See Stage One, Intention: here.
See Stage Two, Incubation: here.
See Stage Three, Investigation: here
See Stage Four, Composition: here
See Stage Five, Amplification: here
See Stage Six, Clarification: here
Completion (Finishing & Sharing)
When we start a book, we hardly know why. We are drawn in by a vague wish to do it, by an idea or a character, a voice or an image -- but what is actually going on, the intention behind the intention, if you like, is our urge to grow.
All through this series, we’ve been examining not just the technical and craft challenges of each stage of the creative process but also how the work you do on your book is refracted through your ideas and emotions. Writing a book is an enormous, life-changing experience. Everybody, even someone who never writes or even reads knows this, and it’s particularly true of a first book.
It’s important to acknowledge the end of the process, what it means in your life, the emotional responses it may raise in you. Failing to do so can derail a book, even at this late stage. Yet it is another one of those phases that many writers rush through.
At what point does clarification stop and completion begin? One day you realize you’re not asking the big editing questions any more. Much of the book feels “set”. You’re fixing and altering details, yes, but the job no longer feels so enormous or onerous. You’re dealing with smaller sections and issues. You’re adjusting and refining, modulating and tuning.
All necessary, all just as it should be. But some writers get lost at this point. The German writer, Thomas Mann, once said, “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people” and this stage is no exception.
As the end approaches - the end of the book and the end of the book in your life - it is easy to let unacknowledged anxiety about the quality of the work, or the reception of the book by the outer world, derail the process. To move into endless tinkering, or to leapfrog the process, produce a sketchy ending and start thinking about the next one.
Not every book is written to be published but every book wants to be finished. Just like some people serially remarry the same person again and again, so those who abandon a book to start a new one often find they fail to finish the next one too. Finishing strong is something great athletes learn. Finishing strong is something writers also must learn, an integral and crucial part of the creative process.
STAGE 7: COMPLETION: THE CHALLENGE.
To give your book a good ending and to take time to acknowledge the meaning of this book in your life, so you can share it through publication, if desired, and move happily to your next work.
When this completion stage is going well, a writer usually finds the work extraordinarily compelling -- it becomes more important than almost anything else. "There is a completion stage," Louise de Salvo says in Writing as a Way of Healing, "during which we again revise, revisit, rethink, and refashion... Often the drive to finish a work takes precedence over other needs and obligations—like being social or taking showers or eating well."
DeSalvo’s sons call this her "demented stage" because she becomes so completely involved. Hunter S Thompson's accounts of his rush to finish the various sections of Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail, also sound like madness. Thomspon would be writing the last words of a piece hours before the issue of Rolling Stone it was due in went to press, while anxious editors camped outside his room, causing the frenzied gonzo journalist to include their cajoling and carry-on into the article he was writing, in real time... thus making it longer, as the deadline loomed closer and his thought took another detour…
Try This: Drop Everything Else You Can. Here’s Miller again: “Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.” Just until you’re finished, tunnel in.
The technical challenge of the completion stage is to find the perfect ending. Yes, perfect; nothing less will do. The most important section of your book is the ending. The climax of your book is where it has all been leading, where plot and character and theme will integrate, where the book’s raison d’etre will be revealed.
Occasionally we are given the climax of a story along with the idea; more often we barely know what we are doing or where we’re going and the climax - how this book must end - arises at some point in the writing, often quite late in the process. When it does, our imagination feels a mental and emotional jolt. ‘Of course,’ we say to ourselves. ‘S/he has to ….’ What else?
That sense of the inevitable, combined with surprise, is what we are after. In my experience - in my own writing and working with others - a climax that arises organically tends to be pure, perfect and complete. Far more satisfactory than the more analytically judged ending, ‘figured out’ by the intellectual side of our brain, that may be imposed through writer anxiety, particularly if the right idea is not emerging to timetable.
The key to getting it right, as so often with writing, is patience. To return to the open mode cultivated in Stage 2. To wait. To know that you are waiting.
Do lots of F-R-E-E-Writing and Inspiration Meditation. Know that it will come in its own good time and that the book knows better than you when that is. Stay with it.
Try This: Keep Ideas for New Work at Bay Until This One’s Finished: As we approach the end of one book, ideas for a new one, or more, tend to arise. And of course daydreaming about what we might do with a new piece is much more fun than the more painstaking work of finishing this one. As Henry Miller said, in his eleven commandments of writing: ‘Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing’. This is particularly relevant at this phase.
For Raymond Carver it is revision that takes us slowly to the core of what the story is about. “You don't miraculously arrive at the ending. You find it in revising the story. And me, I revise fifteen, twenty times. I keep the different versions . . . then I revise them and revise them. Tolstoy rewrote War and Peace seven times and he kept revising right up to the last minute before printing. I've seen photographs of the proofs! I like this concern for work well done…”
But, as so often with writing, the opposite can also be true. It is possible to over-revise. “I went for years not finishing anything, “ says Erica Jong. “Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”
Which is it for you? Know thyself. Four different emotional states can derail us during this finishing stage of the process.
1. Are you too attached?
You are too connected to what you have made to begin the process of letting go. Like a parent who doesn’t want their child to leave home, you cling, endlessly tinkering, doing more harm than good.
2. Are you impatient for publication?
Blinded by the dazzle of publication, you overlook necessary finishing work. You’ve moved on but the book’s not quite ready and, more importantly, neither are you.
Going public with your work is part of the completion phase but it is the final, and in some ways, the least important part.
3. Do you hate it, think it’s worthless, want to start over?
Jean Rhys always complained that her masterpiece The Wide Sargasso Sea was snatched from her hands unfinished. Most of her readers would disagree. Objectivity is rarely a writer’s strong suit. Get a second opinion.
4. You can’t face putting it out there.
People will scoff, or differ, or be hurt. Or ignore it. You can’t bear it. Easier to keep it close and keep tinkering.
Any of these afflictions can strike even experienced writers. Ralph Ellison spent years getting lost in follow-up to The Invisible man and never saw it finished or published. And sometimes, even publication doesn’t put an end to the agony. John Fowles reclaimed The Magus after publication and rewrote it, making major changes. I am doing the same with one of my earlier books right now.
When an author thinks the book is perfect, that there isn’t another thing they can do to it, it isn’t and there is. This is particularly true of first books. So never let it leave you - for an evaluation or to an agent or editor - until you reach that place. It’s your bareline minimum.
Raymond Carver again: “If the writing cannot be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, with the proof of that labour, is the one thing we can take to the grave.” (Of course we take nothing to the grave. Even Carver was guilty of occasional hyperbole).
Even when you’ve done all you can do, when you’re heartily sick of it, it can be improved. Leonardo DeVinci once said, "Art is never finished - just abandoned". What we are seeking here is either finished to your own satisfaction, best defined by allowing you to move happily on; or finished enough to be sent out to agents and editors.
There are degrees of finishing. When the manuscript is accepted by an agent or publishing house, it will then come back to you with queries and notes. Your agent or editor will raise questions you’d never dreamed could be asked about your plot, make inferences about your characters that you hadn’t a clue were possible, highlight imprecisions and infelicities you didn’t know were there – and in many ways you’ll be taken back to square one. But knowing that this will happen doesn’t mean you send it out unfinished in your mind.
In reality, a book is finished when everybody is reasonably happy.
Try This: Get An Outside Opinion. Not family or friends, a writing professional who knows something about the business. See: http://writing.ie/writers-toolbox/services-for-writers.html.
This has been a long series of writing recommendations and suggestions but there are really only three writing rules that apply to all: begin, focus for as long as necessary, finish.
The meaning of what you write in the end is unlikely to be that with which you started out. This is partly because we don’t quite know what we think until we’ve written it We write to give ourselves a voice. And it is we who most need to hear what we have to say. But also because we change in the writing.
Each of the seven stages of the writing process calls on deep emotional reservoirs. As you work through each, you will come to practice discipline, to develop judgment, to utilize order and restraint, to allow self expression, not in a self-indulgent way, but in a disciplined form that leads us to self-mastery.
We write to create and, in so doing, we are created.
Orna Ross’s new Audio - Inspiration Meditation: A Guide For Writers Artists & All Conscious Creators - is now available to buy, price £3.99. Featuring a guided inspiration meditation, creative visualisation and music by sound supremo, Kimba Arem. Further details: HERE