When is a book finished?

As I type this, the Ms. of my adult novel is slowly seeping out of my computer into the world wide web, from whence it will be retrieved rather more quickly by my agent’s broadband connection. In the old Amstrad days, it would have taken me at least two days to print out an Ms. this long, and I would then have to photocopy it before posting, as two copies were required. Today I generally send one paper copy of the first draft and later, revised versions by e-mail. No wonder my local post office is closing down. (Sending books by attachment is actually a pain if you’re a Mac user, like me, as different people find different formats incompatible – but that’s another, frankly rather boring story).

Ping. There it went. I’ve been working on this novel, on and off, for more years than I care to remember. I thought I’d finally cracked it a year ago, when it was enthusiastically taken on by the first agent to read the whole thing (I use a different, specialist children’s books agent for my YA fiction). However it quickly became apparent that I’d screwed up the second half. The ending was too clever by half. So it’s taken me several months to come up with a more satisfying new one. I then had to rewrite the rest of the book to take account of the new ending, and, in doing so, found a whole bunch of other things to improve. Then I needed somebody to cast a fresh eye over the new version, make sure it worked (thanks, Georgina) and do another rewrite in the light of her comments.

Is the book finished now? Not really. Presuming a publisher eventually accepts it, an editor and a sub-editor will each want to have their say. (I’m told that adult publishers don’t have time for the editorial process any more, hence agents have to do more. However, for the moment, I’m assuming this is an ugly rumour. I like being edited. Writers have to be humble, to accept any help that will improve their work. And at the end of the process, we get all the credit.) But I’ve done all I can to it. The more often you rewrite, the longer the gap between drafts has to be, or you can’t see the thing fresh. Some writers are said to have become too baggy since the advent of the word processor. I’m old enough to have written my first two novels before I got a computer and, for me, ease of redrafting has had the opposite effect. I keep cutting. My novels are liable to end up too short. You could fit my last eight novels into a copy of HP Sauce And The Secret Of Fried Eggs.

This afternoon, I’m doing the last tweaks on Denial, my next Young Adult novel. I’ve been at this book so long that my editor has, first, been promoted, then left the publisher for a more senior post. She’s done a terrific job, but, at first, we nearly fell out over the ending. I agreed to take another look at it. The original ending was strong, very effective, but possibly (as with the adult novel) a bit too clever-clever. It was one of those endings that forced you to go back and reread the whole book in a different light, like my favourite YA novel, Robert Cormier’s I Am The Cheese. The teenagers who read it loved it, but the publishers weren’t happy – they thought it might get them (and me) into a lot of trouble (I tend to gravitate towards the edge of trouble: my publishers and agents tend to keep me from falling off it).

I showed the third major version of Denial to a child counsellor, who told me that I’d got the aspect the publishers didn’t like spot on, but another aspect wasn’t psychologically convincing. I went at it all over again. I’ve spent most of this year rewriting Denial and I’ve done a fifth, more minor rewrite in the last fortnight, based on my departing editor’s comments. All I have to do is press ‘save’ and ‘send’ then I can get it off my back – perhaps for good (depending on whether the new editor wants any changes). But I can’t do that until I’ve reread the new ending and not needed to change a single word. This is my writer’s dictum. When is a book finished? Only when you can look at it with a cold eye and not find a single thing that needs improving.

Wish me luck as I cast my jaded eye over the epilogue one more time.

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