Writers — You Must Finish Your Book!

My first book, an epic fantasy, is about to be published by Tor. Getting to that publication date—September 29th, 2015—has taken nearly all the years I’ve been alive and more work than I could have imagined, starting out. There will always be stories of authors who at a blazingly young age produced a novel at speed which went on to be published, but that is not my story. My story is of a book first sketched in a yellow legal pad during half-hour lunch breaks at an administrative assistant job in the Empire State Building. I sat in Starbucks and scribbled. I began with the image of a woman, psychically wounded, fleeing through a forest in winter. Poets and art were to be the center. It went from there.

It took seven years.

In between, I moved to Jerusalem, became a freelance journalist, married a student of Philosophy, and juggled various writing gigs to make rent. (I had, somewhere along the way, decided I’d do whatever it takes to never be an administrative assistant again.) Sticking with the novel, with all its complexities—multiple character viewpoints, intertwining plots—became increasingly challenging as it progressed. There were many occasions when I questioned why I was going to this trouble, when the overwhelming odds were I’d never be published. But I knew I wanted more than anything to write fiction. And, absurdly simple as it sounds, the only way to keep writing fiction was to do it, on stolen evenings and weekends and in various cafes around Jerusalem. Even though I knew it was likely I was crafting an intricate, painstakingly constructed lottery ticket.

Here is the most important thing I learned in those seven years: Neil Gaiman is right. You have to finish the book. At all costs, basically. Even if for long stretches you stop believing in it (because if enough years go by, you likely will). Even if life is constantly throwing curve balls (trust me, it did). It’s an indispensable rite of passage for a writer. Finishing your book will change you.

Of course it’s easy to look back, on the eve of publication, and express how grateful I am I stuck with it. But just to prove I’m being honest, I wrote about the experience of finishing my book (sounding rather hyperbolic and exhausted) back in 2012, before I had an agent and when it appeared I’d have to shelve my manuscript because it wasn’t urban fantasy with zombies, which is all agents representing sci-fi/fantasy seemed to be looking for at the time. (It would be another year before I had an agent, and yet another before I had the offer of a three-book contract with Tor.) My book, it seemed, was dead in the water. And yet, the experience of writing the book was valuable in itself—especially at the end.

As a reader, endings are important to me. I feel strongly that the ending shouldn’t just peter out, nor should it be the equivalent to a sudden slap in the face. You know the type—books where little is happening until all of a sudden, ten pages before the end, everything happens and it’s over. I definitely didn’t want to do that. I always admired Robin Hobb’s endings, for example, which tend to start about 100 pages from the end, picking up speed as they go. That was my model: About 100 pages from the end, start the engine. Make it count. If possible, make it hurt.

It was about taking this thing I’d spent years braiding together and figuring out how to resolve it in a manner satisfying to me. I’d initially planned it as a standalone novel, so this was going to be it—the end. Years of work were about to reach their culmination, define in retrospect everything this book was, what it meant. No pressure, right?

A million times, I buried my head in my hands. A million times, my long-suffering spouse made me an ice coffee and ordered, “Finish it.” He is not usually tough on me. Somehow he knew to be tough on me this time.

What followed was an intense communing with the book, with the characters, that was like nothing that had come before in the process. Some writers talk with relish about torturing their characters, but I can’t relate to this. When I’m writing a character, I’m with them and experiencing events through them; if they end up tortured, so do I. Torturing them felt true and right, and it also hurt like hell. Through the characters, I learned what this story meant, where it had to go, and after many ice coffees and pushing through an agony I’d never experienced in writing, I took them there. I remember distinctly: In May 2011, I began to work on the ending. In July 2011, I was finished. Two months’ difference, but the person who sat down to work and the person who got up again were not the same. By the end, the characters and world were transformed, and I had gone on that journey with them. It was devastating. It was amazing.

Don’t let self-doubt stop you from getting there too.

Ilana C. Myer has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Huffington Post, and Salon. Her first novel, Last Song Before Night, an epic fantasy about poets and dark enchantments, is forthcoming from Tor in September 2015.


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