I think I just finished a novel, though it’s hard to be sure. There ought to be a moment when you type THE END, stagger away from your desk and crack open a bottle, but there usually isn’t. This one’s called The Book of Air and I thought I was done with it months ago. Then I got some professional feedback, did some rewriting, had a couple of friends read it, rewrote some more, delivered it to my agent (who is brilliant, by the way), responded to her modified rapture with another rethink. And now it’s probably as good as I can make it. Really. At least until an editor gets hold of it (let’s hope) and suggests that maybe parts of it could be cranked up or toned down or the whole thing radically restructured....
So finishing is a nebulous concept.
And throughout this process there are the flashes of inspiration and the sudden bouts of writer’s remorse that have you firing up your computer when you should be asleep.
Which is why I like to hear what other people think, so I’m not just stuck in my own head. When it comes to writing a novel, generally you’re on your own. Screenwriters collaborate but partnerships in fiction are rare. Conrad did it with Ford Madox Ford, but who else? You have to pull all those words out of your own brain. But once you’ve got something readable, why not get someone to read it. It’s a lot to ask, and you have to choose your reader carefully, but if you’d put all that time into writing a novel wouldn’t you rather find out what wasn’t working, while you still had a chance to fix it?
Actually, I start earlier than that. I swap work in progress, chapter by chapter, with a novelist friend, whose writing I admire, though it’s different from mine, and whose opinion I value.
She and I may not be typical. In a review of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth in the LRB, Adam Mars-Jones says, “we know that writers, whether seasoned or just starting out, seethingly resent the suggestions for improvements made by professionals, let alone amateurs (“Draw me a what’s-it cube” London Review of Books 13 September 2012).
I wonder if he’s right.