Monday, 8 November 2010

Where to draw the line?


When is a book finished? Does this seem like a silly question? It certainly vexes me, and I suspect it vexes some other authors too.

A case in point. I’ve just finished work on The Hanging Wood, the fifth Lake District Mystery – hurrah! It is in good enough shape for it to be sent to my agent for assessment. (She earlier looked at a portion of the first draft.) But within an hour of my sending it to her, another idea occurred to me. A small point which I felt would improve the book.

This happens all the time. I keep thinking of ways to make a book better. Worst of all, when I am unwise enough to re-read my early efforts, I have lots of ideas as to how I could have improved them! But the fact is, you have to draw a line somewhere. There is some scope, though limited, to revise bits during the publishing process. But in due course, you have to say, ‘That is it.’

My ideal, I guess, would in theory be to have enough time to put a manuscript away for a few weeks, look at it again with fresh eyes, then put it away again, revise again, and so on, perhaps half a dozen times. But this is not possible. Deadlines keep looming, other projects crop up. Making any artistic work does involve some element of selection, and sooner or later every creative artist, however humble their efforts, has to say to himself or herself that it’s time to let go. Not easy, though!

15 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - I empathise. I cringe when I think of the ways I could have made my work better before it got published. I believe it's possible to overdo the editing urge until it stops being productive. You are right that it's not easy, though.

I try to look at it this way (although perhaps it's a rarioanlisation). No work is perfect, no matter who goes over it how many times. Some tiny bit of imperfection can make a work more "alive," anyway.

And I am very much looking forward to The Hanging Wood.

Mason Canyon said...

Congratulations on finishing The Hanging Wood. I can see where you could keep coming up with new little bits of items to add if you didn't make yourself stop.

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

seana said...

It's funny, but I just read a portion of a book called Becoming Animal by a man named David Abram. He was commenting on a related phenomenon. He said that when he had finished a piece of writing and had sent it off to a reader, if he looked at the piece he'd sent off again, he saw it as though through the reader's eyes. He has wondered if he couldn't just imagine the other person reading it before actually sending it, but it doesn't seem to work that way, at least for him. It might sound odd, but I think I understand him. It's a way of leaving the subjective and looking at from someone else's point of view. Maybe there really are no shortcuts.

Spangle said...

I find that both when I'm writing and painting. No matter how hard you try to get your work perfect, there's always something that you can improve on. Like you, I've had to learn when to stop, otherwise my work would never get finished. Also, there is such this as overworking a piece, if you strive for perfection which after all, doesn't exist.

lyn said...

Congratulations on finishing the book, Martin. Any idea of the publishing date? I can't wait to read it...

Fiona said...

Oh yes! I have the same problem with my choreography. I called a newly published dance on Saturday evening and found it worked much better if I made a tiny alteration, yet I've called the dance in the past before putting it into my latest collection and the point was overlooked. One of my chief faults is impatience and when I finish (what ought to be) the first draft I tend to think 'That's it, all finished'. It's a good thing I'm not a professional writer....or maybe that's why I'm not.

And I'm impatient for The Hanging Wood too (I have it pre-ordered from Amazon).

Dorte H said...

Oh, you have some readers looking forward to that one!

But I also know this dilemma and posted about it some time ago. I have been known to spend six years on a Danish manuscript, but I don´t plan to do that again ;D

With my first English manuscript I have had quite a different experience. I wrote a first draft very quickly, and now, having finished my second draft, I have received so much praise from my beta readers that I have decided to send it off to the first publisher. It may end with a rejection, but if four crime fiction readers like it as it is, it is also a question of respecting *their* judgment.

Deb said...

The fact is, you can continue to change things ad infinitum. As to whether the changes make something better, that's up for debate. If you want an object lesson in learning when to "let go," just consider George Lucas who, 33 years down the line, is still fiddling with "Star Wars." At some point, you just have to acknowledge that you've done the very best you can and move on to another project. If not, you may end up three decades hence still trying to add a finishing touch or two.

Maxine said...

Glad to read it is progressing well! I too am keen to read it.

When I first started in publishing, I thought that a scientific paper was published when it was published. No longer is this the case. I hope the same does not apply to books - well, only to a few of them anyway!

Anne Gallagher said...

I force myself to stop. If I didn't, I'd be rewriting forever. I think 5 drafts is enough for me.

Paul Beech said...

Hi Martin – Thirty years ago I was given a piece of advice by my then boss that has stuck with me ever since, even if I haven’t always followed it! Commenting on a manual I was putting together – and no doubt having me pegged as a fussy beggar! – he said, “Don’t let the best be the enemy of the better.” What he meant, of course, was stop fiddling with the damn thing and get it out to the staff!

It would be nice to craft everything to the point where the addition or subtraction of a single comma would mar the work, but in the real world that usually isn’t possible. Nor is it necessarily desirable as over-revision can grind all the character out of a piece. That said I hate it so much when I hit the ‘send’ button then discover some clunky line or glaring typo!

Thanks, by the way, for your post on Stuart Pawson the other day – that’s another fine writer you’ve got me into! I’m reading ‘Grief Encounters’ and not only enjoying it very much but finding it great stress relief in a week when much needed!

Regards, Paul

Minnie said...

Many congratulations, Martin - and all the best for 'The Hanging Wood'.
Perhaps you might look upon what sounds at first like a dire situation as something of a blessing, in that you have the time (up to a point) to continue editing (& I can understand it's a process with the potential to stretch out into infinity!). As an ex-journo, speech-/copy writer, etc., Paul Beech's comment rings true for me: there was NEVER enough time to get the text just so! It was always a case of racing towards the next deadline.

Martin Edwards said...

This is a really great and thoughtful set of comments. Thank you, everyone.
I am now tempted to return to this subject in future!
The Hanging Wood is due to be published in the US in April. The UK position is yet to be sorted out.

Alistair Macfarlane said...

From a songwriting point of view, these days I can take as long as I want. With the advances of audio software, I don't have to step foot into a recording studio. I have 33 songs in various stages of completion. I don't have deadlines.

I don't think that writing has changed as much. Much easier to self edit but then this is another point. Sometimes you need that outside input. Years ago my songs were way too long and it took others to point that out to me. I hated my songs being cut up. Much later I can hear what a difference another pair of ears made.

I don't think any artist/writer is ever happy with the end result. You always want to change things but you do have to let it go. The work is of it's time and most of the time you think it is really good. I think the worst thing you can do is go back and re-write/edit etc.....

Looking forward to the new book and hopefully a chance to meet up in the UK in April.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Alistair - absolutely!