A week ago I finished my second novel.
There have been other, false, endings. The first draft. Hahaha. The fact I ever considered it anywhere near finished at that point makes me laugh.
The second draft, even, when ‘It’s finished’ really meant ‘I’m finished’. It meant ‘I can’t do this any more, it’s not you, it’s me’.
But this time is different. I’m sure there will still be additions, subtractions and tweaks suggested by wiser people than me (namely, my agent and editor), but just now, it does actually feel finished. It feels like a book. The End feels like the end. And with that comes all sorts of odd emotions.
I attached the file to an email, hit send and then I couldn’t sleep. I thought I’d feel relieved but relief was at the bottom of the pile, squashed into near-insignificance by a raft of other feelings.
There are things about this book that I am only now recognising. How much of me is in it, for starters. How emotional a process it has been (in a way, I think of Precocious as more of an intellectual exercise than this one, but that could be down to the distance of time). The demons I’ve exorcised.
But above all, it hits me that I’ve lived with this book for over a year (quite a few years, really, since the idea first started germinating). That’s the thing about writing: even when you’re not writing, you are. Even when the thing isn’t physically in your hands, it’s with you. And as with many relationships, it’s only now it’s gone that I realise how big a part of my life it’s been for the last 15 months.
Precocious was different. I didn’t write it to any kind of deadline, no-one was waiting to read it. I didn’t know if anyone would ever read it. Although I wrote the first draft quickly, I had years to tinker with it before it eventually went out into the world. My experience with the second book has been more intense, not least because I made it my actual job for a year, not something I just squeezed in late at night whenever I could muster the energy (although in reality that’s how much of it was written: old habits etc.).
Nowadays I have a few other jobs. When I leave my waitressing shifts I go home and take nothing with me (apart from sore feet, sometimes). Even as a therapist, my work with clients can be ongoing over several sessions, but the sessions themselves are limited to 50 minutes. And then I go home. I think about the work, yes, but it doesn’t live in my head all day and night, doesn’t walk alongside me the way that writing does. Writing is the best job in the world, but it is literally nonstop.
So how to know when a thing is ‘finished’? Is it ever, really? Between the second and third versions of this book, I’ve added close to 15,000 words and done a lot of shaping. That’s a fairly big edit. How do I know there aren’t another 15,000 in my head somewhere that just haven’t been excavated yet?
I’ve been trying to find the source for the following story, and can’t think for the life of me where I first saw it, but I’ll paraphrase it for you while acknowledging that it isn’t mine:
A man wrote a book. It took him ten years. At the end of the ten years, he looked at his finished work, and at himself, and he realised that he was not the same person as he was when he began it. So he changed it. The next draft took him another ten years. At the end of the ten years he realised he was not the same person and the book didn’t reflect who he now was, so…you guessed it. On, and on, and never finished.
I suppose part of the reason it can be hard to let go is there is always an alternative ending, always a different version, an idea of what could have been.
In this respect, the books we write are a bit like relationships. Sometimes even when they’re finished, they’re not finished. My relationship with my ex-husband will never be truly finished because we’re bound by our son. I ‘speak’ to him (albeit mostly brief texts) almost every day. Maybe more than I speak to anyone. That’s weird, when I think about it. There have been other relationships I’ve had to finish unequivocally to protect my emotional health, but they still linger in the shadows of memory, so are they ever really over? There are people we are never quite finished with because they have taken away a little piece of our hearts. They are part of us.
So are our books.
So I’ve started to think about it a bit differently. One of the lovely things about having Precocious out in the world has been the realisation that it doesn’t belong to me any more. (That’s one of the hardest things, too, but mostly lovely). I’ve been to book groups and heard almost as many different interpretations, feelings, responses, as there have been people. This has made me realise that as a writer, your job is simply to take the book as far as you possibly can. The reader will take it from there. And from there, there are so many places it can finish up. That’s the most exciting part of the journey.