Friday, November 5, 2010

End-of-Book Rituals

I would be the first to admit that I have a few quirks, but I like to think that most of them are harmless. One that I have learned to live with is my end-of-book ritual simply because this is a compulsion I can’t control.

Whenever I finish a book, as I just have, I know that it is really done because I throw myself into this ritual. I no longer want to read the manuscript over again and again, find something to fix, improve, change for the sake of changing. Instead, I have an uncontrollable need to clean up my office, and this means going through drawers, files, shelves in the closet, to pull out old notes and articles and whatever other paper I can find to recycle. I’m not happy until I have at least one paper bag stuffed full of paper, and I usually need at least two bags to feel I’ve done my duty and satisfied this demonic drive.

If you were to ask me (and please don’t), I’d have to say that I have no idea where all this paper comes from. (And we’re going to be a paperless society? But that’s another topic.) But I sure have a lot of it, and some of it is years old. How did I miss it the last time I did this? I finish a book at least every two years, but the paper keeps piling up—reviews of books I mean to read, recipes I want to try, articles I’m sure I can’t live without or promised to send to a friend, old research notes and cryptic notes to myself.

I wish I could say I was at least methodical about this, but I’m not. I just start rifling through the first pile of paper I come to, perhaps the one crushing the basket where I keep the mail (yes, that’s another story), or the one underneath my notebook on the current mystery novel, or the one on the windowsill that’s been great insulation against the drafty sash during the winter months. Sometimes I start going through my desk drawers, and that of course leads to old manuscripts I set aside when I became convinced the story wasn’t working (and then that leads to . . . and that’s yet another story).

My ritual is harmless, good for the environment, and probably good for my soul. Other writers have other rituals—going out for a celebratory drink that might last for days, emerging from the writing room to meet children who have grown six inches, eating that rotten apple hidden in the desk drawer. I have a friend who didn’t pay bills for three months, and whose desk was such a mess that she had to take bills and checkbook to a restaurant to find a table to work on in order to pay everything.

My writing rituals are as important to me as any of those created to mark the major turning points in a person’s life—birth, marriage, death, and all the other significant steps along the way. The rituals of beginning, stages of the work, and the ending tell me that I’m moving along, and sometimes are expressed in an instinctive way before I realize consciously, fully, where I am, or that I’ve reached the next stage. At the halfway point in a book I suddenly feel like I’m leaning over a precipice and go through an automatic review of where my characters are, as though they too are hanging off a precipice (as indeed some of them are).

I know these moments are coming, wait for them, expect them, and move through them because they tell me that the book is moving along as it should—they are the current of the ocean I sail on. And because such stages can’t be forced, nor can my feelings about them be concealed or denied, I know the book is progressing the way it should. The ritual is the manifestation of my deeper feeling of the life of the story.

Right now, a large paper bag stuffed with all sorts of paper is sitting out on the sidewalk waiting for the recycling pickup, and I am free to contemplate my next writing project, knowing that the initiating ritual will overtake me before I have made a conscious decision to begin. But that’s another story.

Final Payment, the next book in the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva, is now sitting on an editor’s desk, waiting for a yea or nay.


  1. Sure hope it's a thumbs up for the next Joe Silva/Mellingham book. Love the series!

  2. Hi Susan .. I know clearing things out to start again is so therapeutic .. I haven't written a book - but I can 'see' your office and the piles .. I'd want to keep them - but I guess we all have to chuck the paper stuff sometime!

    I'm going to read your Hindi one now .. looks good .. thanks - good to meet you .. Hilary

  3. Susan - Ed Gorman sent me over here from his blog, and I can see I have another new (to me) blog to shortcut on my task bar, along with a new crime series to check out.

    Thanks for sharing that advice with us and good luck with Final Payment!