“Mommy, Where Do Sequels Come From?”

Blog, On Writing, What I'm Thinking

Here’s a statement I never thought I’d make because it sounds so trite and ridiculous: The closest I will ever come to giving birth is to hold in my hand a copy of a novel I’ve recently published. And yes, I might be suffering from some male version of post-partum depression.

Let me explain. Many artists talk about their completed works as their children. But that’s not precisely what I mean. I’m referring to the relationship I have with something I’m writing, and the change that occurs in that relationship when the work is completed.

I spent several years working on my new novel, On the Sickle’s Edge. While I was researching and writing, the work lived within me, growing and changing as each character came into being and solidified; as each chapter wrote itself; as the details of the tale wound around my plotline and emerged as a real story. It was like a flowering plant taking root and growing inside me. When it was fully formed, I had to release it into the world. That meant accepting and living with whatever imperfections I might later find in the work.

Talking about the book while it was still in process was like talking about a fetus in utero. No one knows what the baby’s hair color will be or the shape of his or her eyes. The parents may talk to others about the baby with anticipation and love, explaining what the pregnancy feels like and their hopes for their child. They might even guess, based upon various folk superstitions, what kind of temperament their baby might have. And then comes the birth, and the baby becomes a reality, separate from the mother.

Once it’s published, a book, too, becomes something with a life of its own. The writer may be important in some sense, since he knows what he intended, just as a mother and a newborn may share a unique bond. But, just as a baby may be raised by someone other than the biological mother, a novel can be explicated by other readers, and the writer becomes in some sense unnecessary.

As a result, talking about a book still being written is easy, exciting, and very personal. I’m talking about something going on inside me. I’m fully in control, and the world I’m creating can’t be understood in any way but through discussion with me.

Then comes publication, and readers no longer need to depend on my description of what I’m writing. They can have their own personal relationship with what I’ve written. Like birth, the event is instantaneous — and it changes everything.

For the writer, it occurs the first time he stands up to talk about his creation. But he discovers, to his surprise, that he can no longer talk about the work as if it were his alone. All he can do is talk about what he intended, how he went about it, what he discovered in the process about his characters and their histories. The work now exists independent of him. He has released it like one of Billy Collins’ poems, exhorting it to go out into the world and talk to as many people as possible. It is bittersweet: he is at once proud and sad to see the magical period of creation end.

All the writer can do is wonder what to do next. “Perhaps,” he might say to himself, “this book needs a sibling…I mean a sequel.”

Then back to his desk to start work on the next one, which, like all those before it, will take on a life of its own.

Photo: ThomasLife/Flickr CC 2.0