different.
    There are fleeting moments where I would like to break up with my book, but they pass and I’m grateful for the commitment I made. Besides, my book is okay with an open relationship. ;)

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thom, I love hearing that you’re committed to your “book marriage.” As you say, it’s a vital (and logical) next step in your author/novel relationship. And you’re so right about the marketing being just as much work. Thanks for sharing a different perspective on it.

  7. Cindy Thorpe says:

    Thank you for that personal insight. I feel that way when I read a wonderful book or series like yours. The closer I get to the end I begin to slow down. I go back and re-read portions. I put in down for a few days; anything to delay the end. I feel like when I’ve finished the book, the relationship is over and it leaves me with a gap for the time I used to rush home to read the next chapter or the times I would find myself wondering ahead what would happen. When it’s over, it’s over.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Cindy, I know that feeling very well. Whether a reader or a writer, it’s so hard leaving a world we love once we’ve invested so much of our mental energy into its creation. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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