Monday, March 09, 2009

An Acceptable Level of Failure

At what point is a book finished? Anyone who's ever written one will know that the answer is "never", but there does come a point when, whether through inertia, frustration or some external factor, the writer accepts that there is nothing to be gained from further work.

The Last Free City is almost at that stage. I spent last week at home polishing the latest, near-final draft. All of the loose ends I can find have been tied off: the story is complete and it's told in the way I eventually decided to tell it. It has scenes of high drama and characters I have come to love and it has--no great surprise here-swordfights, possibly to excess. It nods to Vance, Shakespeare and Calvino.

This should be cause for celebration, but I always find this part is one of the grimmest of the whole process. The end of the first draft is a fantastic feeling - the whole story is there, I know what happens to everyone and there's still the chance to fix what's wrong: I can even include more swordfights should I wish. Because the gestation of The Last Free City was so difficult (I radically changed the structure of the book halfway through the first draft), there wasn't too much to do subsequently; the first draft was really drafts one, two and three rolled into one, not the way I wanted to write the book. There is a real sense of triumph in subduing such a slippery foe. It's like duelling with a vastly superior swordsman and...well, if you if you like that kind of metaphor you might enjoy the book.

Subsequent drafts, for me at least, by contrast are about defining an acceptable level of failure. By the end of the second draft you realise that the book isn't going to be the touchstone of literary genius you'd hoped (a tarnishing process that begins with the first word of the first draft, if not earlier.) Instead, you're just looking to get out alive: the book is not the Platonic ideal you conceived at the start, and now your ambitions are limited to ensuring that none of the holes is below the waterline.

The good news, then, is that The Last Free City is close to being ready to submit to my editor at Macmillan. The challenging news (for we don't have "bad" news, do we?) is that my attempts to touch the sun have failed, and will have to wait until my next book. Now, if I can only manage to cram in a few more swordfights...

3 comments:

David Isaak said...

Sometimes I can get through the first chapter without suspecting I've ruined it already.

Of course, that might not stand up to rereading later on, but it's nice while the feeling lasts.

Tim Stretton said...

I suppose it depends how long your chapters are...

Mine are quite short in the current WIP and I can sustain the illusion for the first one.

Matt Curran said...

Tim, David

I agree - usually I think I've utterly fucked the book up somewhere down the line, and usually it isn't warranted - but the temptation to overly tinker is always there before I send the finished mss.

The Black Hours, however, was not like that at all. Which is odd.

And probably means I really have fucked it up!!

Anyway, big congrats on getting to this stage. You should celebrate this moment, you know?