10.27.2020

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.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.