“THE END”…and the Mourning After

Ask any writer how writing a novel or screenplay can take over your life.

Once, I wrote a research-intensive novel in six months on a publisher’s deadline, start to finish.  The Between, my first novel, took a year.  My Soul to Keep took two.

Writing a novel is more than sitting at a computer to type words on a page:  It’s bringing a world, and the people who populate it, roaring to life.  Since I don’t have a beach house or a wintry mountain cabin retreat, I create soundtracks that help me fall into the world quickly, and that music truly does seem to take me somewhere far away.

When things are really working, it’s very much like Alice’s rabbit hole.

I see the scenes unfold.  I hear the characters talking to me, even when I wish they’d shut up and leave me alone.  I shed tears when I prick pain hidden in the imaginary world of my story.

I love my novels, or I wouldn’t have made the commitment to begin the journey—but there’s always a point when the project fills me with terror.  At any time, especially before the all-important midway point, a long project seems to threaten to disintegrate into nothing but lost months and a failed project.  (Since I’ve been a professional writer, I’ve only started one novel I never finished…100 pages that ended up forgotten in a drawer.  It can happen.  Luckily, it wasn’t under contract!)

Then, one day, the magical day arrives…and you type the words THE END.

It’s an amazing feeling.  A whole section of my brain empties out.  Celebration!

Except….what fills up the hole my project made?

Last week, I sent my editor the fourth installment of my African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep—this one entitled My Soul to Take (Fall, 2011).

My Soul to Keep was published in 1997

The summer was a brutal rush.  The last two or three weeks were particularly hard, since I could see the finish line:  To bed late, up early.  Glazed eyes when I talked to my husband and 6-year-old son, since I was nowhere near them.  My soundtrack of operatic climax music blasting in the house all day long, and in my headphones until late at night.

Then…silence.  Waiting.  And a palpable sense of loss.

Now I miss the novel.  Badly.  I’ve been harassing my editor and advance readers, champing at the bit to jump in and start editing so I can visit the world again.  I’ll have a couple more chances to live in the novel before it goes to press…but one day soon, I’ll be cast out for good.  And no editing will replicate the feeling of creating the scenes for the first time.

I’ve been through this cycle again and again, and it never seems to get any easier.  The empty feeling always takes me a little bit by surprise.

I mean, sheesh, it’s not like they’re real people!

But to writers, our characters are absolutely real.  We can touch the worlds we create.  Screenplays are even worse, because so few movies make it to the screen—at least I’ll see my novel in a book store one day!  I could self-publish if I had to….but how many of us will go out and make our own movies?

As days go on, the ghosts in my head will be replaced by daily living concerns.  And I’m lucky to be co-authoring a zombie novel called Devil’s Wake with my husband, STEVEN BARNES, that is well underway…so at least I have a new creative home to move into.  All I need is a soundtrack.

But the only thing as hard as dreaming a world is leaving that world behind.


Filed under On writing

9 responses to ““THE END”…and the Mourning After

  1. Tamika/Zeporah

    Madame Due,

    May I ask what ever came of the movie of My Soul to Keep? I and several friends checked a website and saw the beginning of what we thought was going to be a sell out at the box office. Photos of actual Ethiopian burial grounds, snippets of the handsome Blair Underwood whom we thought was excellent to play Dawit. And then there was none. OMG!
    I searched and searched until I came to understand that maybe I was just asking for too much. Maybe your editor wasn’t with you on that project. Just astral projecting! (sigh)… Hope some day it comes to life on screen.
    Your sister and fan,
    Zeporah Due
    Tamika Nurradin!

    • **sigh** *It is a long, sad story. My Soul to Keep has been in development at Fox Searchlight for about seven years, I think. Blair shot that footage in Lalibela to help get it set up, but the movie has never gotten past the script stage. When there is news, I’ll shout if from the rooftops!

  2. Deacon

    Thanks for the info I will just keep typing away 😉

  3. Krishan

    I never thought about the separation anxiety authors must go through. To editors, they just seem picky but their probably mourning. (Smile)

    How do you pick the music you write to?

    • Hi, Krishan! I choose my writing soundtracks based on a FEELING they create. For My Soul to Take, there are literal end-of-the-world concerns, so the music on my soundtrack is very over-the-top, i.e. O Fortuna (a veteran of many soundtracks, most people know it without realizing it), It’s the End of the World as We Know it (R.E.M.), Lacrymosa (Mozart), themes from 28 DAYS LATER, and a BUNCH of stuff from Nine Inch Nails (The Day the World Went Away, Beside You in Time, Demon Seed), etc. On the uplifting side, I have Des’ree’s You Gotta Be, Soweto Gospel Choir’s Forever Young. Unlike with the Tennyson Hardwick novels, however, I don’t think I’ll try to publish this soundtrack with the book. The personal mood it created for me probably wouldn’t map over the same way for readers…and there are sooooo many songs that could have worked.

  4. Chip Armstrong

    You captured the essence of the emotional roller-coaster ride of writing. Congrats on finishing the fourth novel in your series! I can’t wait to read it.

  5. Valencia

    I am SO excited about this book. I can’t get enough of this story. I have read a few of your other books multiple times trying to fill my time until something new arrives. I can absolutely imagine how empty you feel when you are finished. Oh, how I loathe sitting behind a desk, manipulating spreadsheets instead of being able to create entirely new worlds. I love what you do and truly appreciate how you do it!

  6. “I’ve been through this cycle again and again, and it never seems to get any easier. The empty feeling always takes me a little bit by surprise.”

    Aieee! I suspected it never gets easier — I just got back into my third and am at that happy honeymoon where there’s so much to do that if I get bored in one chapter I can leap to another and go back and figure out why the other one bored me and fix it. But I was stunned at how visceral the sense of loss was when I finished the last draft of the first, turned it in, and even the characters told me to get lost.

    I was happy to have the second to leap into as I reminded myself I was just rejoining the party 20 years later, and it was all fun, and hi, and where have you been until that one was done, and had to be sent out alone into the world…

    Now I know how parents feel when their kids grow up — thank God I don’t have any, I don’t think I could bear that! 😉 Though at least kids write or call every now and then. If I wasn’t working on the third novel, I’d never hear from any of these bums… 😉 Until they wanted another story told.

  7. Terri F. Couts

    Dear tananarive,

    Your characters are alive to we readers also. Thanks for your wonderful stories. just finished “Joplins Ghost”. loved it. Thanks for the education. Keep writing! Would love a movie based on the Immortals (With Blair of course!)

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