Letting Go of the Novel: How to Deal with Empty Pen Syndrome

Novels take such a long time to gestate. For me, that period is longer than the time it takes to gestate a child.  In fact, my first novel was conceived (that is, begun in earnest) while pregnant with my first child, and born (that is, finally finished), around the same time as my third child was born.  So the gestation matches the time frame of all three of my children.  And now, published, out in the world, it’s like a 20 year old who has flown the nest (while my real children are still here).  There have been other books since then - some that have taken less than a year and others that have taken three or more years.  My current WIP is celebrating its second year of gestation and I'm thinking that I still have at least six months of work to go. So these are long term projects that live with you and change, grow and develop. There are plenty of guides providing excellent information on how to best gain publicity for your book: how to promote it, sell it, flaunt it.  You'll get lots of information on that here, and some of it from me, but I’ve yet to see a guide for how to let go.  A finished novel is often something with only the most tenuous connection to those words which you held inside – your name on the cover and your photo inside perhaps.  Your book now belongs to your readers.  You can (and should) promote the heck out of your book. You can glory in the good reviews, and cry over the bad ones. But you no longer have much influence over that.  The book’s on its own.

 There has to be a way to deal with that hollow feeling you get when someone reads and interprets (often in different ways than you intended) words that were internal and private for so long.  There has to be a way to stop promoting for a bit, and move on to the next project.  So here are five tips, I’ve gathered together, as much for myself as you. 

  • This is the most obvious, so I’ll start with it.  Move on!  Sounds easy, right?  Begin getting into your next book.  All that plotting, characterising, researching will help you with the all important bonding process you need. 
  • Set a limit to your promotional work.  I know this is exactly the opposite of what everyone (including myself) tells you, but it’s easy to become obsessive.  Do one thing a day, and then, maybe after six months, one thing a week.  Otherwise you can spend hours checking those Amazon stats (and feel flat when they don’t move), panic about whether you’ve done enough, and feel like you've wasted your time when your quarterly sales figures don’t match your expectations.  Keep promoting by all means, but don’t go berserk.  You've got another creation that needs your attention.
  • Allow your book the space to be itself.  All art reinvents itself for the person experiencing it.  Allow your readers that freedom.  Not everyone will review, or talk about your book in a way that matches your vision.  But alternative perspectives are not only valid – after all, the symphony of your book only plays when it meets a set of receptive ears – but also rather lovely, even when it's at odds with your intention.
  • Harden up.  Your book really is a commercial product now.  You may not even be living off the proceeds (thank goodness, unless you’re Rowling), but your publisher probably is.  Your book is now a concrete piece of merchandise, and talking about it in terms of things like return on investment, shelf space, and merchandising may help cure that romantic sense of it being your own little baby.
  • Finally, enjoy the freedom.  You’ve done your bit.  You’ve finished what you started, and there’s a sense of real accomplishment in stopping and saying that.  So go on, say it.  Nice and loud.  I’m done.  It isn’t that hard.  At least with a bit of practice. 
These tips probably won’t stop you from feeling just a little overly sentimental about your first novel – the learning curve is so large, and the sense of intimacy so strong the first time around, that, like any ‘first,’ your first novel will always be just that little bit special.  It gets a little easier after that, but it's always difficult to move on and stop focusing on it so heavily so you can go back into creation mode.  However, with a little effort, you can learn to accept the totality of your career – there will be other novels – better than the first.  There will be readers, with their own histories, and perspectives, taking your words into their hearts and making them their own.  That’s why we do it, after all. 

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.


Heidiwriter said...

It IS hard to let go of your dear characters who have become family to you! And your book itself is like a child or maybe a better analogy would be a bird flying from the nest for the first time! I agree, having another project in the works is the best medicine for "empty pen" syndrome.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

I tend to have multiple projects going at once which helps keep me moving.

Karen Cioffi said...

I too keep too busy to get overly attached to my creations. Although, in fiction, you do become concerned for your characters - it makes me want to write a sequel. But, you're so right, Maggie, as writers we need to give the book its due, then move on.

As you mention, it doesn't mean you stop promoting it all together, but you can't become obsessed over it and you certainly can't devote too much time to it that it prevents you from writing other stories.

Balance in writing, as in life, is important!

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