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When to Stop Working on Your Book

Before publishing his new novel Mule, novelist Tony D’Souza made the toughest decision a writer ever has to make. He stopped working on a novel after years of work and started from scratch with a new book.

In a short essay, D’Souza explained why he made this difficult decision, offering some important advice for all aspiring writers. Last week the production team behind Blue Valentine optioned the movie rights to Mule.

D’Souza wrote: “The day we closed the deal on my first novel Whiteman (2006), my agent Liz Darhansoff gave me this advice, ‘Go to your room and start your next book.’ I took her up on it. I know that for many authors, the second novel is the hardest, but after a few months of failed starts, I quickly broke into the opening pages of The Konkans (2008). Having overcome the sophomore curse with relative ease, I thought the hard part of my career was behind me. What an idea!”

“Again after selling the second book, Liz’s voice was in my ear, and I drove into Central America to do some magazine freelance, and to live cheaply on my advance. I had an idea for a third book, a historical fiction about a Portuguese caravel sailing along the West Coast of Africa in 1430. It’s a subject that fascinates me; I’d spent time in West Africa and Portugal seeing the things I’d needed to write it. I began the novel in Oaxaca, then settled into it over six more months in a dumpy apartment in Nicaragua. By the time I left Central America in the spring of 2007, I had a 400 page manuscript titled Voyage of the Rosa.

“Now and again I’d be interviewed by different media, asking what I was working on, and I’d talk about the book. Unlike my first two, Voyage of the Rosa became an albatross around my neck. It required so much research, so much tracking down specific details about the ships, the sails, life in Europe and West Africa at that time. I pored over maps, translated old documents, read up on varying African empires and coastal peoples. I had to learn about swordplay, linguistics, cosmology; every aspect of that world. Every time I thought I had it right, I’d find something to refute what I’d written, and had to rework whole sections from scratch.

“I felt time trickling away, one year, another. I married in the interim; we had our first child. Still, Voyage of the Rosa wasn’t right, and making it so remained elusive. Pushing through those endless revisions was like wading through molasses. Our second child was born; The Konkans advance had long since run out, and now there were twice as many diapers to buy. Something began to tighten in my belly that I knew was panic.

“I loved the idea of the book, but by late 2009, I began to have the sense that its execution was Quixotic. What had begun as a bloody, page-turning marriage of Catch-22 and Blood Meridian had become an artistic quagmire. The book required so much line-by-line research that writing it was a herculean chore. Hanging over all of that was my suspicion that even if I finished it, no one would care. It’s not that the book is bad or unworthy. It’s simply dense and odd, and for an even smaller audience than the one I had.

“On November 7, 2009, more than two years after writing the first lines, I crossed my fingers and sent the first 150 pages to Liz. I was a wreck. Maybe it really was a masterpiece, I kept trying to convince myself as I paced and chain-smoked cigarettes. After a few days of that, her email pinged in my inbox. She’d written, “Tony, a few of us have looked at this. I’m sorry, we don’t understand why you’re on this track…”

“I showed the email to my wife, then did what I should have done some time before: I put Voyage of the Rosa down for a much deserved rest. No matter that we needed money urgently. No matter that I had slaved at it like doing lacquer-work for years. No matter that I loved it. No matter that I felt like jumping off a bridge. Voyage of the Rosa was not happening at that time, and somehow, I managed to admit it. The next evening, I wrote the opening 20 pages of my new novel Mule.

“It’s not like I haven’t put down books before. Before she agreed to take on Whiteman, Liz looked at a collection of poetry, a collection of stories, and a novel, and said no to them all. Whether she was right or not, time will tell (she’s wrong on the stories). But what was certainly right was for me to move on and work on something else. All those manuscripts, including Voyage of the Rosa, are in a drawer, biding time. In the meantime, I have other stories to tell. Sometimes the stalls need to be pulled to the side of the road not to impede the flow of traffic.”

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