Finishing A Book

I never finish a book.  Really. On my desk right now is the draft I’m working on,  a revision for a three-year-old book for e-publication, the edited version of a book I just sold, and page proofs on the next release. At what stage can I say “I finished my book!” (cover image of Merely Magic which started out in print, got edited and sold as an ebook, and is now back as trade paperback, which requires more promotion–a topic for another day if one doesn’t consider promo part of finishing a book.)

It’s reached the point where I can’t read the final printed product because I would still want to change things, and it would frustrate me no end that I couldn’t. Which means once I have the rights back to a book, I start whacking it to pieces before I put it out as backlist e-book. Honest, I know so much more now than I did when my books first appeared, so as far as I can see, as long as I’m learning, a book is never done.

I apparently have a control freak hiding in my brainpan somewhere.  Don’t know where the gremlin is the rest of the time because control is generally not an issue for me, but when it comes to my books…  I’m OC.

I rewrite a manuscript the entire time I’m working on the first draft, so I can’t even say when the editorial process begins.  But the torture of finishing a book—the final plod-through before turning it over to an editor—comes after I write the last word on the last page.  Sort of. At least at that point I know how the book ends so I can go back and link together all the bits and pieces that drifted from my fingers as I wrote.  At that point my creative Muse is whimpering under the bed so I turn on the editor and play with words, run spellchecks, hunt down my repetitive phrase syndrome, etc, until my Muse has slept and recovered.  I’ve never understood how other writers can whip the last smoking page off the printer and shoot the whole thing off to New York.  I wish I could. My method is more like water torture.

But the book still isn’t done after I turn it in. Even after I’ve gone through my brilliant masterpiece for the millionth time and declared it finished, my editor will return with pages of revisions notes, and I’ll rip half the scenes apart and rebuild and then go through the above process again. And again. Makes one wonder how I ever wrote those first books on a typewriter!

How do the other writers among us polish a book for editorial consumption?  Any handy tips for prying me out of my rut before I burn out all my brain cells? Any readers out there reading old backlist titles and comparing them to your favorite author’s new work? How are they holding up?

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Finishing A Book — 6 Comments

  1. Pat, I think you’ve just given me permission to do this as I start the process of collecting my short fiction for some BVC e-books. I’ve always written that way — back in college (in the typewriter days) I would write a draft, mark it up, and then just start over from scratch to write the final. I’m incapable of just retyping something without rewriting it.

    But I’ve always felt constrained in altering work once it’s appeared in print, outside of going back and taking out stupid edits that I lost the fight about when a story first came out. Now as I’m working on the collections, I’ll start reworking all those sentences that bug me.

  2. I can’t reread older work without itching to rewrite; this made it very difficult for poor Roger MacBride Allen when FoxAcre Press was trying to reissue THE DRAGON OF MISHBIL.
    The story is told of John Irving, whose novel THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP was a best seller and made into a movie starring Robin Williams. After all this, he was spotted reading the novel aloud to his children. Putting completely aside the question of whether this is appropriate fiction for the very young, he was -correcting it-, pen in hand. Right in the mass-market paperback edition!

  3. Who was it who said a poem is not so much finished as abandoned (Chesterton?) The trick is discerning the point of diminishing returns.

    There is such a thing as “good enough,” rather than “perfect.” The cost of “perfect” is the book I could be writing instead, one whose concept and basic execution reflects the writer I am NOW, not the writer I was when I began the last one.

    The idea is for each book to be better and deeper than the one before. To do that, I have to let go and move on.

    I’m a writer who had to churn out a half-dozen (or more, depending on how you count) books before I broke the publishability threshold. I can’t tell you how strong is the temptation to go back to those beginning projects. That way lies not only madness but stagnation. I repeat, “These were practice. Now go on to the best you can do with everything you learned from them.”

  4. Given time and opportunity and offer of monetary reward “G”, I will make changes to those earlier books. Readers deserve the best we are able to provide. But some of the things we did 25 years ago were perfectly respectable then and I consider them to be a trademark of that time period (although I draw the line at the dog’s POV these days), so I’m unwilling to change that old-fashioned voice.

    I guess it’s good to know that we keep learning and getting better!

  5. Oh, Ghod, don’t get me started. I almost didn’t release the one that went in to Jen this weekend. Then I realized something about it — that within that book are themes I was writing about at the beginning of my career, and am still writing about today, in different ways.

    I thought I’d left that girl behind, but I’ve carried part of her with me, after all.

    And now, one more review of the back cover before I send it to you for the big B people.