I liked John McPhee’s last paragraph in a recent piece he wrote for The New Yorker (Jan. 14, 2013) about the structure of his articles and books:
“People often ask how I know when I’m done—not just when I’ve come to the end, but in all the drafts and revisions and substitutions of one word for another, how do I know there is no more to do? When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”
Yesterday I finished the novel I’ve been writing for years. I’ve done all I can do, so call it done. Well, that’s what I thought last night—but today I hear a small voice, soft as a mourning dove in March, which tells me I could go over the manuscript one more time. Of course, that’s what I said last time, and the time before that.
When I write a book, I start out with notes. It was fifteen years ago that I made my first notes for this novel (Hundred Fires, named for one of its protagonists, the Cuban revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos). With extensive notes, and with some basic and later-to-be-corrected notions about the structure of the book, I start writing. The first draft of any scene goes down fast, shotgun style, what fun. Then begin the many revisions. I’ll go over the same passage ten times, twenty times, until I get it right—which is always a moving target.
I’m never quite as sure about finishing as McPhee. I think I could always go over a book and find some small improvements to be made. For the larger changes I rely on an editor; I become so fixed on the structure I have, I’m resistant to upsetting the entire cart. But down inside the sentences, in the endlessly-debatable phrases, something will pop up that is not quite deft, not quite perfect.
Of course it’s often like Flaubert and his commas: he might spend a morning putting one in, and in the afternoon he took it out.
But after fifteen years with this book, I call it done. Next up, the really hard writing: a query letter, a synopsis, some flap copy and an author interview. Every day a thrill.