Sunday, September 30, 2012

How do you know when it's finished?

How Do You Know When It's Finished?

Lots of people ask me this: When you're writing a book, how do you know when it's finished?

I know partly because I plan out the final scenes ahead of time. When I get to them, the book is finished. Less flippantly, you know when you have done the job - when the character has changed in the way you think he or she should. When the plot has resolved. When the mystery has been cleared up. When the book has reached a point of joy or tragedy.

But I understand. Once you've done a first draft, gone back and revised and rewritten it, then done a third draft polishing up and editing and fixing the small stuff, and then gone back over once more just in case....

It gets hard to give the book up. You've lived with it for weeks and months. There's going to be a hole in your life now that it's done.

I heard a glurge* story on the radio once: A tourist is visiting the Vatican and gets separated from his group. He opens a door and discovers a monk leaning over a great bronze door, supported on sawhorses. The bronze shines like gold, and the monk is busy polishing it. He's down in the corner. Finally, he finishes, steps back, looks at his handiwork, smiles and nods.

Then he picks up his cloth and his bottle of polish, goes to the top of the door, and begins all over again. The tourist says, "Father, I'm sorry for interrupting, but this door is already perfect. You've got it gleaming like the sun, but you're polishing it again. How do you know when it's finished?"

And the monk says, "My son, I never finish with one. They just come and take it away."

There is such a thing as a self-defeating pursuit of perfection. You have to be both the monk and the ones who come and take the door away. When you have worked through the manuscript, get someone honest, someone you trust, to read it and give you suggestions. Then get out the cloth and the polish again. When that revision is over, get a second person to read the revised manuscript. You may need to shine up a few spots yet.

Then take the book away from yourself. Get it before the public if you're self-publishing, or to an agent or editor if you are going for traditional publication.

There will be a hole in your life, sure, but you know what?

You can fill it by beginning your next book.

Glurge: I don't know if this is widely used. On the discussion boards, a "glurge" story is one passed off as true, but one that is clearly a way of sneaking a moral lesson in. They can be saccharine. I think this one is useful, though.

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