At least those questions have answers (although you’ll have to read to the end of this blog post to find out what they are).
The question of when you’re done, of course, is just a stand in for the real imponderable, which is this: when is your book (or story, or aphorism, or for that matter, your thirty-first email of the day) as could as you are capable of making it?
I don’t know anything about Zen Buddhism beyond what one might erroneously assume from hanging on for the last two minutes of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, but if I did, I expect that I’d conclude that the answer is both “now” as well as “never.”
The now part of the pragmatic answer is that over-editing can do more harm than good, and the never part acknowledges that in any work of significant length only a master can tweak the whole until it hums in perfect harmony.
The Zen part of the answer might be that every time you revise you learn more, and every time you look at the latest results of your revisions you are a slightly different person than you were the day before. Your best can never be the best because tomorrow you are capable of better.
But so much for the metaphysical side of things; time to get back to the more pedestrian optimization of nouns and verbs. Either you’re the type of writer who will start wringing the life out of your prose if you don’t know when to quit, or you’re the technician that knows he can always make his work a little better – forever.
Either way, you still need to know when to quit.
I am (or at least flatter myself to think I am) the latter type. As John Jerome, the under appreciated author of a number of well-written but only modestly successful books observed, writing is all about sentences. If you can write good sentences, you may be able to write a good book. But if you can’t write a good sentence, forget the good book.
That’s not exactly what he said, but it is the way I internalized one of his key reflections in The Writing Trade: A Year in the Life, a wonderfully meditative, quotidian record of the experience of a writer during what may have been the golden age of the mid-list author. Writing good sentences, he emphasized, is what an author’s craft is all about. Every one of them should represent the best you can do, standing all alone.
And therein lies the rub. An editor or beta reader can flag sections of your novel that are slow or opaque, or point out where a character is not acting true to form, and then you can fix the problem. But sentences? A 100,000 word novel is likely to have 10,000 of them. More than likely, every one can always be a little bit better. If you don’t believe me, compare your last work to any random page of The Great Gatsby and you’ll see what I mean. And hell – even Fitzgerald never attained those lofty heights again. But he never quit trying. Even after a book was released, he would re-write it and release a new edition.
So what’s a writer to do?
The answer, I think, is that your current book will never be as good as it can be. But just like your children, you eventually need to accept the fact that you’ve done the best you could in the time allotted, and push them out of the nest.
But just as with children, letting go of a book is hard. I’m on my fifth revision of my second one, and I’m still making it better. How much better?
Good question. I thought the answer was “a lot.” But I just flipped through my last thirty pages of revisions looking for a good example of how dramatically I’d improved the text, as compared to just moving the commas around. A day later, all those minor changes don’t look as essential or effective as they seemed to be when I sat with pen in hand marking up my draft.
The moral, I think, is that at the end of the day an author has to realize that there’s an end to every book’s day. Send it off to an editor to provide a fresh eye, and when you’ve taken their best advice, package the damn thing off and get it between covers, virtual or otherwise.
After all, there’s another book you’ve been wanting to write, and it deserves a chance as well.
Q. Why is a mouse when it spins?
A. The higher the fewer.
Q. What’s the difference between a duck?
A. One of the legs is both the same.