Authors have a hard time letting go of their work. When do you write the final “THE END” and click “PUBLISH”? Is a book ever truly done — and if it is, when?
This is a slightly revised transcript of my YouTube video on the subject. If you prefer to consume advice that way, here it is:
Hello, Writer! It’s #WriterWednesday, so let’s take a look at one of the writer’s eternal questions: When is your book done?
Unlike most of my Wednesday videos, no one asked this question. I decided to answer it of my own volition, apparently because I hate myself.
I wanted to tackle it because it’s something I wrestled with a LOT as I was wrapping up my most recent book release, Blood Lust.
So! When is your book done?
The English novelist Graham Greene once said “The writer is doomed to live in an atmosphere of perpetual failure.”
Poet Paul Valéry said that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” an attitude that authors often apply to their work.
The idea being that a book can always be made better. You can always work on it more. You can always put it aside for a while and come back to it with a fresh perspective.
So if a book can always be made better, is it EVER done? Or is Valery right? Do you just abandon it at some point? Is Greene right? Do you only stop working on a book when you admit you failed at it?
In my own studied opinion: Fuck That™.
Listen, I’m all for beautiful prose, and both those writer’s quotes SOUND really great. But there’s a LOT of incredible quotes laced with overdoses of beautiful sadness that don’t mean squat to anyone who’s actually trying to, you know, DO something.
If you’re reading this, there’s a chance that you’re already the choir to my redundant preacher, but: to my mind, an attitude or a philosophy is exactly as useful as it helps you accomplish something. In other words, it’s as useful as you can USE it.
Maybe someone with a more fatalist bent can take these two quotes and say, “You know what, I will never be entirely satisfied with my book, and that’s fine. I will abandon it. I will accept that I have failed.”
Hey, if that helps you click publish, then you do you.
But fatalism’s not good enough for me. If I viewed all my past books as “abandoned works” or “failures,” I definitely wouldn’t feel very good about myself as a person, neurotypical or not.
However, trying to find a better answer to this question drifts into existential territory, which is something I feel we’ve been doing with alarming frequency recently.
What is art? Or at least, what is GOOD art? How good is good? What is good enough?
Since it’s a bit early in the day to question the fundamentals of existence, let’s return to basics.
You know I already think that your work should have a theme, a message, a point.
And what THAT boils down to is, you need to have something you’re trying to communicate.
Once you have gotten the communication across, THEN you need to work on your technical skill. The artistry. The prose. The pacing and rhythm.
But all of that stuff is secondary to your communication! You don’t want to get so wrapped up in your turns of phrase that you forget to get a point across to your reader.
Okay, so you start out by making sure that your book is saying what you want it to say, as best you can tell. Then you get the technical quality as high as you possibly can, on your own.
Well this is where the point where having communication as your primary goal becomes not only important, but USEFUL. Because this is when you take your book away from yourself and give it to other people to read.
Your spouse or partner. Your developmental editors. Your beta readers. Anyone else who will give you feedback on whether your communication is coming through.
Your first readers, whoever they are, are supposed to help you with communication. Not the technical side of things.
Because what is communication? It’s an idea you get across to someone ELSE. You can make your best guess at whether you’re getting your ideas across, but you’ll never know for sure until someone takes a look at it and goes, “Oh, I get it.”
Or, alternatively, “Uh … what?”
And so you talk with them. You have the back and forth. You listen to their ideas and figure out brilliant ways to implement them. You go over it until the people you trust to read early versions of your book GET what you’re trying to say.
And then you move on to the rest of the editing process. More work on your language. Copy editing. Proofreading. The technical stuff.
And you work on the technical stuff until you and whoever else is working on your book with you agree that you can’t get it too much better than it is with the resources you have available.
If this sounds like art by committee, it isn’t. If it sounds like I’m just rehashing my editing process, well, yeah, I kind of am!
But that’s because this entire philosophy is WHY my editing process is the way that it is. First I pay attention to story — i.e., the communication — and THEN I worry about the technical quality.
As soon as I and my early readers are convinced that I’m saying what I’m trying to say, I move off that part of the process. And then as soon as my editors and I are convinced that the technical quality is as good as we can make it, it goes to publication.
Because, and I’ve said this before, too: there’s no such thing as a perfect communication. There is no such thing as a perfect book. There is only improvement. And you can’t improve something that doesn’t exist.
Make sure your book says what you want it to say, make sure it’s as artistically good as you can make it, and then give it to the world and start on the next one.
They say that perfect is the enemy of done. I see it more as the end of a road you never reach.
But each time you say “done” is one more step along the path.
That’s it for today, writer. All these Writer Wednesday videos release two weeks earlier to my five dollar patrons on Patreon, AND they’re the only ones who get to request topics for me to cover.
Thank you so much for reading (or watching), and I will see you next Wednesday. Byyye!