by Wendy Hornsby
The deadline approached, and the book wasn’t quite finished. I had made steady progress through the summer and was in sight of typing The End, until the new college semester began – long days, big classes, papers to grade, office hours to keep, lectures to prepare. I miscalculated my stores of both time and energy. When I knew I wouldn’t make D-Day, my editor at Perseverance Press, Meredith Phillips, gave me a two-week extension.
Writing the last chapters of a book always feels to me something like riding rapids toward a great cascading waterfall and then, by grasping together all the threads of the story, landing safely instead of going over in a freefall. It would be lovely to make that trip in one long uninterrupted run, but the reality is that life hits the pause button at regular intervals, interrupting the flow, as it were.
Every writer who has a day job juggles work, family, writing. We can’t drop any of those balls, but we can from time to time elevate the priority of one or the other. With finishing the book now my top priority, my husband Paul, my head cheerleader, took on all of the household chores, freeing me when I was at home to focus on the book.
By five every morning I was ensconced in front of my computer, polishing and fixing what had been written the day before and then moving forward with new pages, getting in a few hours of work before my first class of the day. After school, changed into favorite sweats, fueled by Diet Coke, it was back to the computer to work until Paul rang the dinner gong, maybe four hours later.
After a glass of wine – okay, two – a lovely meal, some Rick Steves and John Stewart on DVR, followed by a discussion of Paul’s notes on the day’s pages – he is always my first and best reader – we usually called the day finished, though sometimes I spent another hour or two in front of the computer to work through a problem.
Soon that daily drill became a routine. Even a weekend trip toSt. Louis for Bouchercon didn’t interrupt the flow. Indeed, what better way to spend time waiting at a departure gate or buckled into an airplane seat than working on the adventures of a gaggle of fictional characters? And how lovely it was to see the sun rise over the Mississippi every morning.
The book, at last, was mailed. I was still upright and in my office working by five every morning. Not to write, but to finish marking a set of essays that my students were eager for.
By midweek, the essays had been returned. So, why was I still up before dawn and in my office in front of the computer? I had nothing so pressing that I couldn’t sleep for another hour then linger over the paper, maybe do the Sudoku. Eat breakfast facing Paul instead of a monitor. But I couldn’t. I felt that there was something urgent to be done. Why was I still feeling pressure?
Letdown. Post-book letdown.
It happens every time. The elation of finishing the book is coupled with the despair of leaving an adventure and its fictional people behind. Writing is a pleasure for me. By the time the book is finished, I have spent months with a cast of made-up characters, hearing them talk – not actually, but actually literally – sending them into action, feeling their pain, racing them toward a conclusion and a deadline, and then…? They are in the mail. Gone. I miss them. I miss telling their story.
Nineteenth century satirist and cartoonist Honoré Daumier referred to the “feu de composition”, the fire of composition. Trust me, it takes a while to put out the fire once stoked.
So, while I could sleep in, what had been a routine became a habit. This historical novel that I’ve had to put aside to finish the mystery won’t write itself. There is another set of fictional characters waiting for a voice. And an invitation to submit a short story.
And the dawn through my office window is so lovely.