The Latin word for threshold is limen. Liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stages of rites of passage, when one is no longer the status they were before the rite began, but is not yet the status they will hold once they’ve completed the process.
I’m about to leave for the Bold Strokes Book UK Writing Festival, and transitions and thresholds have been on my mind a lot lately. My last book, The Unwanted, came out in 2014, and I’ve been lingering in the threshold between books ever since.
What have I done while hanging out in this in-between? Well, I’ve written three novels, believe it or not. I keep having to remind myself of that fact. One of them I’ve set aside because it wasn’t working. (Unfortunately, it was the planned sequel to The Unwanted, and I’d been working on it for about three years.) Another is a hastily written, partially completed first draft that I blazed through for NaNoWriMo while in a fit of frustration over the aforementioned Unwanted sequel. And then there’s the third one, which is what I’m currently working on. I wrote it in 2013 as my thesis for graduate school, then revised it through the first half of 2014 to get it ready for graduation. (Surprise! I passed.)
At the moment, I’m working on revising it again. I’m drafting a nearly completely new middle third for it, and that’s making me move with slow deliberation, since I’m mentally holding the threads from the first and third acts and hoping I don’t drop any of them while trying to connect them through the second act.
My first book took eight years to write. My second book, about four years. I figured I had learned how to write a book, basically, and that each successive novel would take a comparatively shorter time to draft.
My error was in assuming that I had learned how to write books, plural. In hindsight, the process of writing each book taught me how to write that book only. They’re never the same, as far as I can tell. Some stories may come easily for whatever reason. Others will keep me up at night and make me question whether I’m really cut out for this.
And all the time, in the background: more ideas, crowding for attention. There’s a short story with a hamhanded ending that really wants to be a novel. There’s an idea for a YA speculative fiction book that hit me while driving past a self-storage facility. And there’s a middle grade book about a used bookstore, a magic map and interplanetary travel that I started in grad school and that my prof encouraged me to finish.
It’s funny how, when you’re slogging through a difficult phase of a project, the shiny new ideas (and a few old ones) start clamoring for attention. It would be so easy for me to give in to their distraction, because doing that would also get me out of this extremely uncomfortable spot where I’m neither in one place nor the other. But hanging out in that threshold is tough, and necessary.
When I’m in this transition phase, though, there’s not much to talk about with readers. This is kind of a problem when it comes to, well, not being forgotten. There are only so many times I can say, on my blog or social media, “still revising the novel!” before even I become bored with myself. Sure, I can resurface older work and ask “hey, did you ever see…?” but that too becomes, well, old. As much as I don’t want readers to forget about my work, I also want to give readers a reason to remember it and be excited about the next book.
So what do I do in this situation? I fall back to my default mode: be relentlessly helpful. Or funny. Or try to be both.
Because I’m also a teacher, I tend to share things I’ve learned about writing along the way. (Mostly, it’s a sort of cautionary tale: “I made these mistakes so you don’t have to!”) Because I’m also a reader as well as a writer, I talk about other writers’ books that I’m really, really jazzed about. For example, right now I’m reading An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and it is insanely good. I’m also reading Binti Home by Nnedi Okorafor because the first book in the series, Binti, was an amazing trip. I just picked up a book called The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden because I read the first page and was hooked. And I’m really (REALLY) looking forward to ‘Nathan Burgoine’s Of Echoes Born and Exit Plans for Teenage Freaks, both coming out this year because the man is a well-oiled fiction-writing machine.
I’m pretty sure the oil in this instance is tea, by the way.
In the meantime, I’m learning to make peace with my pace. Despite my original training and education in journalism, where writing on deadline is second nature, I’ve never been a fast writer. As a result, I think these gaps between books will always be there.
And that’s where you’ll find me, in the gaps, writing as fast as I can.