You’ve published your novel. Now what?
What to do? Like a former lover who hangs around, the novel you just published won’t move quietly out of your life. I’m not talking here about the amount of time you choose to spend with it—marketing it, talking about it, thinking up ways to “get the message out” –I’m talking about how the making of it comes back to haunt you, sometimes startling you awake in the middle of the night like your “worst nightmare.”
Long after it’s bound, boxed, and warehoused, a published novel takes on a new aspect, one I associate with deeds wished undone, or, at least, done differently. Its characters flatten out into mere vestiges of their “real” selves, their voices sound tinny or hollow, harshly or barely inflected; scenes that seemed to move smoothly from start to finish, with subtexts just subtle enough to pique a reader’s continued interest, limp along, dull and over-determined; even the copyeditor’s queries, queries long-since answered, return, provoking rampages through pages of marked-up manuscript in search of this semi-colon, or that “curly quote.”
Is this just a peculiar form of buyer’s remorse? Or the standard self-doubt that plagues even the most accomplished writers? Why one experiences it and what one can do about it are, of course, related—and highly individual. Here’s what I’ve learned.
My first clue about how to live with—and survive—my discomfort came to me when a friend commented she wished I had written more about one of my secondary characters.
My first impulse was to defend what I had done. But I didn’t want to make excuses. It’s my book, after all. Instead, I asked my friend what she wanted to know about the character. As it turned out, the kinds of things she wished I had included had mainly to do with the backstory, details I had left out—deliberately—because putting them in would have drawn attention away from the main character’s development. I had made a decision—many decisions—based on the story’s direction and the main character’s development. Of course I could have written more about the character my friend liked, but that would have made it a different story. What I learned: I’d made decisions that excluded interesting details in favor of other, equally interesting details—for my character’s sake. I could—and do—live with that decision.
When another reader remarked that a scene had surprised her, that she had expected it to end differently, I asked her how she would have ended it. From that conversation, I learned that fiction, like life, almost always surprises us. Who wants to read a predictable story? Sure, we want the best outcome for the characters we like, but they—and we—don’t always get what they want, or behave the way we’d like them to behave. Why explain I had rewritten the scene countless times before I realized there was no perfect way, just the one that worked best—for the characters at that moment in the story? That the published version had been a hard choice, one I had wrestled with for days?
Why didn’t someone warn me that my old demon “When is ‘good enough’, good enough?” would return night after night to whisper, “If only you’d revised that scene one more time…”
Well, I didn’t, and now I live with the consequences, which include rereading again the scene I “should have” rewritten one last time and recognizing it for what it is: Good enough. Yes, it could have been better. It would have been different.
Nearly a year after Minerva’s Fox went into production, I am revising short stories I’ve worked on over the last ten years. In them, I’m reworking themes and characters who resemble some of the ones in the novel. However, they’re not the same. Nor am I.
The lesson here is that the fictional world derives much of its inspiration and coherence from themes, characters, and plots the writer revisits time and again, each time confronting new challenges, new puzzles. And that is more than “good enough.” It is one of the best reasons I can think of to continue to write.