On finishing a book

I have just finished a new book. Well, sort of. Finishing a book, like starting one, is rarely categorical. I tend to approach sideways, gaze averted, perhaps humming a little tune, as if I might be doing something perfectly innocent, at the beginning just trying out a sentence or two to see how it looks, later wondering if anything really needs to come after this full stop on page three hundred, if perhaps it might be, if not exactly The Ending, at least an interesting place to pause.

Some writers, I understand, begin to write a book at the beginning and set down one hard-working sentence after another, slowly and methodically, until they come to the end, when the book is finished and perfect and woe betide anyone who suggests changing anything. They tend to write more slowly than I do, leading me to suspect that if I could slow down I might be able to learn a more elegant and efficient approach to the whole business, because my method is, and remains after five novels, messy and inefficient. I spend a couple of years reading, both ‘doing research’ as my academic training taught me and observing the craft of other writers who are good at whatever particular thing it is I’m trying to do. I go into bookshops and ask for literary novels in which a bad thing happens at the beginning and the rest is aftermath, or for male-narrated historical fiction that’s not about war, or for whatever they’ve got that has two narrators speaking from different places at the same time. (You need a good indie bookshop for this kind of thing. There isn’t one in Leamington so I stock up outrageously on trips to Oxford and London. If anyone feels like opening one, maybe with knitting supplies and cake in another room, I promise to spend lots of money.)

Then I set to with my notebook and my laptop and a proliferation of post-its and write the thing. The first draft is just a job of work, summoning a new reality into being sentence by sentence and page by page. I try to do it more slowly than comes naturally because I hope that going more slowly means I’m less likely to get it wrong, or at least more likely to notice I’ve got it wrong before the mistake turns into a major structural problem. Almost every time I fail (Bodies of Light was the exception). I’ll know before I’ve finished the first draft that the second is going to be mostly retrospective structural work that would have been much easier to get right first time, a bit like finishing building a house and then thinking that actually it needs a bathroom on the first floor. Comes a point where it’s easier just to take the roof off and try again. After that, the drafts are hard to count. I just keep going over it and over it, making changes suggested by my agent and editor but also lots of other changes too, round and round until I’m not doing anything to the chapters but only to the paragraphs, then not the paragraphs but only the sentences, and then not the words but only the punctuation, and then putting things back the way they were last week. Sometime around then, my lovely editor gently takes it away, but even then the book’s not exactly ‘finished.’ There is still copy-editing, where I get to argue passionately about punctuation again, and then proof-reading, which they prefer me not to mess with because I’m often still wanting to get my hands on a particular set of parentheses which, on several months reflection, really should have been a separate sentence, and meanwhile there are discussions about catalogue and cover copy, which aren’t exactly part of the book but kind of are, because they’re there on the cover, words on the page.

So I haven’t really finished a book. It’s just gone away for a little while. There’s still time to move a semi-colon or two.