‘Begin at the beginning,’ said the King gravely, ‘go on till you come to the end; then stop.’ This, the instruction to the White Rabbit at the trial of the Knave in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And it sets up, from childhood, a sort of myth of storytelling. That you whack a ream of paper onto your desk, start writing on the first page and, sometime later, finish.
Except, that William Goldman says that writing is rewriting, and Ernest Hemingway says that writing is rewriting, and Christy Hall (me neither) says that writing is rewriting, is rewriting, is rewriting, is rewriting, is rewriting.
So, how do you know when it’s time to stop?
Since mid-December I’ve been working on a tenth draft of my novel. My specific task was to rewrite the main male character. On Friday I sat on the sofa and wondered if I was done. I had a feeling that I had, but there was no overwhelmingly clear guidance from my head or heart. So I went for a walk.
The trouble was, I could tell you exactly why it hadn’t been sufficiently rewritten. A character who was supposed to be a fist-swinger with a heart, did very little fist swinging. He thought about it a lot, and stared a couple of kids out. But actual fighting? Nope.
And yet, the character was now clearly different to the one I had started with. He argued back, he bobbed and weaved, he treated conversations as a bout. My task had been to make the character more distinct, and in this I felt I had succeeded. To what extent? 68% was the figure that came into my head. Or, confusingly, 83%. So no help there.
But also, my head hurt. Three months of trying to create this character. 2-3 hours a day. Five complete read-throughs of the novel. Many different exercises to see the world from his point of view. I felt as if I had hit a wall.
And then I remembered advice a friend had once given me about how to make a decision. He said, make the decision and live with the consequences. At that moment it became clear to me that it was time to finish. I went home and emailed the finished version to the people waiting for it.
And wished I felt better about it.
Anne Lamont in Bird by Bird, answers the question, ‘When do you know when you’re done?’ by saying, ‘you just do.’ Then goes on, ‘Finally something inside you just says it’s time to get on to the next thing.’ She describes the process of trying to get a perfect version as like trying to put an octopus to bed. One more plot strand, character, conflict doesn’t quite fit. But that, in the end, ‘There is no more steam in the pressure cooker. It’s the best you can do for now.’
Walter Mosley in This Year You Write Your Novel, says you are never finished rewriting. The book will never reach that level of perfection. But, ‘When you see the problems but no matter how hard you try, you can’t improve on what you have. That’s it.’
Since my initial doubt I’ve felt good about the decision.
I’m sure there are some who place the last ink drop on the page, allow their heads to fall back, and say, ‘It is done.’ It turns out I’m just not one of them, and I may not be alone.