My first post on this blog was about the difficulty of knowing when can you say you have really started. This is the other end of that. When will it end?!
They say (specifically, Paul Valéry says) that ‘a poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ There is always something more to be done to make it perfect, something else you can change that will improve what you have written. This is one of the benefits of a deadline, when you ultimately reach what a wise friend calls the ‘fuck it’ moment, and you just go ahead and send it off, hoping the myriad of mistakes and missed opportunities you imagine are contained within aren’t too distracting.
The real kicker is that when we think we have completed something, ‘fucked it’ and sent it off, we discover that it was only the first draft. The first friend who reads it will have a point of view about the main character, the second wont get that last bit, if you have an editor you can expect a myriad of suggestions, questions and ‘problems’ that need fixing. You might agree with them all or dismiss them all – after all you read it through like five times! But you would be a fool to do the latter without at least one revision, and if we’re being honest, more than one. A book can take any number of years to get to a point where it’s ‘done’, and only a small part of that final offering is the first hot blood straight from the writer’s heart.
And when it comes to revisions, another great line for the writers is ‘murder your darlings’*. Be prepared to be brutal to your work, even that bit you think is totally the best thing you ever wrote. In the first (few) drafts, think of ‘revision’ as a restyle not just a trim. If enough people (experienced people who know what they’re talking about, too) are telling you it needs to change or go completely – be ready for that. It’s time to kill Isaac and it’s not a test.
So we have to admit to some conflicting messages here: because you will always think your work needs more done to it, abandon it; but also make sure to listen to criticism and input, make changes even if you love what you have written, and expect to barely recognise the original draft in the last. What?
I wouldn’t be the first person to equate a writer or artist’s work with a child. And like children, a good rule of thumb is not to abandon it until it has some kind of earning potential. Some never will (sorry), but every child/book deserves the chance to try and find a life beyond the one you imagined for it – there is only so much that you can do on your own before you need the help and influence of others. You’ll always be their parent, but there will come a point where ‘it takes a village/editor’.
And when reviewing or editing your work, don’t just re-read – question, investigate and analyse. What is happening and why? Who is this person? Is it consistent? Because I am showing the value of listening to the advice of others, here is another borrowed idea from comic, Louis C.K.:
I used to describe it like the way they make samurai swords, or used to: they bang it, and fold it, then bang it again, and then they fold it and keep banging it. They pound on it and fold it, so they’re squeezing all the oxygen [out], they just keep making it perfect. So every time you think ‘I’ve got an hour [for this show],’ no, you don’t. Write another hour, and then fold it into that one. Get rid of all the impurities and all the bad stuff, and then keep doing that.
It’s always tempting just to change the odd word, move a comma, add a sentence, even. But by grabbing a weak chapter or character by the roots, by starting again with a blank page, force yourself to dig deeper. To that blank page you explain the answer to the question your editor was asking, you offer another version of the bit your friend didn’t quite get. When you first get going it’s a case of ‘write every day’. What about revision? It’s the same. Rewriting is also writing. Reviewing is also creating and developing.
Children don’t stay babies**, and when they grow and develop they become whole people of their own. They are never what their parents imagined they would be*** when they were a first draft, and although you do see some people trying to keep control of the process, making their children into that first image they had all those years ago, refusing to take advice or let anyone else have an input – they are usually producing really unhappy kids, and bringing back smallpox.
Be careful what you wish for – a child that can’t make it in the outside world alone will be living at home and you’ll be doing their laundry for the rest of their lives.
* apparently this is often attributed to William Faulkner but is more accurately the words of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. That’s a pub quiz answer for you.
** I’m not a doctor, but I googled it and I’m pretty sure this is right.
*** This time I asked my mum.