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Writing the Next Book

As a career writer with many books under my belt, one of the eternal struggles is letting go of the book that’s finished to move on to the one that isn’t.

It’s a challenge every single time—going from working on a book that’s now been through untold numbers of drafts, then developmental editing (three round), line editing, copy editing, proofreading, where each time it’s been polished a little more and a little more, and all the bits shine and intwine in just the right way, to …

The Mess.

The Mess is the raw material of the next book that the girls in the basement have handed up to me in a big bucket. It’s not at all polished; in fact, it’s the opposite of polished. It’s full of repetitive words and information and clumsy descriptions and “you know, Jane” dialogue. The theme is misshapen and overtly obvious and I certainly couldn’t go into a store and buy anything as one of these characters.

Because it’s not time yet.

I’m right there with the Mess right now.  I’m only a quarter of the way in, and until I hit that magical 30-35,000 words, I’m always feeling my way.  What does this character think? Why did I layer in that business about toads? Until I can walk around within the world I’ve created, in the skin of the people who are telling the story (I almost wrote, the characters I’ve created, but hahahaha.  I did not create them. They created themselves and then auditioned), I’m a little lost.

But the real problem is the nagging little voice that keeps saying in its sour way, “Well, this is nothing like When We Believed in Mermaids, is it?”

It’s really, really not. I am not sure exactly what it is, but I can tell you it’s not Mermaids.

Mermaids is the book that’s coming out in just three weeks. When I sat down to write it, I had just finished a gift book, The Art of Inheriting Secrets, which was a bit of a departure for me, with a puzzle at the heart of the book and an English setting. I’d just moved to a new publisher, Lake Union, and I had new everything. New editor, new systems, new ways of doing things. I adored the book and everything about it, as one does with a gift book that simply lands in one’s lap and begs to be written.

Yes, ok, I’ll do that.

When We Were Mermaids was most adamantly not a gift book. It was a challenge technically, with dual narrators and dual time lines that required switches back and forth between present tense to past tense.  (Yes, there are reasons—I didn’t make that hard choice on a whim. It solves a story problem, which is how to keep the reader oriented in time and place.) I had to do a lot of research on events in the timelines, on various occupations and hobbies, on all kinds of things.  A very important secondary character proved to be slippery and hard to know, while the main narrator was so unlike me—an ER doctor, a seriously athletic surfer, aloof—that it took a lot of time to find my way into her skin.

It made me work, that book. Work really, really hard. I then worked with an editor who pushed me harder and deeper than I think I’ve ever gone, and worked hard some more.

In the end, I fell in love with Kit as much as any character I’ve ever written. It’s also, without a doubt, one of my strongest books, at least in my opinion. Early reads seem to say the same thing, and I’m excited for it to arrive in the world.

But you know, here I am again, with a Mess on my hands. An unpolished pile of ideas and words that is still blurry to me. There’s a skein of green silk and unspun wool, and hares, and the coast of Devon, where I spent a magical week last month to do some research. It’s nothing like Mermaids, or the book before it.

Which is as it should be. No book is like any other, just as no two children, even from the same parents, even twins, are not like any other.  They may share the DNA of my voice, and the themes and issues I seem to need to write (mothers and daughters, sisters, how some people survive terrible things and other people can’t), and a certain tone or spirit, just as our children might all have blue eyes or long fingers.

To write new work over and over, one of the great tricks is mastering this process of letting go and starting afresh. It’s hard to let go of a book you’ve fallen in love with, a world you know intimately and have painstakingly built, detail by detail. It’s that much worse if you’ve been writing it for years, or even decades.

It still must be done. This week, I’ve given myself some time to really let go of Mermaids, as if I’m sending a child out into the world. She was very dear to me, and I learned a lot about myself, and I am honored that she chose me to be her facilitator. It’s time to let her find her place in the world, offer her gifts to the people who need them, take flight.

And I must shut the door and go within and day by day sort through the silk and the wool and the hares and the crashing of waves against the cliffs and listen to these people and hear what they have to say and be as faithful as I can to committing their stories to the page.  And a year from now, I’ll be mourning the requirement to part with it, and it will almost certainly be my favorite, and I’ll be staring at a big basket of stuff that I’ve been handed by the girls in the basement.

Again, I will begin.

Do you have trouble letting go of one book to start the next? Have you ever been stuck between books?  Which phase of the book is your favorite? 

Photo by Ferran Feixas [1] on Unsplash [2]

About Barbara O'Neal [3]

Barbara O'Neal [4] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [5], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [6].