I just finished a book.
I’ve been in a position to use that glorious sentence eight times. The first seven times, I spoke the sentence immediately after typing the final period on the final page. I even typed THE END to mark the moment.
Did that mean I was completely done with my work on the book? Of course not. My agent and editor needed to read it. I would listen to their good feedback. I would make changes, some of them big. The book would be better for it. And then we’d do another pass. And then copyediting. But that’s all editing. The book was “finished,” as I use that word.
Book eight? I typed an ending a month ago, but, for the first time, I didn’t type THE END. I didn’t say, “I just finished a book.” Instead, I paused a moment to celebrate having a beginning, middle, and an end. I may even have had a drink or two.
Then I opened a new, blank document on my computer and started again from the beginning.
Yep, I rewrote my book.
Now, a month later, I’m willing to say I finished. I even typed THE END. The celebratory drinks made those first ones look like amateur hour.
Having to reach an ending twice before typing THE END got me to thinking about what made this time different.
1. Why wasn’t the first ending the finish line?
At a spotlight interview during last year’s Bouchercon, Gregg Hurwitz asked Michael Connelly if he had any publishing regrets. After initially saying no, Michael backed up and said he wished he had submitted his first novel earlier. It was done, but he kept tinkering and refining on his own for nearly three years.
Little did he know as an unpublished writer that the book would get even better with an editor. By Michael’s calculation, if he’d sent the book out earlier, he would have benefitted from an editor’s feedback sooner, and he could have started his second book instead of working on his own for all that time. The world might have an additional Connelly novel or two as a result.
His observation made me think about my own process. I don’t generally tinker and refine on my own. I type THE END and send it away. But I’ve been able to do that because I force myself to get it right — or at least my own best version of right — the very first time. I nitpick at myself constantly during the first (and only) draft.
For this book, I decided to let all that go. I made myself write, even when I knew a certain scene or a certain plot twist wasn’t exactly right. It’s not a process I would have been comfortable with seven books ago, but I’ve learned by now that that finishing sooner is better than finishing later. I’ve seen for myself — seven previous times — how much better a book can be once you finish that first pass of editing. Plus I heard Michael Connelly say it, so it must be true!
But changing my objective from finishing my very best draft to simply finishing a draft necessarily changed how I felt about “finishing.” All I could say was that I had a beginning, middle, and an end. I couldn’t really say I had finished the book. I couldn’t type THE END.
2. Why I Called it a Re-Write
In my previous seven edits, I made some pretty big changes. But I made those changes directly to the document. I cut and pasted if I switched the order of two scenes. I added chapters. I deleted entire pages. Overall, however, the narrative arc of the plot and characters remained intact.
This time, I decided that an “edit” — even a big edit — would not suffice. I wanted to start with a blank document. I wanted to revisit every decision I had made the first time around. I would reimagine the book with more information than I had all those months ago. I’d pull over scenes, character, words, sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters only as helpful. I’d skip the rest. I’d write new scenes and characters as I went.
Two characters completely left the page. One arrived a hundred and fifty pages earlier. An affair that happened suddenly didn’t.
When I reached the ending of this new book, I knew it was better. I knew I was proud of it. And I knew I was actually done.
I’m not certain I’d recommend this process to anyone else. The messiness of it has me wishing once again that I could outline a book chapter by chapter, scene for scene, prior to writing. But at least I’m able to say that I have finished my eighth book and am very happy with it.
To my fellow writers: Do you rewrite or merely edit? To the readers: Do you enjoy hearing how the sausage is made, or should writers make it look easier than it sometimes is?