A little earlier I asked the question: “Is it a good idea to sell a book to a publisher, then extensively re-write it?” That’s what I somehow ended up doing to my new novel, Company. I sent off the new, much-altered draft to my editor, Bill, and waited to see whether he thought it was an improvement or I had made a big mistake.
The answer, it turns out, is both. Bill likes my rewrite and says: “More!” In particular, he wants me to fix a major plot-line that centers around people in this company being unable to remember anything about the world outside it. This concept is slightly surreal, I know, but I liked it so much that I hammered away until it made a vague kind of sense. Alas, Bill observes that it isn’t quite a specific enough kind of sense, and now that I’ve jazzed up everything else, this stands out. Since I am so happy to rewrite big chunks of the book, he says, how about I throw out that whole memory-loss idea and put in something better?
At this point I have two competing thoughts. One is, “God damn you, Bill, you’ll publish this book and you’ll like it!” The other is, “Aaarrrgghhh, he’s right.”
When editing a novel, it’s often hard to know when to stop. There’s no clear point at which you think, “That’s it, this book cannot be improved any more.” There’s always more you can do. If you want to be published in your own lifetime (or write more than one book), though, you have to stop editing at some point, but that is not, alas, a quiet, satisfying moment of realization that everything is just exactly right. For me, at least, it’s guilty and furtive. It’s thinking, “If I have to rewrite one more sentence of this thing, I’m going to vomit.”
I enjoy editing; I love watching something I’ve written improve. But, boy, when you’ve spent every day for the last two years immersed in the same story, you start to hate everybody in it.
And it doesn’t get any better when the book is published. I can’t stand to pick up my published novels because I can barely read a page without wishing I’d done something differently. (This makes book tours interesting.) So that’s how it is: I rewrite a novel until the mere thought of it engages my gag reflex, then I spend the rest of my life wishing I’d spent more time on it.
I’m going to rewrite Company again, because I think Bill is right: it will be better without the memory loss thing. I’ve had a month away from it, which is helpful. And above all else I want to do everything I can to make this novel as good as it can be, and should be.
Then one day, I know, maybe a year or two from now, I will crack open the cover, read a sentence at random, and think, “Damn. I should have done that differently.”