Finishing a Novel – It’s So Easy

by Bill Henderson

Just finished Great American NovelIt’s B-movie movie fantasy that never fails to crack me up: in a fever of excitement, the novelist-hero declares to his wife, his friend, his dog, “Finished! At last I’m finished–and it’s GREAT!”

I laugh because I know only too well that in real life, he’d wake up the next morning, read over his last few chapters, contemplate suicide, then resign himself to weeks, months of more hard labor. The work of writing a good novel rarely produces so clean a victory. It’s more like a truce that’s broken over and over until finally, a general armistice is declared.

Why share this? Because for some writers, those who never feel they’re getting to “The End,” the news might be comforting: you’re in the majority. Others, who think writing a novel is a one-and-done affair, like pounding out an overnight news story, might be persuaded to think again.

One reason good novels are good is that their authors weren’t satisfied with the first pass, the second, the third, or more. Students are always surprised to learn that Hemingway wrote the end of A Farewell to Arms over 30 times. To the experienced novelist, that’s not even worthy of note. As the saying goes, “it’s what we do.”

Even so, I think any good novelist will sustain an almost childish excitement over what they are writing on any given day. Sure, it may be only rough draft but in the heat of the moment, they’re madly in love with it. If they’re not, it probably has little value.

Of course, in the cool light of morning they’ll see its faults, pick it apart, rebuild it, or even start again. Tomorrow always comes. Good writers know this, respect the truth of it, and are invariably ready for whatever tomorrow brings, regardless of the message.

Weeks, months more work? Bring it on. 30 more versions of that ending? Let’s make it 40!

If you think that’s overkill, sit down and re-read the end of A Farewell to Arms. It’s a wonder of understatement, and reads as if Hemingway jotted it down on a napkin, in the moment–which, by the way, is another characteristic of good fiction writing. It never shows the struggle.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Liz Mallard September 30, 2011 at 12:54 pm

This is so heartening to hear. We can’t be reminded often enough of the struggles, the morning after disappointment in our feverish draft of last night. I’m gonna get myself right over to that Hemingway. I love your point, too, that in good fiction–good writing in any genre–the struggle never shows. Thanks.

2 David Sandrock June 9, 2013 at 7:40 am

You know, that’s why most published novels don’t have the words “the end” at the end.

3 David Sandrock June 9, 2013 at 7:42 am

I know of novelists who have published work that they would tear apart and change a million things if they could!

4 David Sandrock June 9, 2013 at 7:45 am

I actualy know a novelist who published 3 seemingly different books that were the 15th, 30th and 45th drafts of the same novel!

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