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How To Tell When Your Novel Is Finished

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Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Leonardo da Vinci

Creativity is something that refuses to be measured by calendars; laughs at deadlines and always begs the question, ‘Could I make this better?’  Leonardo is right, at some point you just have to walk away, but how do you know when that is?

As many of you will know, because I keep harping on about it, my new novel The Story Collector will be published next year by Urbane Publications (woohoo!)  Yes, I’m still woohooing and plan to woohoo for some time to come.  Anyway, I’ve been working on this book, on and off, for about 18 months.  In my eyes, it was ready.  It’s been alpha read, beta read, edited and all that remained was a final proof read.  Or so I thought.

I joked with my publisher that, bar any new characters coming along and upsetting things, I should have the final draft in by our agreed deadline.  Well guess what?  A new character came along!  Well, not entirely new, but she was minor at best.  All of a sudden, she has loads to say and to my amazement, lifts the whole story an extra notch.  How did this happen?!  I often find myself writing about the creative process and how so much of what we do is fumbling in the dark, while equally holding on to the belief that we are being guided.  The original idea takes a perilous journey through countless drafts and rewrites, and much of the final touches are finding your way back to where you started.

I also paint and the process is exactly the same.  You have an idea in your head and from the moment you start putting that idea on the canvas/page, you are on a voyage to get back to that original idea.  You get led astray, fall down rabbit holes, become distracted by plots, deceived by characters.  The only way you can see the work clearly is to stand back from the canvas.  That is when you realise that you’re lacking depth, or that you need more highlighting, or perhaps the balance of the piece is leading the eye in the wrong direction.  So you get back in there; darken here, lighten there, until it’s time to step back again and repeat the process all over again.

When I first heard the phrase ‘Kill your darlings’, I thought I was going to have to bump off one of my favourite characters.  Then I realised that it was those lines, paragraphs, or entire chapters that you have an irrational attachment to and can’t bear to cut, no matter how much they are dragging the rest of the story down.  I’ve been revising the first three chapters (which are really crucial for capturing your reader’s attention) and paring back anything unnecessary.  With each sweep, I’m losing more and more of the writing I thought was important, but turned out to be superfluous.  My job at this point is to make it easy for the reader to slip into the story and want to continue reading.

So how do you know when you’re at the end?  When you’ve given your novel all that you can?  Is it when you can’t bear looking at it anymore?  Or is it when you’ve pushed past that point and begun to see your novel as your future readers will?

George Saunders, author of Lincoln In The Bardo, wrote about this process in a recent article for The Guardian

You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.

I wholeheartedly subscribe to Saunders’ idea of revising yourself up and never underestimating your audience or your ability.  As Leonardo points out, there is never really complete satisfaction, but when you can walk away knowing that you’ve given more than you thought you could, that’s a good day’s work.

The Story Collector – Coming June 2018

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