How to finish a novel

My novel is nearly finished. But then again it has been nearly finished for about six months. The problem isn’t that I haven’t been working on it, it’s that my definition of ‘finished’ keeps changing. The euphoria that followed that completed first draft quickly subsided with the acknowledgment that everything I had read turned out to be true; writing is re-writing. Once the first draft is complete is when the real work begins. The trouble is how to know when to stop?

There’s a film I like from a few years  ago (quick imdb search reveals it is in fact eleven years, where does the time go?) called Wonder Boys about a writing professor who is having trouble finishing his second novel. His manuscript is enormous and when asked why it’s so long he says ‘I couldn’t stop’. I know how he feels, except instead of writing more and more material I am having trouble stopping editing.

When I started the editing process I decided I would not rush, and I would not skip crucial editing in order to get it out of the door before it was ready. Having spent three years writing the first draft I didn’t want to sabotage its chances in the real world by pushing it out of the door while it was still too young and incapable of defending itself. If I was going to do this I was going to do it right. My first edit was broad, I wrote up a list of large changes that needed addressing and scribbled notes all over a print-out and then spent ages going through them all and addressing them one by one. The second pass was intended to be a more careful, line-by-line polish. Taking all the clumsy phrases and making them simpler and more powerful. The third pass was going to be a re-read to catch anything I missed. I have now essentially lost count of the edits it has gone through. I don’t think my method is methodical anymore. I seem to dip in, re-write a few sentences that seem like they need re-writing and the save it and walk away with the impression that the whole thing needs re-writing. I did a full manuscript search for the most over-used words in writing and spent a lot of time re-phrasing sentences where they appeared.

There is a danger of over-editing. Of taking that initial shapeless lump of words and refining and refining until there is nothing left. The funny thing is I’m not even sure I really believe in perfection, or in the value of something well-polished. One of my favourite musicians is Tom Waits and his songs would be worse off if he was a better singer. Some things need to be a little rough around the edges. Some things are better for it.

I spent hours, literally hours, trying to work out if one sentence was better phrased one way or another. Both correct sentences, both with words used precisely, unambiguous meaning and clear simplicity. I guess the truth is a sentence like that can go either way, and the important thing is to just pick one and move on. Same with the whole novel. I made a point of trying to plot it well, to write it well, to make it involving and interesting. I spent a lot of time working on it and I could spend a lot more time working on it, but at some point I’m going to hit diminishing returns and start making it worse rather than better.

So interestingly enough while I was writing this post I have been tabbing backwards and forwards between this and my manuscript and I finished the bit that I was working on; the last thing on my list of things that needed fixing. So I think it is finished. Not finished-finished. Finished enough to send it out to agents.

As a small aside my wife just walked in so I told her the good news about the novel being finished and she said ‘again?’

2 thoughts on “How to finish a novel

  1. Great post! I am currently living with this very affliction. No matter how many times I think my novel is done, I find something to fix. If I don’t stop second guessing myself it will remain in flux. Part of me wonders if I keep editing because I’m terrified to let people read it. That inner critic of mine keeps whispering “What if it sucks?” Editing makes it feel like I’m being productive and justifies my belief that its not ready. We both know that’s not the truth. Its ready and I have to let it go.

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