How To Tell When Your Novel Is Finished

Copyright

 

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

Fail Better

Originally published on Swirl and Thread as part of #IrishWritersWed

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“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Westward Ho – Samuel Beckett

 Full disclosure: I’ve never even read Beckett.   However I am a sucker for inspirational quotes (if only I could remember them!). I immediately pinned this one, in the hope that through some kind of Pinterest osmosis (Pinmosis, if you will) Beckett’s greatness would somehow rub off on me. A cursory glance shows it to be an insightful, motivational line that suggests perseverance will result in success. Look a little closer, however, and you will see that this statement isn’t so happy-clappy. It doesn’t mention a thing about succeeding.   What it’s really saying is: Trying is failing and success is willing to fail, over and over again. What can I say; us Irish are a pessimistic lot!   But there’s an authenticity there, the kind you don’t often hear in our goal-driven, success-obsessed and competitive society.

“In order to do something well, we must first be willing to do it badly.”

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

I think we all like the idea of being a writer, but the reality involves staring down your inadequacies (or at least pretending not to see them) and not crumbling at the first sign of how crap your writing is. People assume they can just sit down and start writing a brilliant novel.   But like that ill-judged skiing holiday, where you assumed that the sport involved nothing more than launching yourself down a slope and letting momentum do all the work, it’s not that simple. And like skiing, the biggest challenge is taking the risk to look like a complete eejit in the hope that eventually you’ll look like less of an eejit. Oh I know us writers must sound like such moaning Michaels. ‘Writing is SO hard!’ we lament, while onlookers observe that we’re not curing cancer but whinging about a career choice we could just as easily have chosen not to do. But that’s what is so hard. Nobody gives a shit if you write that book or not.   Just like nobody on your skiing holiday really cares if you make it down that mountain (well, except for maybe your family who are waiting at the bottom, wondering if they’ll now have to perform a sky burial). But essentially, no-one gives a shit, only you.   So yes, writing is hard because it’s so easy to give up.

Read the rest of the article here

In the meantime, both of my novels are available in eBook and paperback.