When Is Enough Enough?

When a reader finishes a published novel, there is a sense of completion, that the story has come full circle. The final page, with all that welcome white space that frees us for another book, signals: done. Yet for the person who penned the work, the end line is not so clear. The manuscript has probably been through a series of revisions, and every time numerous changes, if only word substitutions, clearly made the book better. So, for all of those who do not have a publisher’s deadline,  when do you declare finito?

For some authors, writing a gemlike solitaire is enough. Yet I raise the question because most authors I talk to say they are dreaming about their next book or have already started it. They are just waiting to put their present one to bed.

Unless you have hired an editor and believe you’re done when they’re done with the edit, the quandary of should I stay or should I go can linger. Here are a few signs you should move on.

The first is: you’re sick of the manuscript. You’ve been over and over it so many times that passages that once delighted you now seem like a homework assignment. In that frame of mind you’re not doing the book any good. Sure, you could hunt and peck for better verbs, but you still have to go through all the other text that seems just fine. While applying any time-efficiency ratio to writing is laughable (how many hours have you spent?), you may rightly feel that you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.

A more ominous sign is when you start tearing apart large pieces because you’ve seized upon a new idea that seems promising. If you’re doing that after completing your first draft, you may well have justification. If you’ve completed a third or fourth draft, you have to pull on the reins. Familiarity breeds contempt, and authors can be self-sabotaging at a certain stage. Unless you really are (all your friends and relatives and fellow workers say so) a genius, you may be taking on a gigantic amount of work that won’t, in the end, make the book much better. 

A third sign is structural. You feel uneasy about the story and decide to adopt techniques you see in best-sellers. In one common example, you start creating short-short chapters and then rewriting to create suitable cliff hanger endings for the new material. Again, you’re creating a lot of new work for yourself. Remember, all that time you’re spending is time you could be devoting to the next book. Maybe that book, because of your hard-won experience, will be better.

Exercise: If you are undecided, think globally. Don’t become mired in each sentence as you’re reviewing. Read faster, taking in the material but sticking to a resolve not to change a thing. Read only a half hour at a time, to stay fresh. You’ll find that you are retaining the gist of the chapters, and that will tell you how far you’ve come.

“I do so hate finishing books. I would like to go on with them for years.”              —Beatrix Potter

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Evening Out

The process of revision is local just the way writing the first draft is. By that I mean an author tends to write one section at a time. That makes sense, if you think about the steps required in editing. First, while reading over the manuscript, the writer perceives a problem. A solution is devised, and then the writer searches for places in the manuscript to insert the solution. Said place is found and a new patch of a few pages appears. This identification and insertion process can occur in several other places. If you leave track changes (which shows where text has been changed) running, you can see these discrete spots. Is that really enough, however, to fully bend a story arc in a new direction? 

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say a terrorist wants to blow up the New York Stock Exchange with an ammonium nitrate bomb in the climax. While reviewing the first draft, an author might like the excitement—will Sergeant Fitzgerald thwart the dastardly villain?—but realize that the bomb is sprung on the reader all at once. How do you make an ammonium nitrate bomb in the first place? So a few new scenes are written in the villain’s basement, using its rusty square sink, and voilĂ ! The villain is not only ambitious, he’s handy too.

Yet a further review of the revised manuscript shows an additional problem. The new patches are fine, but they seem to come full-blown out of nowhere. How did the villain go from grumbling at the government to handling bags of fertilizer? Why was that method chosen and what research into bomb making is done? What role does reading about past bombings play? Does the villain boast about the method to friends or as a manifesto online? 

All of the tendrils attached to a large block of text need to be considered, and more than that, further insertions that include them will help build story tension. They don’t need to be as lengthy as long as they appear regularly. You might insert into an early scene, for instance, the villain viewing an old photo of the Oklahoma City bombing and saying: Whoa, that’s what freaking fertilizer can do?

That is how a sturdy story arc is built: piece by piece all through the book. If you start small and then write increasingly longer passages, the mere length provides a building dramatic emphasis. Then readers really will be on the edge of their seat when the villain’s van turns onto Wall Street.

Exercise: New insertions can often be written independently of the existing text. Writing that way can be helpful in terms of maintaining continuity between each piece. Write out the fragmented story and then look for places to insert the blocks. You’ll usually find that only the beginning and ending of the piece has to be changed in order to align with what you already have.

“I write down portions, maybe fragments, and perhaps an imperfect view of what I'm hoping to write. Out of that, I keep trying to find exactly what I want.”          —James Salter

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Swallowing a Loss

From the grand mishmash of story threads that weave through a writer’s mind while writing a novel emerges a structure that channels these different impulses. While not every piece needs to correspond to the whole, the author needs to be wary of any tangent of significant length. That happens for various reasons, and a common one is: what is left over from a previous draft.

For the purpose of illustration, perhaps the thread metaphor should be colorized. I do that with plot charts during editing. Each major character is assigned a color so that, at a glance, I can tell when one of them has been neglected for a long time. You can also assign a color to certain character pairings: the protagonist-antagonist, protagonist-friend 1, protagonist-friend 2, etc. That way you can track how relationships build.

With such a tool in hand, you can better judge how pieces from an old draft have survived. Seeing the forest for the trees is important in this regard. If you decided after reading over a draft that you needed to add more scenes with a bereaved widow, you need to judge how episodic the new additions are. If she appears only after 40-, 60-, or 80-page gaps at a time, you know the reader isn’t going to care much about her grief. It hardly ever shows up in the book. That raises a knock-on question: what scenes still fill those blocks of text in between her appearances? 

The reason I am pointing this out is that, in my experience, authors are more willing to add new material than they are to cut existing stuff. Both are required if you’re trying to make a shift in a plot or character direction. Let’s say that the original judgment was: the story spends too much time on the widow’s life before her husband’s death. The scenes set in the past are too much of a drag on the present-day story. 

The new scenes of grief are written to push the book forward into the future. Yet if you make only faint-hearted attempts to pare down those past-marriage scenes, that remaining growth is choking out your new shoots. You have to clear more of the ground.

If you assign colors, you will see that very clearly. If the scenes with both wife and husband are red, how many of them still appear in your chart? The new scenes might be purple: the wife post-death with her daughter, say. Let’s add another decision you made: what happens between them will determine whether the wife kills herself in the ending. How well have you, the author, moved on?

Exercise: Vividness in storytelling counts. A full scene in the present contains dialogue, thoughts in the moment, etc. You can truncate those scenes you want to cut down by eliminating almost all dialogue and thoughts. Summarize them instead. Your scenes will be shorter, and they will have a more distant narrative tone.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” —Colette

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.