The end is near (of the novel, not the world)

I’ve been working on the first draft of a new novel for slightly more than a year. Progress has been in small steps punctuated by constant breaks: My halftime job at Golden Gate Audubon gives me the rest of the week to write, but the paying work often creeps over into the unpaid work and then there are all the other interruptions of family, holidays, life.

This week, though, I’ve reached the last chapter.

Audubon work was relatively contained in June so I got on a roll. I saw the end of the book ahead of me, a long straightaway after winding through mountains. I was writing a lot! I became unusually spacey, caught up in imagined conversations between my characters while driving or taking my spin class or buying groceries. I was so distracted that I locked my keys in the car at the gym last week.


Evil zombie woman looks at her inaccessible car keys

Then Sam went backpacking for the past five days, so I had my own private writers’ retreat here at home – nothing to do but write, go to the gym, and heat up canned soup.

Yesterday I was exhilarated to reach this point. To get the whole darn thing down! To have a narrative that goes from point A to point B! To write  down on paper all the ending episodes that I’d had in my brain for months!

I had to restrain myself from posting jubilant cheers on Facebook. Huzzah huzzah huzzah! Champagne for everyone! Wait, I told myself, until you are actually done.

Today I got even closer. I started what will be the last chapter.

And now I don’t feel exhilarated at all. Quite the opposite.

I’m sad because something very sad is happening to my main characters. I’m anxious because once the first draft is done, I need to put on my critical hat and look at all the things that suck with the manuscript and make it better. I’m worried because I’m not going to have a chance to finish the draft until this weekend, when Sam will be out of town again and the post-draft letdown will really hit and I will be by myself and I will feel REALLY AWFUL.

For me, one of the necessary tasks in writing a first draft is to suspend all critical voices. Like many writers, and I suspect particularly women writers, I have a very persistent internal critic that is happy to point out every way in which my work is hackneyed, melodramatic, overwritten, predictable, boring, cliched, shallow etc. Over the years, I have gotten very good at shutting the valve on my critic while I plow through a first draft.

But then the first draft is done, and it’s time to edit and revise. I need to be critical. But there’s no halfway setting for my critic valve.

Once released, the critic blasts out with the power of a New York City fire hydrant on a hot summer day, and I’m flooded with self-loathing:

NYC hydrant, 1969

NYC hydrant, 1969

This book sucks! I can’t write decent dialogue! I’m no Virginia Woolf! I’m no Tom Wolfe! I’m not even Wolf Blitzer! This book should be flushed down the toilet before anyone can laugh at its incompetence, which is only exceeded by its hubris!

I’m worried that’s what happens next. With Sam out of town. So…

To-do list for the weekend:

Trip to Ace Hardware. Look for a Critic Wrench that can open the valve part way. A little bit at a time. Drip by drip, revision by revision.

But first, finish the book.

And second, open that champagne. Even if I’ve forgotten that I earned it.


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6 Responses to “The end is near (of the novel, not the world)”

  1. lindseycrittenden Says:

    Brava, Ilana, for this honest and funny and so so so true post. (OK, Honest and true are redundant, but hey this is a first draft comment.) So totally get the metaphor of the critic blast — the burn of that high-velocity water, the pelting of every drop, yes yes. I am so proud of you for writing your not-nearly-as-terrible-as-you-fear wonderful draft. Of course you feel loss as this first draft comes to an end. Congratulations, and absolutely break out the champagne. Although I suggest something other than canned soup to accompany.

  2. Gabriella West Says:

    Reblogged this on Gabriella West and commented:
    Reblogging from Ilana DeBare’s blog, Midlife Bat Mitzvah. Ilana is a writer whom I met in a writing workshop several years ago and her posts are so funny, revealing, and honest. This one in particular illustrates the painful lows and highs of being a writer, so I thought I would share it.

  3. edna mitchell Says:

    I share and “eat up” your self-flagellating comments about nearing the end of your first draft of the novel …. leaving behind you characters at whatever stage of life you’ve created for them…. and now to come out of the cocoon and face the uncreative part of editing, cutting, revising….. ugh! do you think Jane Austen had to do that? I believe she just let it flow — like the hydrant — picked up the wet pieces and moved on leaving her creations to the critics.

    just do it, dear, so you can move on to the next group — let these characters now (after minimal attention) cut the umbilical cord!



    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Thanks Edna! But I suspect that Austen did rewrite, although probably less than in our era of computers and even typewriters.

      It is terrifying enough to embark on writing a novel without also holding oneself to a standard of “this will be great on the first version, no need to revise.” If I thought I had to get it right on the first shot, I would scare myself away from even starting. So I vote for revision.

  4. Elaine Says:

    Good luck and yes, I know the feeling! The high followed by the low…enjoy the high, don’t worry about the low, it’s all part of the game. I’m just struggling to get back to writing habits again, work has been insane and takes so much time.

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