As well as writing I also paint and draw and one of the things that I have learned with regards to visual creativity is that it can be difficult to know when to stop, to step back and look at a picture and say ‘that’s it!’. Indeed, I, like many other artists I imagine, have ruined a picture in the belief that I can make it just that little bit better. With writing it does not seem to work that way.
I can remember when working on my first novel, ‘The War Wolf’, wondering when it was going to end. The book seemed to acquire a life of its own and I just kept on writing and writing, thoroughly enjoying it, but I was also looking for a natural end point. With a painting the end point is also not always easy to see, which is why so often I have gone past it and ended up with something that was not as good as it should have been. When writing the end point can be just as difficult to spot but rarely does it result in the book being over-worked.
If anything I think that writing can lead to a book being under-worked. It is so tempting when you think that you have finished to push that version of your manuscript out. Partly I believe that this is because what comes next is rather boring; the editing! Proof-reading and manuscript amendments are boring because they are not creative but they are necessary; they are part of the honing process. Very few people, I believe, are capable of producing a finished work in the first draft, simply because a novel is a complex work. The average novel runs to approximately 70,000+ words, which is an awful lot of work. It is built around the framework of the plot, has themes, character development, and contains the exploration of ideas, or at least it should. There is a vast capacity to make mistakes in this medium.
As I have mentioned before I rarely complete a first draft before moving onto the second draft, which is, to all intents and purposes, a rewrite. For this reason I do not worry about putting too much detail in the first draft, I just try to capture ideas and develop the plot. It is in the second draft that I begin building the actual book. Another aspect that sets the two draft versions apart for me is that with the first I have no particular target in terms of word count but in the second I find that I need something to aim at; the 70K.
There are some authors who argue that the word count is immaterial, that the novel should be as long as it takes to tell the story, and they have a point. I do not see any value in setting a specific goal to achieve when I am writing but I do find having an approximate goal very useful; it tells me when I am near the point of finishing the book.
I have just reached the 70K word target for my latest novel, ‘The Blade’s Fell Blow’, which means that I am close to completing it. Reaching this point does not mean that the book is finished, however. Following a recent read through of the current manuscript I identified a lot of work that still needs doing. I would say that approximately two-thirds of the manuscript is good, or even very good, but that leaves one third that needs some serious attention. I am okay with this. The fact that I can stand back and review my work and see where it still needs a bit of polishing is good, both creatively and practically. I know that as a reader I do not like to find as I approach the end of the book that the author has rushed their work and lowered their standards, even unintentionally, as a result. It is so dissatisfying, disappointing and leaves, generally, a very negative impression of that particular writer.
For this reason I always look to produce the best that I can and avoid rushing the manuscript into print until I am entirely happy with it. My last novel, ‘Eugenica’ probably went through the most work in this respect than the two that preceded it. There are parts of that book that I rewrote several times simply because I knew it could be better. I wanted it to be better. To date people who have read it and talked to me say that it is a very good book, a part of that is because I did not stop when I reached my target but went beyond it, the extra yard, a little bit more, crossed all the ‘T’s’ and dotted all the ‘I’s’. In a painting this would probably have ruined the work, in a book it helps to produce only the best of your work.