Tag Archives: Paul Valéry

Ask an author – FAQ #1: How do you know when it’s finished?

img_5171That’s a question often put to writers, and there’s no snappy answer.

I’m confident that my fourth novel, now in the hands of my agent, is ready for publication – but what is this confidence in its readiness based on? And am I really sure?

Perhaps ‘finished’ isn’t an absolute state. I can see some truth in the aphorism that ‘a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.’ (That’s W.H. Auden’s paraphrase of a remark by Paul Valéry – though some attribute the same thought to Leonardo da Vinci.) The process of rewriting can seem indefinite, as Eliot’s Prufrock reflects:

       …time yet for a hundred indecisions,

and for a hundred visions and revisions…

Many writers are familiar with the sinking feeling that comes when they reluctantly recognise that a story or poem still needs further work after they thought they had brought it to completion. Sometimes this painful moment of belated insight comes just after the premature baby has been presented to a magazine or competition.

Before submitting something for publication, even the most accomplished author usually sends off a draft manuscript to a few ‘critical friends’ for comment, people equipped and willing to make a discerning assessment and be frank about their opinions. I always do this (tending at the time to persuade myself that the ms is actually in great shape already, so my critical friends will be unable to do much more than applaud) – and then, almost immediately, I see some flaws that must be fixed. It’s as if the act of releasing one’s precious creature brings a sudden surge of anxiety, which opens one’s eyes to things that require urgent revision.

Here’s a specific instance: when I dispatched this latest book-length ms of mine to one of the fellow-writers who had generously agreed to read it, I said in a nonchalant accompanying note that it was coming to him a bit earlier than he’d anticipated because I knew I’d ‘keep fiddling retentively with my draft novel’ if I didn’t put it in his hands without further ado. But did that stop me? A few days later I had a spasm of regret, and had to follow up with a sequel message: ‘I’m embarrassed to say that I couldn’t stop myself from going back to it after sending the draft to you, and sure enough I can see a few glaring problems already…’

He responded with kindly reassurance: ‘Ha, I always do that too Ian (although where would we be without our obsessiveness?).’

So at once I sent him a revised version. And he liked it! Phew…