Writing only works if you devote yourself to it, day after day, week in and week out, month after agonizing month. You park yourself in front of the screen again and again and again, wondering every day if what you’re doing is going anywhere, or if it’s coming to anything, or if the pieces you’re punching out of the drywall will ever fit together in a shape that fits known geometries or not again. The words pour out and pour out; some days it’s all hey this is pretty fun and cool and exciting whee I’m weaving stories and making magic like a rainbow-skating elf and other days it’s like it’d be easier to self-castrate than type a single word, why do I do this to myself, I have invented a new masochism.
By necessity, I find myself not thinking about the finish too much. In the beginning it’s too far; I might as well be thinking about the end of the Trump presidency for all the good it does me to think about the end of my project today. In the middle it’s a torture — I know it’s getting closer, but like a mirage floating over the horizon, it just never seems to get any closer. And at the end, the nearness of it is distorting, like a haze of summer gnats flittering in your face — close enough to touch, yet dancing just out of reach.
Instead, I watch the ground under my feet. Follow the path where it leads, occasionally stop to check the map, and mostly just focus on not getting stuck in the mud or wandering off into the undergrowth. Think about today’s 500 words today, worry about tomorrow’s 500 words tomorrow, and as for yesterday’s 500 words? Forget them, lest ye be sucked down in the quicksand of self-satisfaction or devoured by the litera-demons that hound your every step. Eyes always ahead — but not too far ahead. Sure, there’s a prize out there in the shape of a finished story (well, “finished” is more like it — you still have to edit the thing, after all). But the real prize is another day walking the path, another day weaving stories out of nothingness, the next 500 words that you haven’t written yet.
In this way, a novel gets written. In this way, a story gets told. In this way, another 8 (or nine? or maybe ten? Who even knows, this journey warps spacetime worse than a singularity) months pass. In this way, another cast of characters struts and frets its hour upon the page.
And then, holy carp, one day you’re working away — faithfully, dutifully, painfully hammering out your daily words, when the fog lifts. The trees thin out. The mirage resolves itself.
The loose ends of the story are tying themselves into neat little knots, your word count is knocking on the door of that 85,000 mark, and you realize: it’s almost over.
On the one hand, it’s gratifying as hell — you’ve worked away these months, not knowing what, if anything, it was all going to come to, and now you can look back at the trail you’ve blazed. It was all leading somewhere, after all: to this moment, right here, this patch of virgin earth under your battered boots. The sun seems to shine a little brighter here; the rain passes a little quicker; the breeze is a little sweeter. It’s nearly over. Mission accomplished. C’est finis. (Are those even words? They feel like they might be words.)
But there’s a dissatisfaction, too; equal and opposite to the fullness of accomplishment. The story’s not done yet, not really. You’ve blazed the trail, but you have to go back and mark it out so that your readers can follow you down it. And that’s a lot of work ahead.
But more so than re-treading this trail you’ve just carved — which will be its own adventure, no doubt — is this: Here you stand, in the midst of the wilderness. The ending point for one journey. And the starting point for the next one.
Make no mistake, finishing a novel is a sweet, sweet feeling. But it’s not a fullness that lets you sit back and unbuckle your belt like you’ve just polished off five pounds of Thanksgiving turkey before you slip into a tryptophan coma. It’s a fullness that scatters like ice from the spoon (I stole that simile from somewhere, but I’ve no idea where), that leaves you hungry again the moment it clears your palate.
There are more trails to blaze, more strange and wonderful characters to meet, more dangers to face, more MacGuffins to MacGuffin.
And though this particular page may be full, you can already hear the next blank page calling.
What else can you do but answer?