The Last Word : Fini is never enough
In one of my least favorite movies, "Misery," the main character, Paul Sheldon, played by James Caan, is a writer and is pictured finishing a typewritten manuscript. He pulls the last page out of the platen with a noisy jerk, taps the several hundred pages into a neat pile, then pours himself a drink, scotch or Champagne, I can't recall which, and lights up a cigarette. He is done. Finished. He has not only finished his novel, but finished off the title character, Misery. Which infuriates the Kathy Bates character so much she causes unthinkable mayhem for the rest of the film. Her mayhem is even more unthinkable in the original book by Stephen King, but we needn't go into details.
What stays with me about that movie, and I confess that I haven't read the book, not being a fan of the genre, is the image of Sheldon's ceremonial flourish. The idea of an author considering his work finished, without sitting down and re-reading every page with a pen/pencil/yellow marker in hand; of being satisfied with what's on the page, has always struck me as unrealistic. In other words, I think of the character as a fraud. I want to see hair-tugging revision, the anguished face rubbing, the omigod this is dreck! that most of us torment ourselves with in the privacy of our writing rooms. The truth about writing is: the minute you think you've finished the book, you've only just begun.
I wrote the epilogue to the Work-in-Progress last week. Wow, what a rush you might think - the end. Not so. Well, maybe a little rush because I really liked the way the last line echoed the last line of the prologue, but that's just author conceit. Now the real work begins. I sit with the above mentioned pencil/pen/yellow marker and begin to tear the whole thing apart. I've already torn the first half apart, with a little help from my agent and her cohorts, but this second half has been seen by no other eyes but mine. I'm not looking for typos, although I will find plenty. I am looking for something that says to me, to my 'reader's eyes' that this is a book. I am looking for flow, for consistency, for believability. A certain authority. Maybe there are some great lines, perfect paragraphs, but if it doesn't grab me, then I need to figure out why.
The second half of the book needs to knit together seamlessly with the first half. Have I let my protagonist evolve too quickly? Is his evolution too slow? Believable? Compelling? Have I said too little or too much? Will anybody believe that dogs have philosophical thoughts?
The sheer length of time it takes to write 300-plus pages, some of what happened in the first few chapters may no longer apply to what has happened in subsequent chapters. Has the end I was aiming for changed? Sort of like heading down an unknown path with the vision of an oak tree at the end of it in mind, and coming up to a birch tree. It's a tree, but not the one you've expected.
There's something I'm not satisfied with, so I begin to pull at a loose thread, perhaps a plot device I don't think is working. I go ahead and pull, and suddenly I've unraveled six or seven pages. That loose thread maybe tightens up the warp of the cloth, but does it then leave some part of the pattern marooned down at the end? In other words, what I pull out in chapter 6 may have a pretty serious effect on chapter 36. I have to be cautious in my thread pulling, alert to later references to a situation I've eliminated or changed. Every decision to remove - or add to - a solid first draft manuscript must be examined for its effect on the whole. Which is why I retain all my cuttings in a special computer file. Just in case I've gone too far.
The publisher liked the first half; why am I going at it with the barber shears? Because, first and foremost, I have to like it. It's mine. Kathy Bates's character went after the James Caan character with a vengeance because she didn't like what he had done to her favorite character, the eponymous Misery (which is another good reason not to write sequels) and he stood up to her. After a fashion. Okay, he escaped, but not before she made him burn the book and write one she liked, but the point is, he had finished that story to his satisfaction and he wasn't going to have any crazy fan change his mind. Having said that, I do think that if Paul Sheldon had taken the time to reread his first draft, he'd have seen the error of his ways and spared Misery. I can't help but think his editor would have thought so too. After all, Misery loves company.