If writing a novel is like driving through Texas, then finishing a novel, it stands to reason, is like crossing the border into New Mexico. I don’t know why I always picture myself driving west. I could just as well imagine the finish line as Arkansas. It doesn’t really matter. The point is I’ve driven hundreds of miles. I’ve written a book, for crying out loud, one that didn’t exist in this world just a few months ago. New Mexico. Arkansas. I’ll take either one.
I’m tired. Exhilarated. My fingers are literally bleeding. Funny story (or sad one, depending on your point of view): the stupid backspace/delete button on my laptop broke off. Apparently I tap it a lot with my middle finger. I couldn’t figure out how to put the thing back on. Even my handyman husband couldn’t do it. So I ended up with a little knobby button and for the past few weeks I’ve been tapping the heck out of that. The problem is there are a bunch of poky wires sticking up around it. Yesterday one of those wires stabbed my fingertip. I was writing like a manic, speeding down the last leg of tumbleweed-strewn highway. New Mexico was in sight. No way was a minor injury going to stop me. Anyway, it seemed appropriate. Bleeding on my keyboard. Smudges of blood around the broken delete button. And apparently my middle finger taps the letter K a lot.
It’s great fun to finish a book. It’s also kind of anti-climactic. For a few months, you live with the characters spinning in your head. You hear snippets of dialogue in the shower. You wake up dreaming what will happen next. Then suddenly it’s over. You’ve written the last word. In this case: night. Then you close up your bloody laptop and realize your house is a disaster area. You haven’t scrubbed toilets in weeks. Your kids are really really tired of eating chocolate chip pancakes. And that used to be their favorite food. It’s time to rejoin the world of the living. The world of people who do not hear voices in their heads or scribble like maniacs on the back of grocery receipts because they just thought of a good line.
But first you must do something to celebrate. My all-time favorite finishing a book day happened last summer. I sat sniffling at my kitchen counter because I’d just written this majorly touching final scene. Oh. I was finished. My beautiful book and my sweet little characters were going off to a better place. The end. And I was home alone. With no one to tell. My husband was out of town. The kids had escaped the house and their distracted manic mother for the day. I called my neighbor. She’s a non-writer but seems to find me amusing. She came right over and she let me tell her all about it. She didn’t even seem bored. Maybe it helped that we drank a bottle of champagne.
My second favorite finishing a book day started on an airplane. I was going out of town for a writers conference. My plan was to finish the book I was working on before I left. But life intervened. I had a marathon week of writing—crazy 3000 word days and lots of chocolate chip pancakes for the kids. Still, I couldn’t finish before I left. I came to the second to last chapter and ran out of time. A non-writer may not understand how hard it is to take a break when you’re at this point in a novel. Imagine closing a book you’re reading when you’ve got ten pages left. It’s something like that, except add to it the fact that your head’s about to explode with the final scene you want to write. I took a notebook with me on the plane. I hadn’t hand-written anything in years, but as the plane took off I began to write furiously. I could feel myself nearing the end as the plane started its descent. I don’t know what my face looked like when I wrote the final word. (Yes. In case anyone is wondering) But I know what I was thinking. I was flying. I was caught between crying and laughing. I wanted to jump out of my seat and yell: Guess what, everyone on this plane, I just finished writing a freaking book! Instead I just sat there clutching my notebook. When I looked up I noticed the woman across the aisle staring at me. Her expression said it all: what the hell was that lady writing in her notebook?
A book. I wanted to tell her. But I didn’t. I just smiled. My best writing friend picked me up at the airport and we celebrated with champagne.
It’s a big deal to finish a book. It also, on many levels, I’m sad to say, means nothing. Especially when you’re plugging away as an unpublished writer. So you’ve got to take your joy where you can get it.
Here’s what I’m about to do: Clean off my bloody keyboard. And crack open a bottle of champagne. Throw out the pancake batter and broil up some steaks.
Cheers. Until January. When I have to revise this giant mess.