I’m in the middle of final edits for next year’s release, Billabong Bend. One of the most difficult things for writers, published or unpublished, is knowing when the book is done. It’s easier, of course, with a book under contract. You have a deadline, and an editor who has her own wise opinions. But it can still be a fraught question, and not just for writers. I’ve heard of painters who see their work on exhibition, and want to whip out the paint brush then and there, and of composers who want to change chords in published pieces. Countless changes will spring to mind on the final read. Here are the main things I think about.
1. Check the writing – Spelling? Grammar? Overuse of adverbs or filler phrases? Tautologies or unnecessary dialogue tags? In this latest draft of Billabong Bend, characters were shaking and nodding their heads all the time, and driving my editor mad! These stage directions can aid a first draft when the writer is telling themselves the story. Like um or ah when speaking, they allow thinking time. But they do not belong in a final draft. Do a search for words you might have overused. Remove them.
2. Dialogue – By now you should know what your characters sound like. Read dialogue aloud, assessing vocabulary, sentence length, use of contractions, etc. Make sure the word choices you’ve made add up to a consistent and unique voice. You don’t want your characters all sounding the same.
3 Follow each thread to its logical conclusion – It might be the progress of your protagonist from weak and unsure to strong and certain, or the relationship arc between two characters in a love story. It could be the trail of clues in a mystery. Have you added or deleted scenes during rewrites, or changed their order? If a character is introduced in chapter 3, and not again till chapter 30, do they really need to be there? If they do, they must be mentioned a few times so the reader won’t forget about them. Have you played with the timeline? Does the story still make sense?
4. Don’t edit your writing to death – I’ve seen some unfortunate examples of writers revising the heart out of their work. Retain the vigour and imaginative breadth of your original vision. Nothing’s ever perfect. I’ll finish with a piece by American novelist Harry Crews.
“Graham Greene [said] “The writer is doomed to live in an atmosphere of perpetual failure.” There it is … every writer writes with the knowledge that nothing he writes is as good as it could be. Paul Valery said, “A poem’s never finished, only abandoned.” The same thing with a novel. It’s never finished, only abandoned. I’ve had any number of novels where I’ve just at some point said to myself, well, unless you’re going to make a career out of this book – spend the rest of your goddamn life chewing on it – you might as well just package it up and send it to New York.”