This is what happens AFTER you write the next book.

You have days of euphoria. No one save for a few people who you love and trust and who probably love you a little too much to objectively read the drafts of your next book, are even aware that you have finally completed the new manuscript.

Those first days can best be compared to some really good flirting with a make-out session – light make-out – the one where you have EVERYTHING to look forward to and you know it and enjoy the feeling.

When you cannot stand it a moment longer, you consummate the relationship by reading the manuscript yet again, the one that you have been working on for a year, the one you have (or so you thought) picked apart with a fine tooth comb, because you are not amiss to criticism and re-writes – as a matter of fact you actually enjoy pulling it all apart and putting it back together – and that is when you see IT.  The thing that was bugging you, that you just couldn’t figure out, the thing you would have changed if you had caught it in the first 100 readings.  So you e-mail your agent and you tell her to disregard an entire paragraph, no, on second thought, the page, no wait, maybe that chapter.  Ah, whatever, maybe even that character.

You’ve done it.  You have slept with the object of your affection and let’s just say there is no basking in this afterglow.  This is the kind of sex where you realize it’s a mistake before the last grunt and then everything gets real quiet.  Horror movie quiet.

What’s wrong here is that you have done this before and so you figured, like that damn bike riding analogy, you would get back on the computer and do it all again.  You already had what you imagined to be a fully fleshed out idea for the next book while you were editing your first book – so there were a few plot points and sub plots to work out – but you basically had IT, right?

You had it until you pulled apart all three hundred and eighty pages (too long, WAY too long, you now see) and they are strewn all over your office.  Everything is BAD.  The only character you even like is a minor one but the rest are just a lot of whining annoying creations of your mind (what DOES your mind look like anyhow?  A preschool for adults)? This makes you shiver in disgust.   You don’t even need to hear from your agent – you know this is one great big pile of stink.

E-mail to agent: disregard the entire book.  Shred it.  I’m starting over.  Then you begin to eat.  You fall into a total funk.  You are an AAA Super Bitch to everyone in your family and your friends think you left town without a forwarding address.  Forget your “virtual” family – you have abandoned everyone.

When your sweatpants are too tight you start to take long walks and on those walks you play the old game of what –if.  The entire book changes.  You salvage no characters save the setting.  You begin again.  You try and tell yourself that you hear the whispers of another set of characters.  You even tell other people this phrase thinking it makes you sound like a working writer.  Meanwhile, you are still visiting book groups, plugging away at everything promotional for the book you DID manage to publish.  You listen to people gush over the characters in that book and all the while you think: I WILL NEVER DO THIS AGAIN.  When they earnestly ask if you have another book coming out you stammer through some nonsense.  In a panic you leave every single book group with the thought: THIS WAS A FLUKE.

The second try manuscript:  This book has major flaws in plot and pacing but the words look really pretty on the page.  You can craft a sentence like nobody’s business.  Except the sentences don’t make a cohesive book.  You send it anyway to your agent because you are in love with the writing.

This time there isn’t that celebratory rush, no flirting occurs and even your most loyal readers are finding it hard to believe a major plot point.  I don’t have to explain to you what I mean when I say the book was three hundred plus pages of SWISS CHEESE.

When your agent calls you say: I know, before she even gets past the pleasantries.  You go back and forth a bit.   She is a wise and insightful woman, a careful editor, she knows what makes a story tick and she knows how to get that story out of you.  You and she have been through a lot.  A book you both loved that sold and then didn’t and then the subsequent success of the following book leading to your first major sale.  She tells you to figure out what the real story is you are trying to tell and before she hangs up the phone she tells you she believes in you.  She knows you can do it.

You lack that same confidence.  You take to your couch where you watch The Food Network, and multiple episodes of The Gilmore Girls.  On alternate days you have elaborate fantasies where you live in Stars Hollow and you are pals with Lorelai and Rory or you are best friends with Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa and work as her helper in her stunning Hamptons kitchen.  This is the only creative part of your brain that is working.

You go to the library and come home with a stack of books.  It takes about a week but you chuck three quarters of them across the room until you get to the bottom of the pile.  There is a book of short stories so exquisitely rendered you cry after the first reading.  On the second reading you are taking notes on structure, on the third, voice, on the fourth, story.   You don’t even think about what you are doing anymore.  A first line comes into your head.  You know who is speaking.  You know the story and you know who wants to tell the story and it begins all over again just like that.

Months and months fly by, you are consumed by the book and the characters and your fingers are flying across the keyboard and you get that same feeling you had the first time when you got it right: it’s like taking dictation.  Your characters know what they want and how to say it and you are the conduit.  When you have to engage in real life because you have children and a husband you are scribbling notes constantly – you have wads of notes all over the house, in the kitchen and the bathroom in every pocket of every sweater and jacket, stuck to door-frames and the dog leash.  When you walk the dog you talk to her about the book.  You appear insane.  Your clothes are spotted and your hair is wild. You are in it and there is no turning back and suddenly everything is making sense again.

You tighten, you polish, you read and re-read and you become a very selfish person this time – but you have to be – the work demands that and when it is finally ready to send out into the world you feel differently than before.  You have taken some narrative chances but you think it pays off.  You will be able to defend it if necessary.   With dread you approach the manuscript again after you have sent it out to the agent. You re-read it.  You take your time.  You get to the end and you cry.

And you think, for the first time in a long time: it doesn’t suck.  And you wait, calmly, quietly, dare I say, even happily?  You wait.  And this time it’s okay.

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ROBIN ANTALEK is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins2010). The Summer We Fell Apart was featured as a Target Breakout Book in 2010 and was published in Turkey by Artemis Seveler in 2011. Robin's short fiction has appeared in Fifty-Two Short Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, among others. She was a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Short Fiction as well as a two time finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters and Short Fiction Contests. She is also a regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. For news and updates: www.robinantalek.com or Robin Antalek on Facebook.

43 responses to “Writing Your Next Book is Like 
Bad Sex”

  1. Matt says:

    Damn, Robin. Sorry to hear that it’s been such a struggle.

    This might explain why, after having so much fun writing my first novel, I haven’t much wanted to anything with it…feeling more than a little ambivalent about it, in fact. I haven’t even finished typing the whole thing out yet; the final third section is handwritten in my notebook (I shudder to think what comparison this might have to sexual relations!).

    Guess I’ve turned out to be that guy who promised he’d call, but never actually did…

    • Distance is a good thing… something will make you get that novel out of a drawer one day.. whether you still like it or not is entirely another! Which ever way it goes — you did it once — you will do it again. That’s something about writers — we are gluttons for punishment. Then you can come and purge it all on TNB!

  2. J.E. Fishman says:

    What is it about us writers, anyway? Do you think investment bankers torture themselves thusly over every zillion-dollar deal? Do butchers worry for days about how they trimmed the chops?

    And the sad thing is, Robin, every word you wrote is true. On the other hand, it ends in exhilaration, doesn’t it? Maybe not so sad after all.

    • Writers are indeed odd creatures who can agonize like no other….. and I love your butcher analogy. I suppose one of the reasons I wrote this piece is because there seems to be this notion that selling the first book will make the subsequent book easier — whether easier is in the selling or the writing is up for debate. Before TSWFA I’d written three full manuscripts, one that sold and then the deal unraveled. I went on to write TSWFA — and that was the book I was meant to write and have published — I believe that — what I didn’t expect was to psych myself out writing the next book. But you are right — it is exhilarating when you get it right. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for the world — which means I’ll be doing it again. Fingers crossed.

  3. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Let’s start with the good news. You’re done–and you’re pleased with it. Congratulations!

    I’m about 70% through the first draft of my second novel. Most of it is solid–and I know it. But that which is not….I shudder in horror of what is ahead for me. I tend to be a tight writer who revises very little. However, #2 has moments of pure sloppiness and glaring gaps in continuity. It’s enough to make me lose sleep, which sometimes it does.

    Dear [deity of choice]: Please let the third one be easier.

    • Thanks so much, Ronlyn. I am thrilled to hear you are almost done with your second novel! If you need a support group to get you through… feel free to vent my way. I’m pulling for you…. we are expert at torturing ourselves in this lonely profession. Good thing we have all those imaginary friends keeping us company in our misery.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        If I ranted now, I would merely sound disgruntled–as opposed to psychotic, which is how things were for most of the years I’ve been working on this novel. Unfortunately, the imaginary friends have been the source of some of my misery. This hasn’t been an easy book at all.

        Thanks for the vent offer. Right back at you!

        Can’t wait to hear when you have that next book sold!

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Oh thank goodness! A post from you!
    I have loved all the comments you have left for us the last few months – but they have simply been teasers – and now here’s the real thing!
    Oh my. You write of the anxiety and exhileration and abject depression so well, Robin! I always find it so easy to immerse myself in your words.
    I am in the process of writing my first book and have just sent the first 50,000 words to an agent. He came back with some great suggestions but I have to say, the task that I am now presented with (in pulling it apart and trying to figure out how to put it back together again) is daunting. I know I will do it – it just looks like a mountain right now.
    And you know, reading your words encourages me no end. It is always such a comfort(sorry!) to know that I am not the only person who doubts myself and wrestles with the story and the characters and words as if I were in a boxing ring.
    I’m so glad you are back. And I know your next book will be golden. You are fabulous, Ms. Antalek, just fabulous.

    • Zara, Zara, Zara! Lovely Zara! Having read your beautiful, heartbreaking posts I look so forward to reading your book! You will tackle the mountain, Zara. In doing so, may you find the wonder in your story. There will be self-doubt and fear and depression along the way… it is inevitable. But it will be the thrill in telling that story that is so unique to you that will keep you going. And then there will be magic, I know it.

  5. Greg Olear says:

    If you haven’t spent a good year writing a 100k-word novel that is a complete and total piece of shit, and that you keep locked in a drawer and hope no one ever reads, you’re not a writer.

    Maybe that’s too general, but you get the idea. I’ve done that. Michael Chabon did that. Steve Almond did that. It happens. It’s part of the masochistic act we call novelwriting.

    I’m psyched for your new book, which I’ve no doubt will be amazing. And I’m glad you’re back with a new post!

    Oh, and I really did laugh out loud at your title.

    • Having spent my “pre-published” years writing three books that reside snugly in the bottom of a drawer, I totally agree. They were my MFA program from pile of crap university to which I will now add the two post published attempts. Make no mistake these will be the papers I bequeath to said university upon my demise.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the title — it seemed very Olear-like.

  6. Quenby Moone says:

    Let me say this: what a RELIEF. Christ, here I am fluffing and folding and avoiding and skimming and skimping on writing, and I feel like I’m not really writing because IT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE A BOOK. It’s a bunch of words–I don’t even know if they’re good words–which strung together are a series of thoughts. A book? No. It is not.

    I always want to look into the minds of other people doing what I’m doing, suspecting it looks much tidier in their brains than in mine. So your scattered notes and frivolities like Gilmore Girls makes me THRILLED OUT OF MY MIND. Because I’m nothing if not frivolous, and my notes aren’t scattered in pockets, they’re scattered in my brain which is worse. But at least they have kindred notes in some other writer’s room, and those notes found meaning in something that looks a lot like a book at the end; maybe my messy notes will meet a similar destiny.

    Thanks, Robin, for giving me a room with a view…very much like my own.

    • Oh Quenby…. your wonderful frivolous mind has turned out some pretty spectacular TNB pieces… there is beauty and truth in your scattered notes. It’s nice to have company in this insane pursuit, isn’t it?

  7. I have spots on my clothes and my hair’s a mess. Thanks for making me feel less crazy.

  8. This kind of crazy has its perks… doesn’t it?

  9. Erika Rae says:

    Spoke to my soul, this one. Thanks, Robin, for helping me to feel just a little more…normal?

    • Isn’t it lovely how we writers have mutated the definition of normal to suit our needs? Yes Erika, you and I and all our TNB friends, we are all very, very, normal. Repeat that in times of extreme stress.

  10. Irene Zion says:

    The way I hear it, it’s always this way if you really care about what you write.
    So happy you reached the place you needed to go.

  11. jmblaine says:

    If you look
    the Stars Hollow
    is the same
    they used
    The Dukes of Hazzard.

    Luke’s = Rheubottoms.

    That’s really
    the kind of book
    I could write
    which is either sad
    or happy.
    I can’t figure.

    The Last Grunt.

    what a perfect title

  12. Reno j. Romero says:


    wow. what a very honest write. loved it and i think i learned a few things here. writing…what a racket. but you do it well and with a sense of humor which i like. thanks for the morning read, robin.

  13. Writers feel terribly alone… but we truly never are. That might be the creepiest statement I have ever written… but I think you know what I mean! Good to hear from you again!

  14. dwoz says:

    You know you’re reading truth when you come across a line like “this doesn’t suck.”

    It’s interesting to me that I cannot as a “writer” think about my writing in any terms other than “the Suck continuum.”

    In other words, I have no idea whatsoever whether something I’ve written has any kind of goodness in it, but I am capable of judging how much “suck” is in it.

    This even works in comparative exercises, when I go into a bookstore or library and start randomly reading other books, to get a sense of how my writing stacks up.

    I can never bring myself to think it’s good, but I can recognize when it doesn’t suck.

  15. A friend of a friend wrote a memoir about her experiences after Hurricane Katrina. The title: Plenty Enough Suck To Go Around. I think about this title every time I measure my work on the suck-o-meter. I think it’s because I am too afraid to ever admit that anything could be good enough. Secretly, even, I will think to myself how my work rates on the scale of suck. You are not alone.

  16. Jessica Blau says:

    This is great Robin! Love the emails to the agent!

  17. Simon Smithson says:

    I think I need a cigarette.

  18. D.R. Haney says:

    Hey, at least you managed to finish a draft, and then another. I’m still struggling to make a proper beginning with my proposed next novel. I thought I’d made a beginning a number of times, only to discover that I was back to square one. And so I remain.

    Damn you, Robin Antalek. Damn all you writers who aren’t stuck at square one.

    • dwoz says:

      Funny thing about square one.

      No matter how many steps forward you sense yourself making, square one follows right behind like a non-housebroken puppy with absolutely nothing else better to do in the world, and is always only ONE step back.

  19. Duke, it’s been too long!

    I’ve built a village out of square one. Let not this breezy tone and self mocking fool you. I nearly went crazy over my inability to get out of my own way. And I’m sure it’s only the beginning… I may feel good about this book.. but the jury is still out on everyone else.

    You’ll do it again, Duke. You will. We pathological writers seem unable to stop.

  20. Kimberly says:

    Christ, Robin.

    I know exactly how you feel. EXACTLY.

    But I, unlike you, have never been able to oh-so-eloquently script it.

    And for that, to me, you are a goddess.

    • Oh how I’ve missed you! I’m not sure about the goddess designation… but I’m thrilled that you are here!
      A year ago this month we met at the TNB reading @ Happy Ending Lounge… what a year it has been for us all….

      • Kimberly says:

        Robin, Robin, Robin!!

        I do remember our winter rendezvous last year! As much as being down in Florida has been good for so many things, leaving my charge of the TNB reading series was definitely one of the most painful casualties!

        I’m not so sure I’ll always remember to let go of the ledge, but perhaps we can try and remind each other as frequently as possible!! xo

  21. Meg Worden says:

    Robin, Thanks for saying all of this outloud. It’s an addiction, a compulsion, the victory and the misery of a perspective that can shift daily…and all while trying to maintain a consistent front for the kids! Writing is such joyful and angst-y self torture. I’m in a huge push-pull with it now. Hating it and wanting to throw it all away…missing and grieving it before it’s gone, knowing I can never fully let it go. Ugh…

    Loved this piece, your eloquence, honesty, humor and flair.
    That we are not so alone is always a relief to remember.

  22. Sara Habein says:

    So true, all of it.

    Well, I don’t yet have an agent or a published novel, but THE FEEEEEEELINGS, man. The Feelings. I’m with you.

    Especially on the wandering crazy in sweatpants.

    • Sweatpants and crazy go hand in hand. You don’t have to be published to have these feelings.. believe me.. I was a nut years ago before the agent and book number one. My day job was PR and radio scripts for a business network. They handed me a dictionary of financial terms my first day on the job. I might as well have been writing in German. At night I would go home and craft stories for fun and dream of the day when I was “published” as if that would automatically make me a “professional” writer. You know, the kind that doesn’t struggle! If you find the unicorn — you will find that writer. Until then we live in the world of angst. Just know you have company.

  23. Ah, Meg, I feel for you to be in the midst of it all. It is so true what you have said… how we miss and grieve the work before it’s even gone. And still, it is never over. Damn. There have been times in my life when I have actually thought law school ( entertained for a millisecond when a professor told me if I wanted to argue professionally I could get paid for it) would have been a relief from the process of writing. The writing always wins out — even when it smells like the bottom of a hamster cage that needs to be cleaned. Even then.

    Good luck — and be kind to yourself. The life of a writer is a long string of fragile moments.

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