Tag: writing

No It Isn’t Done Yet, But Thanks For Asking

The Infamous Manuscript

The Infamous Manuscript

Just now a woman stopped me on the Go Train platform to tell me that her nephew had finished his novel. Oh, and he’d published it too.

“It’s on the shortlist for the Jiller prize,” she told me.

“Giller,” I corrected. “Good for him.”

“How’s yours coming?” she asked me.

I felt a lump forming in my throat. “It’s coming along,” I told her.

She looked at me with what could have been sympathy but might just as well have been pity. “Good,” she said, nodding. “Good.”

She was asking because she’s ridden the same Go Train as me for several years. And as long as she’s known me I’ve been working on this novel.

And I felt bad because as long as she’s known me I’ve been working on this novel.

This morning – the same day, mind you – another Go Train friend told me about a friend who had just published a novel.

“How’s yours coming along?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said. “Almost done.”

“It’s been almost done for four years,” she reminded me.

“Yeah,” I said, and slunk off.

Recently a relative said, “I don’t tell anyone about your book any more. It’s embarrassing. You need to just finish it.”

Later that same evening one of my daughters said, “Just finish it, Daddy. I’m sure it’s fine. You don’t need to fix it anymore. Here, let me read it.”

“Another pass and I’ll let you read it,” I told her, and slunk off.

The fact is my novel isn’t done yet. Last summer – or was it the summer before – I thought it was. I convinced myself it was done. I was tired of writing it. So I gave it to a few friends to read. Four of them professed to like it (one even graciously copy edited it for me.) I’m still waiting to hear from one (I don’t blame him – I consider it a great imposition to ask someone to read my work). One said he couldn’t get past page forty (yes, he’s still my friend, the jerk).

While I was waiting I read it over again myself. I liked it. But I didn’t like the ending.

So I went back to work.

And that’s what I’ve been doing since, correcting the ending. It’s a lot better. But I still have a few pages to go.

James Michener

James Michener

James Michener once wrote that the biggest challenge in writing a novel is finishing it. Many others have expressed similar sentiments. One of Michener’s favourite novelists only ever wrote one book. Except that’s not exactly true – late in life Michener looked him up and found out he’d actually written three others, but never finished them. Late in this fellow’s eighties he was still working on them, trying to make them perfect. As far as I know, he never did.

I have always been afraid of being that guy.

Once I was mad at George RR Martin for not finishing the next book in his Game of Thrones series in a timely manner. I met him in Montreal two or three years ago. I wanted to say, “Finish your damn book, sir.” Except I knew better, and I knew what it was like trying to finish a novel you care about.¹ You can’t just finish it. The book is the boss. It will tell you when it’s done, not the other way around.

George RR Martin

George RR Martin

Another of my favourite writers, Vernor Vinge, took ten years to write one of my favourite books, A Deepness in the Sky.² He had a full time job, like me. I’m eight years in since I started working on this book seriously in the Fall of 2005.³ So by that standard I still have two years to go.

Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge


So yes, in case you were wondering I know it’s completely ridiculous that I haven’t finished my novel yet. I’m sorry. Believe me, nobody wants to finish it more than I do. Increasingly when people ask me about it I just want to weep at the pathetic-ness of it all.⁴

Will it be worth it after all this time?

I was going to write that I don’t know, because I have no way of knowing whether it’ll ever get published, except to say that my efforts to get it published will equal my efforts to make it good.

But the true answer is of course it will be worth it. It’s already worth it.

Because I have loved every instant of writing it.⁵

Postscripts:
¹In the end I just shook his hand and told him how much I loved his books. “Thanks,” he said. And that was the extent of our relationship.
²Don’t hold me to that figure, I’m not exactly fact checking here.
³Although I put the first words to paper sometime around nineteen eighty-seven, I think.
⁴Except, as I have written before, I don’t, because I’m a man and as such have never wept and probably never will.*
⁵Except the first draft. I hate first drafts.
*Yes, the bit about weeping and being a man is meant to be ironic.

The Fiction Editor

The Fiction Editor

The Fiction Editor is a little gem about editing novels by a fellow named Thomas McCormack. It’s probably the best book on editing fiction I’ve ever read, and I’ve read plenty.

Most books on writing you’re lucky if you pick up one good tip. I’m serious about that. In one book I learned to be careful with the verb “To be” (it’s better to say “the birds flew” than “the birds were flying”). In another book I learned that the maxim “show don’t tell” is not a one size fits all piece of advice (sometimes it’s better to sum up crucial facts quickly than add a chapter to your manuscript). In yet another I learned to use a single name for your characters (don’t keep changing the name from Fred to the red haired youth to the budding gymnast back to Fred again) and in another I learned that tension does not exist in the manuscript but rather in the reader, and is generated by constantly posing questions that must be answered.

In McCormack’s text, although not quite one-stop shopping, I garnered many such tips.

McCormack is a former editor for St. Martin’s Press. In fact, he ran the joint for many years, and in so doing turned its fortunes around (it was on its deathbed when he inherited it). But he was always a budding writer (dramatist mainly) and clearly empathised with the writers he worked with, relating strongly to their needs. And what many of them need most is a good editor.

McCormack’s main premise in The Fiction Editor is that good editors are few and far between, and this is primarily because editing has always been mostly an intuitive endeavor. Editors have a few tricks up their sleeves but mostly they seem to go by their guts. They might recognize that something doesn’t quite work, but they don’t necessarily know why it doesn’t work, or how to fix it. McCormack argues strongly for a more disciplined, almost scientifically rigorous approach to editing.

I’ve always felt myself that there are a million hidden rules in writing, that I’ve gradually been unearthing one by one, almost like panning for gold. I have yearned for a teacher who could lay those rules out one by one, clearly, systematically, a process after which I would know how to write not only clearly and quickly, but well.

McCormack goes on to divulge a few tricks of the trade, a mere handful compared to what must be out there, but far more than in most books. I suggest you purchase the book (now in an expanded second edition, available at Amazon.com) to find out what they are.

One caveat: The Fiction Editor is slightly self-indulgent. McCormack was the most powerful man in his company (I suspect) when he wrote it; it could have benefited from at least one more pass (hence the second edition… I own the first). I wonder if his underlings were afraid to point out a few things. For instance, he loves to make up words (neologisms, for which he apologizes). Actually, I quite like many of his neologisms, such as “gad factor” (the extent to which characters conflict). Others (such as “somacluster”) don’t work quite so well (I’ve read the book twice and still can’t quite remember what somacluster is supposed to mean).

The worst is “master prelibation,” which is really just an unfortunate and distracting choice of words, and which, were it not for McCormack’s otherwise earnest tone, I might almost suspect is a joke on his part.

But I wouldn’t let that exceedingly minor caveat put you off. This really is a terrific little book on the art of fiction editing.

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