I get this question all the time as if my book were a souffle or cake in the oven. The timer has been set. Someone else has determined the appropriate temperature and time for baking. Trust me though. Just like your baked goods, your book will fall if you take it out too early.
Cooking requires patience and so does novel writing. I like to think of my book as a dish that needs to marinate, soaking in its own juices long enough to absorb everything and maximize its flavor.
Beginning writers sometimes ask how they’ll know when their book is done. My response to novices is that your novel is rarely ready when you think it is. How can it be when you’re still learning the basics of craft and discovering your story?
In an industry where it takes forever for things to happen, we must subdue the urge to rush. I queried literary agents two years ago when I thought my novel was ready. It wasn’t and I received many rejection letters to punctuate that fact. It’s tough to take your time though when others’ expectations buzz in your ears. Or when you’re surreptitiously eyeing someone else’s paper. I get it. Our writing contemporaries seem to be leapfrogging over us by writing two books simultaneously, securing agents and book deals overnight, and publishing new work while we hunch over our laptops and notebooks, toiling in the trenches.
A year ago, when I placed in a writing contest based upon an excerpt of my novel, a former work colleague grossly misunderstood the meaning of this honor. On Facebook she inquired as to whether my novel would be available for her upcoming book club meeting in two months. I laughed. I almost cried. I felt like a failure or at best a fraud for having to say no, I’m still working on the book. She wasn’t the first to inquire. People often look at me in amazement or perhaps pity, shaking their heads, saying, wow, you’ve been writing that book for a long time.
My critique partner and beta readers often lament that I’m a perfectionist, laboring (read: obsessing) over every scene and every word much too long. Maybe they’re right. There is a point at which we must let go and let our books fly. But before then, there’s revision and revision and more revision.
Daily living is part of the revision process. Sometimes we haven’t experienced enough to bring the right emotions to the page. It wasn’t until I’d lived years without my beloved father on this Earth with me that I understood the impact of grief and how it shapes my perception of the world. It wasn’t until my father died that I began to inspect my mother’s face and movements so closely, memorizing them so I wouldn’t forget any details. I explored loss and memory in my novel, The Kindest Lie, through Midnight, an 11-year-old boy whose mother died, as well as through Ruth, my protagonist, who lost her grandfather when she was a young girl.
While the novel is always your story and yours alone, revision shouldn’t be a solitary exercise. At Tin House last year, the character of Mama in my book revealed herself anew. My writing workshop classmates listened intently to Mama’s voice and carefully considered her outlook on life. At this point, I had a finished manuscript that had been reviewed by three phenomenal beta readers. Still, my classmates gave each other knowing looks and said emphatically that this character was not the fifty-year-old mother of my protagonist. I’ll never forget one of my fellow writers shouting, No, that’s somebody’s Big Mama. They were right. This bold character who made tough, questionable sacrifices for all the right reasons had always been the grandmother. I just hadn’t known that before.
Every time I choose to sit longer with my characters, they surprise me. Eli, the brother of my protagonist, is recently out of work after the auto plant closes during the economic downturn in 2008. I was on my fourth rewrite when Eli made an unexpected, generous move that I never saw coming. A man consumed with bitterness, he revealed his complexity and gave me a raw, poignant moment that moves the story forward and propels Ruth’s story journey.
I may have lost count, but I believe I changed the nature of the climax scene six times during revision. My beta readers helped me get closer to the emotional truth of that moment. Throughout the novel, my characters were grappling with racism and the high cost it exacts. Also, Ruth, a woman who walked away from her duties as a mother, needed to reckon with the true meaning of motherhood eleven years later. Midnight, a misguided white boy, is infected by the racism he absorbs in his family and community. The confluence of all these factors needed to come together in the climax. It took time and lots of revision to get there.
Have you ever read a book that left you breathless? Language choices so deliberate you sat open-mouthed in awe. Nuggets of revealed truth that made you look at yourself and the world around you with fresh eyes. That happens in revision. That is where the story comes alive and snatches you.
Motherhood and childbirth play pivotal roles in my novel. We all know there’s a necessary gestation period for human development. Unfortunately, as novelists, we can’t always predict how long our stories need to gestate. After four years of writing and rewriting, a trail of rejections, a manuscript critique from a bestselling author, five trusted readers, and five writing workshops, I secured an agent and landed a book deal with William Morrow.
Is my book done yet? No, not yet. I revised again with my agent and now my editor at the publishing house is preparing detailed editorial notes for me. With every iteration, I know my novel is getting closer to the brilliant book of my imagination. There is no perfection. Just more revision. Luckily, the magic for me is in the making. Not in gazing fondly at what I’ve made.
How do you know when your book is done? What’s your go-to comeback for those who ask? How have your novels evolved and transformed through revision?