Monday, 22 December 2014

Finishing a Book

When is a book finished? Now, I'm sure some people may think that a silly question. After all, I'm an author. If I don't know the answer, there's not much hope for me, right? Yet I don't think the answer is as obvious as it may seem. When you reach "the end", it may only be the end of the beginning. Integral to the process of writing a book is the process of revision. And that can sometimes seem an endless task.

I've "finished" two books lately, one a novel, one a non-fiction book, not to mention a handful of short stories. But I always find it rather difficult to let go, knowing that more work can, almost always, improve a piece of writing. There have to be limits, though, otherwise one would never get anything published.

My latest novel, another Lake District Mystery, is a book I'm excited about, because I feel it's the best in the series to date. Its provisional title is The Dungeon House. Yet there is always the temptation to refine a manuscript, searching for a bit more insight into character and setting, maybe one or two pithier phrases or metaphors. All the more so with a book that (as mine tend to do) has quite a large cast of characters. How can I make it easier for readers to follow what is going on, without making it too easy and the puzzles too obvious? Every day fresh ideas spring to mind. But you have to draw a line somewhere.

The same is true of The Golden Age of Murder. With non-fiction, the challenge is different but equally real. There is always more information to be discovered, more source material to find. This is a book which covers a huge amount of ground, and it is in the nature of such a book that there are gaps. I'm limited by the scope of my own reading - so why not spend more time reading around the subject, before finally sending off the manuscript? There is always more to learn...

Up to a point, such anxieties are reasonable, but any author needs to come to terms with the limits of what is realistically achievable. My answer to the question about when a book is finished is this. When I feel confident enough for readers to see it, and that is when I feel that, despite any imperfections that may remain, it's as good as I can make it within a reasonable period of time. In the end, an author does need to be willing to let go, and face up to the judgment of readers, recognising that it's impossible to please everyone. We strive, as writers, for perfection, knowing that we can never truly attain it. But if we do our best to entertain and, perhaps, inform, that's a job worth doing. And with the next book, the challenge is to make the end product even better....

4 comments:

R.T. said...

I look forward to The Dungeon House -- what an irresistible title!

As I try to impress upon students in college writing classes, revision can be (should be) a necessarily endless process; students resist revision (most student writers revise nothing), and they have no idea why I call the process "necessarily endless." (That is one of the reasons my writing never gets off my desk and into the mail -- the revisions never end.)

But you as a writer must understand. And the question then becomes this:

How do you reconcile yourself to doing no more revisions and sending the book off into the marketplace?

It must be a very difficult untying of the aprons strings when you have completed your final revisions. But if you had opportunities to revise for reprintings, would you seize the opportunity?

All the best -- and Merry Christmas -- from the Redneck Riviera of the United States, the storm-battered area of the world where the tarnished buckle of the Bible Belt still shines, and where the oysters are almost always fresh and delicious . . . R.T.

Christine said...

Interesting post, Martin. In my own case I tend to think I have finished and give it to some trusted friends to read. That's usually when I find it needs one more draft.

Martin Edwards said...

Tim, many thanks. Glad you like the titles, and these are very good points. As for revision - yes, if I had the chance to write a 'second edition' of some books, after a lapes of time, then I'd probably grab it...

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Chrissie, that's one route I've not tried. Yet.