Even a Pro Throws a Party at the End of a War (Celebrate Your Finish Lines)

Is it better to dive right into the next project, or better to take a break? Can we do both? | lucyflint.com

There's a popular bit of writing advice out there that goes like this:

As soon as you've finished writing one story, start the next one.

Emphasis on: As soon as.

I think it was Trollope who modeled this, at least in what gets quoted to me. He had a quota of words to write each day, and if two of them were The End, then the next ones went right into a beginning.

I think that's admirable, in some ways. Impressive.

But much as I admire that kind of productivity, I've stopped wanting to emulate it. 

Momentum is important. Discipline is important. I'm a big fan of both.

But I just don't believe that we have to start a new project immediately.

In other words: Take a break, for goodness' sake! 

We can be professional-minded and still take a break, right? Of course we can! Because we want a sustainable writing practice, right?

Sustainability. It's my best friend when it comes to writing.

So this is what I've learned I need, after a storm of drafting:

1. Acknowledgment. 

I need to look myself in the eye--yes, literally, I do involve a mirror--and congratulate myself.

Creating a story out of your brain? Writing the whole thing down? Thousands and thousands of words? That's amazing. That's still amazing.

So whether I'm finishing a third draft or a first one, I think it's still important to take a huge breath and say: We did it! The characters and me! We wrote that thing!

2. Rest.

Literally. I try to catch up on sleep, if I've been staying up late to get it done.

But also, there are muscles involved with all that writing! It's easy to forget, when you're trying to keep Mr. Evil from destroying the planet, and at the same time, you're feeding clever lines to your Protagonist, and oh yes, also keeping all your details accurate for the secret lab underground.

But all that sitting and typing, or writing by hand--it takes its toll. You've got back muscles and neck muscles, bones and ligaments and things!

The body needs to recover too, and probably could take a bit of extra love. Maybe even a chiropractor.

And maybe some exercise. Some long walks in the park. (I do, after all, rely on some chocolate to get the writing done. A bit of movement is a good idea to balance all that!)

3. Human beings.

In the last stretches of a draft, I am at my least least least social. I become, necessarily, less available to the people around me, as the people in my head demand more time and space. 

Between projects, then, is when I love to catch up with friends, spend time with family, and be super-intentional about relationships. 

So I take some time to shed the writer-recluse habit. I schedule coffee dates, I Skype with my nieces and nephew more, I reconnect with the people I love. 

4. Replenishing.

Right after finishing a draft, I'm my least creative self. I have trouble completing the most simple sentences, or making any decisions at all. 

Why? Because I worked every single brain cell. Every last shred of mental energy has gone right into the draft.

Which means: The imagination needs some mega input.

I try to take a few days to intentionally browse new books, to visit museums, to wander around in new places.

I need to get back into the real world for a little bit. To be surrounded by real colors, real sounds, real textures.

It's dangerous for us to live in a world of text for too long. We need to remember that there are actually three dimensions.

We need to observe real life, and oh yeah, to live real life too.

5. And then yes, a bit of a party.

Completing a piece of writing warrants a celebration. No matter how short it is, how long it took you, how wretched this draft might be: if you've gotten to the end, you celebrate. Period.

Whether that means telling your dog you're brilliant (which it already knew) and treating yourself to a cupcake, or whether you get some champagne and caviar, or whether you have writing buddies over for coffee and cake--it's up to you.

But you deserve a celebration. Finishing a piece of work--sending a poem out, shipping a novel to beta readers, completing an essay--it's a BIG DEAL.

It should be.

I used to argue with myself about this. (Sad, but true.) I used to insist that finishing a piece was just part of the job. And if I wanted to be a professional, then it was all in a day's work. (See: Anthony Trollope.

I used to tell myself that to get all excited about it meant that I was an amateur, and just playing at it. That celebrations weren't the mark of a pro.

But I've totally changed my mind.

This is what I've learned: You fight a lot of battles, getting a story onto a page.

Internal battles, external battles, time management battles, word-craft battles, no-one-understands-what-I-do battles, this-is-taking-FOREVER battles.

It's work. A lot of work.

And getting to the end means that you've won this particular war, this war of finishing a piece of art.

And that means: You do a bit of dancing, a bit of crowing, a bit of cupcake-eating.

Sure, you'll start your next project soon. Of course, you're a professional. And nope, you won't let your writer abilities get dusty. You won't forget how to do this. 

But first you'll have this little party, this celebration.

Replenish what's been depleted, stretch what's been strained, stock up on what you need, take a deep breath.

And then--buoyed by the success, and cheered by declaring it good--then you can dive in to the next one.

What to do after finishing a novel

It's kind of like the moment when you realize you need a new haircut--like, yesterday. Or when you discover you're ravenous, and should have eaten an hour ago. When cabin fever strikes, and you needed to take a trip last week, probably. That mad-urgent feeling. You know what I mean?

Well, there comes a point in writing a story when I need to be DONE. 

I can never quite predict what that point will be. I make these wonderful, sensible schedules; and then life happens and shakes 'em up a bit. I readjust my schedules, I get back to a slightly more aggressive plan to make up for lost time; life interrupts again. I back off, I slow down, I reevaluate.

And then I wake up one morning and say: I don't care how many pages are left. What, 60? 70? Pfft. I have today free. LET'S DO THIS.

It's the drafting marathon. That's how I closed out Book Two, and that's how I closed out Book Three: last Tuesday, I worked from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., cranked out 65 pages, and yup, finished the book.

I slept in the next day, patted myself on the back a lot, and then contracted a serious case of NOW WHAT.

You have to give drafts room--a lot of room--to breathe, before you go back in and start revising. What to do in the in-between time? 

I've heard of very clever writers who crank out a mini-project before coming back to their major projects. Well done is what I have to say to them. That's a tempting option, but I don't have another project that close to being draftable, and besides, I'm practicing being Not Crazy.

I'm finally gonna keep things simple, so instead, my in-between list looks more like this:

1) Type in the draft, for starters! Lament the state of wrists and penmanship. 

2) Embark on a course of light, easy reading. Time to kick back, yes? Select something fun and beachy to start: Anna Karenina. (Although I have to say, the knees on that cover are giving me FITS. Cover design, people. Cover design.)

3) Sign up for a green smoothie challenge! 30 days of green smoothies. Because eating habits during the second half of a draft... not pretty.

4) And on that note: Realize how much sitting has happened. SO MUCH SITTING. Start a new workout routine. 

5) Maybe two. It was really a lot of sitting.

6) Go full throttle in the kitchen. I mean, all out crazy town. If you're not on your feet for three hours, you're not even trying. Reconnect with your love of good eating--I mean good cooking.  

7) And then make more lists!! Places to go! Things to do! Dust bunnies to vacuum! Closets to reorganize! Those file cabinets won't index themselves! 

Seriously, it's funny what I can find time for, without a draft breathing on my brain.

Oh, and hi, 2015. It's good to be here.

How to survive the end of a novel.

I finish up a novel in the same way that someone else might fling herself off a cliff. (Like in BASE jumping, not like suicide. Not being morbid here.) I make a mad dash for it, and suddenly find myself in midair, no friction, no traction, no story, no nothing.

And apparently we're done.

I finished this wonderful sequel project last Tuesday at 2:00 a.m. I wrote 53 pages by hand, and then just kind of fell over.

(Okay, first I did an ecstatic little happy dance. The last paragraphs felt perfect; there was a breath-stealing twist at the ending; and hopefully it catapults the reader right into the next book. So dance I did. But then I fell over.)

For the next two days, I went back and forth, from feeling brilliant to feeling like a vegetable. Moments of bright conversation where I felt all verbal and warm and quippy, and then the next moment, I couldn't really remember my name or why I had walked into the room.

Writing withdrawal

I never handle the end of a draft with any real grace. I have lovely intentions: I wanted to declutter my office area, clearing psychological (as well as actual) space for the next book project. I wanted to catch up on all the correspondence and errands and undone things... everything I'd just forgotten about in the last two weeks of racing toward the end.

And I wanted to do a lot of confetti-tossing, a lot of balloon-gazing, a lot of party-party-party.

Instead I sort of floated around, jellyfish style. I stared at things, and not in a meaningful way but in an I-hope-I'm-not-actually-drooling way.

Maybe I'd burned myself out a bit? Who am I kidding. Of course I was burnt out. 

But the thing is, I've trained this funny brain of mine to invent fictions. And it's going to keep doing that, whether I'm writing a novel at the moment or not.

Frankly? My real life is fraught with enough at the moment that I don't need to be asking what if through each day. I'm full up on real conflict, real stakes, real characters, real risk. But still my brain spins.

So it's time to get back to work. Honestly, that wasn't much of a break: I had dreamed of a lot more Champagne and a lot less catching up the laundry. But I can't let myself invent any more scenarios for what could go wrong. If I'm going to be inventing, I need to put all that craziness into the next project.

Besides, I've already made an exciting little multi-colored chart. (And I cannot say no to the exciting little multi-colored chart.) If I'm very, very good, and eat all of my vegetables, and stretch well before each session, I just might finish book three in time for Christmas.


I might be escaping reality a tiny bit, by jumping back into my story world again. Or maybe I'm just that fish on the dock, leaping back into water so she can breathe again. Either way, the beginning of book three is in my fingertips, or at the very least, it's right around my knuckles.

So this week I'll be catching story ideas, feeding the bears, freewriting, daydreaming. And drafting starts again next Monday.

I think it all comes down to this: You survive the end of a novel by starting the next one.

What to expect when you're expecting a book.

So I'm between projects. 

And in between projects? I forget how to work on projects. Between drafts, I forget how to draft. Between books, I forget just how big and comprehensive a book is.

What do you even call that? Work amnesia? I have work amnesia.

I finished my last draft on the 23rd; I'll be starting my next project's first draft on the 15th. 

Are interims ever comfortable? 

The super-nice thing is that I'll be writing the sequel to the first project. (Ooh! Sequel! I've never done a sequel before. I'm having a writer-geek moment. ... ... ... Okay. Done.)

So even though I'm between projects, the conveyor belt of my imagination is still moving forward, pulling in ideas and images, and treasure-hunting in the attic of all my old unused concepts. 

I'm brushing off my "idea files," which have been passively gathering ideas for years. They're like handy little rain buckets. I've been slowly filling them with ideas for names, characters, situations, settings, and images--all unconnected to any particular project.

So as I get ready for this next book, I'm wading through all those words, pulling out the ones that sound and feel right.

All this to say, it feels mysterious, this part of the process. It makes me jittery, edgy, excited. I've never been pregnant in my body, but I've been pregnant in my mind many times, ready to birth a book. And it's an uncomfortable, nervous, bloated, strange, giddy sort of experience.

Not easy. Not straightforward or simple. Definitely messy.

But it's also one of the reasons why I write. I can never be certain what's going to appear in my mind for a story. Every character, every scene, every story has the capacity to surprise and move me.

Oh the unpredictability. It snags my heart every time.

So I'm getting excited for you, oh sequel of mine. I'm decorating the nursery--ahem, I mean the office. I'm pulling out the colors and characters and ideas that I think you'll like. I'll make all my funny faces at you, and I'll sing you crazy lullabies. And we'll figure this out.

Because we always grow up a bit together, these projects and me.

What about you--what are you up to? What projects are you facing? What's incubating in those sticky, in-between stages of development? Uncertainty loves company: let me know what's up in the comments.