Sunday, 1 July 2012

Finishing Things

So last week I ‘finished’ my latest book. It’s a young adult novel about a girl who can find lost things and the search for a mythical forgotten city with a beating stone heart said to hold the key to immortality. Also, man-eating gargoyles.

I’m not very good at finishing things, so getting to the point when I can bear to stop messing around with a book is a cause for celebration. Oscar Wilde once said: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

That’s me—staring at the same page for hours, trying to think up a more evocative way of saying ‘she walked to the door’. And then the dawning realisation that this is the most boring sentence known to mankind (no matter whether she walks, stumbles, or minces) and it needs to die.

At the other end of the spectrum, I see loads of writers who type ‘the end’ and think they’re done. But on top of the four months I spend writing a first draft, I need another three to get my manuscript into a state suitable for inflicting upon others. Sometimes longer (and sometimes an eternity would not be enough. Zombie poodles? What was I thinking?).

One of the most stressful periods of my life was writing up my PhD thesis ridiculously quickly so that I could start a new job (and get paid!). I still cringe when I think of how much better (and shorter) it could have been if I'd been able to go through it a few more times and make some changes. But when my examiners failed to mention what I thought was a declaration of war against the English language, I realised that sometimes my endless faffing actually acheives very little. I suppose there's a balance between getting something right and attempting to polish it to such a high shine that you scrub so hard its bones start to poke through the skin.

So here is how I know when to stop:

Do I have enough distance from the project to see all its faults?
When you’re looking at the same thing day in, day out, it is hard to be objective. But take a break and let the project simmer in its own juices and suddenly all the flaws become all too apparent. Hitting send on that submission the moment you write the last word is not a good idea.

Am I too attached to my precious words to do what’s necessary?
If a character or scene or sentence isn’t adding anything to the plot it needs to go. Yeah, I might think the idea is awesome but others won't be so impressed with my self-indulgence.

Have I read it and re-read it and removed the majority of the errors?
My Achilles heel is typing ‘that’ instead of ‘than’. And how ever many times I read something, I will always manage to find one that I’ve missed. The odd mistake is one thing. But it annoys me no end when I hear fiction writers say something along the lines of ‘I’m rubbish at grammar and can’t be bothered to learn, but that’s an editor’s job anyway’. Great way to make a professional first impression.

Am I happy with it?
Chances are, if an agent or publisher takes it on they are going to request tonnes of revisions but that's not a good excuse for not making something the best you can. Competition to be published is huge and submitting something with obvious flaws or plot holes is a terrible idea (and I say this from past experience. Oh the shame).

Once I am satisfied with these questions, it is time to let go and move on to something new! Hopefully that something new will include finding time to post science-related articles on this blog...