Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Post-First Novel Syndrome

I have been observing myself and my closest writer friends for some time now (they don’t know this, but I have!) We all seem to be stuck somewhere between our second/third novel and query limbo. And we’re all suffering from similar symptoms:

- Chronic disappointment
- Cynicism
- Inability to fully engage with other works of fiction
- Indecision about what direction to take
- Apathy/dread when asked about our work
- Mood swings with regards to publishing/writing
- Loss of “innocence” and optimism

To name a few.

All of these are indicators of a malady I like to call the “Post-First Novel Syndrome” (PFNS). Just like the loss of virginity, once a writer has finished that first novel and rendered it to the world, she will never be able to go back to that innocent era of carefree writing where there weren’t enough hours in a day to complete the stories sketched in her mind. The pleasure of writing without restrictions of word count, plot structure or character arc will never come back. The second/third-novel-writer knows now that he may not be the exception (like he thought as he heard rumors about word count, POV, or other atrocities) but he could—sadly—be the rule, and there may be some validity to the advice he didn’t want to hear back when he was immersed in first-novel bliss.

Once a first novel has left the safety of a writer’s hard drive to receive feedback from critique partners and industry professionals, a shift takes place in the novice writer’s psyche. Pain, surprise, denial, embarrassment are some of the first emotions she may experience—as tender as blisters in the palm of a child’s hand after playing at the monkey bars for too long. After some time, when rejection letters start coming in and a second novel has been written, a sort of numbness sets in—the callousness of too many recesses hanging from a metal bar. Except that this callousness is not tangible. It’s embedded in our souls and in our confidence (or lack therof) as writers.

Most manuals and classes focus on getting that first novel written. They call it a big accomplishment (and it is) but I haven’t seen a lot of advice on how to continue after/if that novel doesn’t get published.

And it’s harder to write once we’ve had a bitter taste of reality.

Trying to find a solution to this common dilemma, I came across a couple of interesting articles. One blames writer inertia on fear, while this one tries to shake us all from our comfortably numb state.

As agent Rachelle Gardner states in this post, the test of persistence doesn’t come when we’re writing and revising our manuscripts. It comes when we’ve gotten 40 + rejection letters and yet we continue to polish our manuscripts, start new projects, or query more agents.

They say this is the period where most writers get weeded out.

(Not while penning their first novel, like we would like to think.) I know many people dream of writing a novel and never do it, but THOUSANDS are completing novels every year, and they’re competing against us. They’re being persistent, while we commiserate. Or research. Or take time off. Or develop our platforms.

There was a time when you would have laughed if someone suggested that you implement a writing schedule to force yourself to sit in front of the keyboard every day. (You needed a schedule for everything else you were forgetting to do while you wrote your novel!) Sadly, your new cynic self may have to trick your brain into doing just that in order to get that next project written. Back when you started writing and you relied on a dial up connection, your internet visits were short, to the point, and then you logged off to focus on your WIP. You didn’t know what blogs were and Facebook were two separate words. You were able to focus and concentrate in your story. You were so productive.

Now, as a PFNS writer, you have many good reasons for not writing:
  1. You’re doing research.
  2. You’re busy and don’t have time.
  3. You’re trying to be productive elsewhere.
  4. You need time off to think and plan your next move.
  5. You have priorities and writing is not one of them.
One of the things that helped me get out of my endless revision stage was to sit down with pony-tailed colleague and write down a list of concrete writing goals (with deadlines) for the fall.

Sample list:
  1. Send manuscript to beta readers/critique partners by X-day (whether revisions are ready or not!)
  2. Enter such and such contest on Y-day.
  3. Query 10-20 agents by Z-day.
Doing this simple exercise with someone else gives you a sense of accountability and makes you realize, after you’ve completed your short-term goals, that you are making progress in your career—even if it’s in turtle steps. Another idea is to get out of your house and go to a library and/or café to write. This prevents you from constantly checking emails or going online for research (as a historical writer, I know how important research is, but I also admit that it constantly interrupted my writing momentum.) One last, but important, tip. Stop thinking about what Mrs. Agent or Mr. Critique Partner are going to think about your writing. Write for yourself. Tell yourself “nobody else is going to read this” (because, really, nobody HAS to read it if you don’t want to.) Remind yourself that you’ll fix it later. Give yourself permission to make mistakes.

In the end, though, it all boils down to being honest with yourself. Do you really want to be a novelist? Maybe it’s an old dream and the reality of a writer’s life doesn’t excite you as it once did. And that may be fine for you. You may find another passion. After all, writing is a gamble. This is not a four-year college where you know that if you work hard, you’ll be guaranteed a degree. No guarantees here. But if you're just shutting the inner voice that keeps telling you “what if” because it’s just too difficult/painful, you are the one who’ll be miserable. It’s your dream. No one else’s.

Please share your thoughts. Do you feel drained after years of writing/querying? Have you lost your love for writing or you still haven’t found another occupation as gratifying as the written word? Do you still see scenes in your mind? Are total strangers (potential characters) talking to you?

Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb

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  1. Querida amiga,

    I have been drained, tired, lost, weak, turned around, twisted up, sad, confused, worn out, aimless and without a real plan for a long, long time. Your post has my eyes swimming.

    All I can say is I thank God for you -- the most sincere, persistent, supportive colleague a pony tail could ever ask for, curly-haired girl. See you at our next brunch.

    Forever Your S.

  2. What you're describing is the lowest point of a writer's journey, but you can only go up from there! For me, I had to start a new project to get myself out of the rut, and that project ended up being the one that landed me my agent. And I can tell when I go back to that first manuscript that I learned SO much along the way.

    Hang in there! You can do it!

    1. "Hang in there! You can do it!"

      Thanks for this! I'm glad we met this year ;)

  3. Dearest Sister Lorena,
    Sister Suze put it in such gorgeous words, I have little to add, but your support as a friend and fellow writer has kept me going.
    I may have felt drained after my first novel, but I don´t remember it. Now, I am drained because I don´t have the time to write. That is an experience you have yet to experience, lack of time to devote to your fiction. Believe me, it´s a great incentive for creating fiction.
    I have ideas and scenes galloping through my head; characters spin around my brain demanding that I make them come alive on paper. Aside from reading and good lovemaking, there is nothing as gratifying as the process of storytelling.

    1. "Aside from reading and good lovemaking, there is nothing as gratifying as the process of storytelling."

      Agreed! (But I would add a really good meal ;))

    2. I was going to put it but I didn't want to sound like a glutton!

  4. Sister Lorena,

    I think I might be one of those colleagues you've been spying on. Although I'm not directionless with my latest novel, I have had a bit of trouble figuring out how all the pieces will fit together and how to make the story believable. Because of this, I've been in a little bit of limbo with the book. But that doesn't mean I've stopped writing. I've been working on a musical in its place for the time being (although I've been working on a chapter in the last week, so I think I might be over my novel hump for the moment) and this has really helped. It's a different style of writing that focuses on pure dialogue and so cuts out prose. It's a nice respite from writing a novel.

    As to querying fatigue, I think a writer needs to take a break from time to time. He/she needs to collect herself and perhaps focus his/her attention on a new project. Rejection can really wear on a person, whether the industry realizes this or not. We all get rejected, that's just the name of the game, but the question is how does one get over being bombarded with rejections? Obsessing about a book that feels like it's going nowhere with agents can be tormenting. And who needs that? So start afresh. Like Violante, I have many stories floating around in my head and I just find it hard not to want to write those stories down. For me personally, I don't foresee myself moving on from writing. I spent years focused on other things that just weren't the proper fit for me. Writing, I believe, is.

  5. Yes. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. (even if you didn't ask that many questions! Thanks for this - I knew I wasn't alone!

  6. Great post. So glad I found it. Your symptoms are spot on. But I think you touched on the most important thing we can do and that's getting back to writing for ourself. Thanks for this reminder. I needed it!

  7. As always, you combine much-needed sympathy with a much-needed kick in the pants. Although I haven't truly completed a novel yet, I still suffer from this PFNS. At least, I have all the symptoms. A friend recently asked me the dreaded "how is your writing going?" question, and my honest answer was that I didn't have the energy to go through the crappy-writing stage anymore. I know you need to put 10,000 hours (or whatever) into a skill before you become a master of it, but it is so hard to enjoy your work when you know it's sub-par.

    Imagine being an aspiring baker, and baking 200 inedible cakes before you got to your first delicious cake. How do you stay enthused about your cake-baking? How can you enjoy making cake after cake, every day, when they keep going in the garbage? This is where I am. Somewhere between despondency and laziness. I don't really know how other people get through this phase, but I suspect you have to be a little bit deluded: you have to think you're not actually *in* a crappy-writing phase. You have to pretend this truth does not apply to you. Like you said, once you lose the innocence (or delusion) you can't really get it back. Then it's just teeth-gritting and butt-to-chair.

  8. Hi all!

    Thank you for your comments. Not the best day for me to be the writing cheerleader, but I just want to say a couple of things. Some of you (and you know who you are) are very critical of your own work (I think you're harder on yourselves than others are). To use Sister Steph's metaphor, you're throwing the cake in the trash without even trying it (when perhaps all you need is to focus on the frosting or add a couple of ingredients). In other words, send your work out. See what industry professionals say about it instead of giving it a "not good enough" label right away. (You may not like what they say, but I think it's worse not to try. Don't you?)

    Sister Mary, I like your idea of trying different types of writing. I think this is an excellent way for writers to "relax" and experiment with something new that may improve their craft.

    And former sister Suze, any curly-haired writer should have a pony-tailed colleague like you. ;)

  9. One more thing, thanks Erica for coming back. We've missed you and Christy!

    And Ruth, I'm glad you found us too! Welcome!!

  10. I do get that drained, sad, this-is-never-going-anywhere feeling. But you're right. Making goals helps HUGELY. I can't say how much the online writing community has encouraged me. Twitter friends--especially the #wipmadness crowd--help me maintain my goals each week, even if they're small, even if they're "Having just finished my novel and feeling drained, I'm going to take a short break this week and fill my creative well by going for a new walk each day."

    Goals are pretty key, imo. Good post!

    1. Hi Lora! Now you've made me curious about the wipmadness crowd. Can you tell me more about them and how it works?

  11. Oh can I understand this! I finished my first novel and it's in querying stage. Now, my second novel is just...annoying. The rejections hurt, sure, but you move on. It's that inability to write at times that's even more painful. But we must beat on, right?


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