A writing friend has just finished the main work on her second novel, in the week that her first has been published. Yes, there'll be more work to do, but it is the beginning of the end. And yet, she says, she doesn't feel elated but very low indeed at the prospect of starting novel number Three.
It's obvious that after the long haul of a novel you'll need a break, a rest, some refuelling, and so the obvious answer is, 'Well don't start it yet.' Even if the next book's under contract it's better to have some breathing space. But that's not all it is. Finishing the book may have been your great goal of the last few weeks and months, you may have a list of jobs and treats as long as your arm for the great day when it's done, but when you actually get there, there can be a huge sense of loss, as blank and draughty as a field when the circus has left town. Now there's a writing-struggling-swearing-sticking-obsessive-compulsive shaped hole in your life, where the old novel was. Filling it with a new book isn't the answer: what you're missing is the old one. It is, if you like, a period of mourning. And, as many people know, when you're mourning something the last thing you want to do is replace it.
There's something else going on, though, I think. Having your first novel published is the moment when you realise that perhaps you are an author: until now you've been a writer, since a writer is someone who writes. Even if you're nowhere near earning your living by it, even if you haven't got a contract to fulfil, an author is a professional, and writing is your job: you've just proved it by finishing Two. And now you'll be writing Three, won't you. Everyone, from your agent to your mother, assumes that you will. Dammit, you assume that you will: isn't that what you spent so many years, so many evenings, so much angst and so many SAE-clad rejections, trying to make happen? All that only makes sense if you get on with Three. It may not be a contract with a publisher, but it is a kind of contract with yourself and your world.
Only you don't have to: nobody's making you do it. You don't have to write another word ever again. If you don't, the world will keep turning, the stars will hold to their courses, and the traffic jams on the M25 won't alter by so much as a car. More to the point, you will still be you. If you'd rather, you can go and get a job in the supermarket to pay the bills, and never have to re-write Chapter Seventeen ever again. Even if you're under contract for the next book you can pay back the advance, and you're free forever.
No? Didn't think so. Did anyone say 'obsessive compulsive?'...