As you put in those years (it will be years, sorry!) writing your book, it’s essential to repeatedly ask yourself three things.
- What’s it about?
Don’t say “lots of stuff, it’s a fascinating story” and then struggle to explain. Most books can only “carry” at most two main threads. Stick to them. If this means you need to cut lots of well written text, do it. If you aren’t ruthless at this stage it will make the writing process endless. At the publication and promotion stages it may make you come across as lacking a compelling story or, for non-fiction, lacking in clear purpose.
2. Who is your reader?
Some UK newspapers are famously reputed to have reader levels in mind. The Sun is written for an under 14 literacy level, the Daily Express for under 16 and the Telegraph and The Guardian for over 17.
This is eminently sensible because who your intended reader is will define the style and content of your book. Very specifically it determines your “voice”. Are you going to be humourous, informative, colloquial, authorative? How “tight” will your style be? Will it be Hemmingwayesque or Proustian?! Twitter pithy or Sunday supplement effusive?
During the writing of my books, I always reach a stage where I have one (or at most two) people in mind as my end reader. These are named people. Does he/she need this level of (historical/political/social/geographic) explanation? Is that reference too rarefied – or too obvious? Would he/she see the humour? How patient would he/she be with the pace of the narrative? Am I cutting too much – would the reader like more in this section?. Is this too long-winded? Am I adding something just because it’s an interesting detail but not related to the central story/ies?
3. Are we there yet? (or when do I know it’s finished?)
Every writer fluctuates between the sense of being an undiscovered genius or an idiot for ever thinking they could put pen to paper. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Writing a book, one you feel really holds together, is an endless process. So when is it “done”?
There’s no right answer here either, I’d suggest. I prefer to draw in (impose upon!) a trusted reader only when I think I can’t proceed without a fresh steer. Don’t waste the time of your good readers (invariably friends) if you want to call upon them again. Most friends, at best, will read your draft only once. Only the most dedicated will read it twice over your years of toil. So be smart and value their time and goodwill.
If you feel truthfully the text needs more work it’s almost certainly not ready to share. Are the sentences polished when you open a page at random? Does the text “sing” (at least to your ears) or are there still jagged sentences and paragraphs? If so, continue to write, edit, rewrite, edit and rewrite. Only then show it to your reader(s).
At some stage you must have the confidence to say (hand on heart!) “yes, this is good. And I’m prepared for anyone to read it without any long preamble or excuses. This is no longer ‘just a draft’. Rather ‘this is it’ (more or less). And in 5 years time I know I’ll feel the same about it too”.
If you feel you’ve done everything you can to prepare your “baby” for the real world, then most likely it’s ready. That’s when you should consider sending it out on its own two feet via a paid editor or indeed by directly contacting publishers. And that’s when another process altogether begins!
Joyce called a halt to his endless (re)writing and tinkering of Ulysses so it would be published by his 40th birthday. Writing is subjective. So is reading. Just as there’s no perfect book, so there’s no perfect way to know it’s “finished”.
So stick with it and enjoy your time with “baby” as you help it to grow and flourish!
Any other thoughts or helpful tips you’d have on this thorny subject please email is on firstname.lastname@example.org