The Imago Machine (8/12/19) - On Finishing a Novel
finishing A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE, post-novel ennui, the dregs of summer, and waiting for the wheel to turn
Welcome to The Imago Machine. It is the 12th of August in 2019, and I have handed in a book.
I think I realized that the post-novel ennui (that period of time where you wander aimlessly around your domicile, being conscious but very little more, a la Mr. Earbrass of The Unstrung Harp) had truly set in when I, in the middle of Netflix-binging an extremely gritty and unpleasant true crime documentary about the pizza bomber of Erie, PA, saw a single quick shot of a rather pleasant-looking cat walk across the frame of the crime scene being filmed, and exclaimed, in tones that my wife assures me were of profound delight, oo! a KITTY!
In my limited defense, it was a nice-looking cat, and definitely nicer than the murder.
But that’s where I am right now. I wrote a book, I handed it in, and now I am watching the nastiest true crime television I can stream, and mostly thinking about kittens. Later issues of this newsletter may be erudite, lyric, or even moving. This one is fairly unvarnished. It’s basically a Dispatch from Planet Arkady. It’s weird over here, but it’s home.
I meant to finish A Desolation Called Peace, the second Teixcalaan book, the other half of Mahit’s duology — i.e. the sequel to A Memory Called Empire — back in March. Before Memory was even launched. Ah, I thought, back then in the depths of not-yet-spring, I am an educated young writer: I am well-blessed in authorial friends with more experience than I, and what is more, I have just watched my wife go through the hell of writing her second novel — and armed with this knowledge that second novels are terrible, I will be able to avoid all the pitfalls I have been told about, and I will hand in my book on time.
There’s this thing I keep saying to therapists, which tends to make them look at me with kindness and annoyance in equal measure. I say, but I know what the problem is. Why hasn’t knowing the problem made it go away? Isn’t that what this is for? Spoilers: this is not what therapy is for, and also knowing that everyone always has trouble with their second novel does not magically confer on you the ability to not, yourself, have trouble with your second novel.
I did not hand in the book in March. Or in May. Or in July, when I really really meant to, and wrote a completely absurd 25k in a week, reframed the entirety of the ending I had planned, and actually committed to paper a scene-by-scene outline of multiple chapters. Even that didn’t get me free. Desolation is a more structurally complex book than Memory, is the thing — it’s got four POVs instead of just one, and the climactic moments of each of those POV-character-arcs are cued off each other, and mirror one another. It’s the simplest things that trip me up, sometimes: it takes so damn many words to run four interlocking plotlines, and have them all go off in the right order. So I was sitting there on the morning of July 1, staring at how much more book there was in horror, and my editor and my agent took pity on me and gave me another month.
I’d told them, oh, it’s just another few thousand words til the end, I’ve got an outline and everything.
Well. 35,000 words is a ‘few thousand’ by some measure, I’m sure. Some very strange measure I was not entirely prepared to encounter.
And then, last Tuesday, I was in New York City to do a (marvelous) event with Max Gladstone at Housingworks Bookstore, and I was a scene and a half from the end, and I think I’ve never quite felt like I did that evening: glitteringly on, because the book was liquid fire in my head and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I handed it in on Wednesday morning. The thing with the kittens and the gruesome true crime ensued shortly after. It’s a good book, I think. Or will be, when my editor is done with it. I hope she doesn’t want another 40,000 words, like last time we did edits, but god knows. I underwrite, usually, by about 15-20%. No white space.
At least in this book people are slightly less sleep-deprived than they are in Memory. Slightly. I replaced the sleep deprivation with heat exhaustion, though.
So. I handed the book in, and I do have a long list of What’s Next, but: true crime. Kittens. The strange dregs of summer, when August feels like it’s gotten into your lungs and is strangling you on heat and impatience. I’m waiting on a lot, right now. Edits, of course, but also a very exciting job opportunity which is almost materialized … save for an official offer letter and thus feels like it might turn into vaporware under the August sun at any moment, just evaporate in the scorching light. Let me tell you this: my usual anxiolytics aren’t cutting it currently. Waiting is hell.
I’ve never been good at transitions. Finishing a novel is a strange and intense sort of transition — there’s a space you live in, when you’re writing a novel as intensely as I have been in the past few months, where you are living inside the structure of the story. Not exactly with the characters — they’re all still around, the imaginary people never really go away — but with the shape and weight of the object you’re building. It is the first thing I’m aware of in the morning and the last at night. And now all of that is gone, and my next project has an entirely different shape, one which is still mostly in shadows, half-reflections, pastiche and mirrors and desert-glass sparks. You’ll understand how a person can feel a little lost. A little trapped in the in-between.
I bought myself a very shiny pen as a reward, though. It’s a Pilot Namiki Falcon Extra-Fine, which I’m hoping is going to feel like writing with my favorite vintage pens does — very fine lines but wet, tons of shading and some flex in the nib — without me having to worry quite as much about what will happen if I drop it. (If I dropped one of my Eversharp Skylines I’d probably cry.) New notebook, too, for the new project. This one is gold. The pen will be black. There’s ink — Monteverde Coral, Colorverse Black Hole — and tomorrow, or maybe the next day, I’ll open the new notebook and write the name of the protagonist of the next project on the top of a page. Try out the weight of a new tongue, a new voice.
(Her name is Detective Hyacinthe Itzaso Walker, and someone his been setting fires in her city. Too many, and in the wrong places. And the winds are coming soon, and the wildfires are coming always, and who has water in this latter-day paradise of desertification? Water’s never where you want it. You pick your poison: drown or parch, and Walker chooses thirst every time. This case is no exception.)
Oh hey, free new book preview. Just for you all. Thank you for being here with me.
(If you like these, and want to get them every week after August— I’d love it if you swapped to a paid subscription. I promise not to yell about subscriptions very much, but they do help a great deal with things like ‘moving costs’ and ‘good god I’ve written two novels and most of an academic book on this laptop and it would like to be a new one now’.)
Until next week, o my friends of the newsletter. Like the sage Warren Ellis says, hang on tight.