Tonight’s the night of the release party for THE SECOND SPY at the Red Balloon in St. Paul. (7:00 p.m. Cake. Come on down.) It will be great to pause and celebrate a completed book for a little while, because I’ve been in Revision Land for so long, moving back and forth between BoE Four and the YA/Shakespeare project, that I’m starting to forget how it feels to start or finish anything. Okay–I know how to start things, and returning to that phase usually feels exciting and fun, but finishing things is another thing entirely.
Maybe this is because I’ve started thousands more writing projects than I’ve finished. Maybe it’s because I’m not sure what ‘finished’ means, when we’re talking about a story.
Writers ask each other this question all the time: How do you know when a book is done?
I’ve heard some snappy answers. Answer 1: When your deadline arrives. Answer 2: When your editor says it’s done. Answer 3: When you can’t imagine changing one more word without crumpling onto the floor in a drooling, wailing ball.
Here’s my own non-snappy answer: I’m not sure a book is ever done.
Revision Land isn’t land at all. It’s a river, a pool, a sea. Story is fluid. You can see it taking shape as it ripples around you; you can shift it and separate it; you can solidify parts of it, freeze it in place. But you can always open that folder, or that notebook, or that file, and let the writing melt again. It can take on any shape or color or speed or temperature. It can flow in infinite directions. Sometimes you manage to capture a line that feels just right…but then something next to it changes, and that line isn’t just right anymore, so you alter it again. And you realize that the line you thought was perfect could be perfect in a thousand different ways.
Deciding, too soon, that a piece of writing is DONE sets you up for trouble. You freeze it all in place and back away. You’re afraid to touch it. The thing you’ve created feels brittle, fragile, tenuous. Changing a single word seems impossible, and removing a line–or a whole chapter–would bring the whole thing crashing down.
Thinking of your work this way makes revision terrifying. Or impossible.
When you’re working on a book, you rewrite on your own, for months or years. Then you revise with an editor, for more months or years. Then you work with a copy editor. Even after galleys are printed, there are more little changes to make. When at last the book is published — then, yeah, it’s ‘done,’ in that you don’t get to change it any more, even if you want to. (At least that’s how it usually works in publishing. I recently talked to a self-published author who entirely rewrote and re-released his first book after its original printing because he wasn’t happy with the story. I can’t even wrap my head around this type of freedom. It’s probably a good thing that I don’t have it.) At that point, you just hope that all of your work and thinking and changing and dreaming have coalesced, and that the story you’ve caught on paper feels real and whole to someone who reads it.
The more I’ve learned about writing and rewriting, the more liquid it all becomes. I’ve rewritten the entirety of that YA/Shakespeare project nine times now, and changed it in huge ways, and with each rewrite, I’ve liked it more — it’s felt closer to right, closer to done. But I know I could write it nine more times, or nine hundred more times, and capture new shapes and colors and glints of light in the water.
Then, on revision 901, I would crumple up in a drooling, wailing ball.