One of my favourite Stephen Sondheim songs comes from Sunday in the Park With George, and is called Finishing the Hat.

It’s about the creative process and the end goes like this:

However you live,
There’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat…
Starting on a hat..
Finishing a hat…
Look, I made a hat…
Where there never was a hat.

I thought of that song this week as I tried to finish the book.

But, you cry, haven’t you already finished the book? Didn’t you say you finished it months ago?

Well, yes. But there’s finishing and finishing.

Here are the stages of finishing.

  1. The first draft. This isn’t the first time I get to the end.  But it’s the first time I know that I have a book. Which is the greatest relief of all — the ms has a beginning, middle and end. It will work. Whenever I show these manuscripts in triumph to agent, editor, reader, I’m met with bemused and/or worried looks.  ‘It’s a bit thin,’ they say.  Or, ‘it doesn’t quite add up, does it?’ And I want to shout, ‘yes OF COURSE it’s a bit thin and it doesn’t add up AT ALL, but it’s THERE.  Can’t you see that it’s THERE?, even though it’s NOT QUITE there?’
  2. The penultimate draft. This isn’t, contrary to appearances, the second to last. It might be the 12th to last, but it’s the one that has all the thickening in place, and the one in which most things add up. It’s the one that a really good editor reads and picks out the bits that still feel a bit weak or a bit fiddled or a bit lazy.
  3. The last draft.  This stage sometimes seems to last forever. It’s the draft that could be published, but with copyedits, foreign editors, and lots of other people now reading it, there are bound to be a few tweaks here and there. This is where my Dutch translator comes in and sternly asks whether butchers are open on Sundays in the UK.
  4. My utterly last totally final draft. In which I remove repeat words and take 1,000 words out of the story. I nearly always take 1,000 words out of the story at the end. Not from some abstract policy, but because at this stage (at last) I can see that saying something once is usually enough.
  5. In America, I add one more draft. That’s the one after the copyeditor does his/her thing, which involves removing each comma in the book and putting it back somewhere else. Then I have to figure out where they go all over again. I’ve tried to skip this stage, but no number of pleading NOTE TO COPYEDITOR PLEASE READ!s has ever helped.

And then it’s a few minutes off, and on to the next. Which has been gently simmering on a back burner somewhere for about thirty years.

The next hat.

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13 thoughts on “Finishing the book

  1. Celine 4 years ago

    Ah. Yes. Perfect description of the weirdest process known to man or beast.

  2. Jody Casella 4 years ago

    Meg, thanks for sharing this. Never heard that song but it seems perfect for this process. (I’m between #2 and #3. Never gotten this far before so I’m not weary of it so much as amazed at the fiddling around still left to do on a manuscript I had laughingly thought was finished three years ago.)

  3. JOYCE OWENS 4 years ago

    Must be the creative process. Designing a building is very similar and likely just as emotional – both good and bad. Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the final draft.

  4. Marian De Smet 4 years ago

    And even if the book is really finished, when it’s printed and ready to sell, I’ve got the feeling: Why did I say it was finished? I always want to change something, so I don’t read my own book after it’s printed. For a year, or so.

  5. Jody 4 years ago

    New to you on Twitter, so decided to check you out. The year you entered Harvard, I was working for the first time at Radcliffe, and I lived right across the street from the freshman dorms on Mass. Ave. I had a black & white cat called Yossarian and I’d let him roam Harvard Yard all day when I went to work. One day he didn’t come back, so I was wondering whether you might’ve seen him?

    I’m a fellow writer.

    1. Meg Rosoff 4 years ago

      Haven’t seen Yossarian. Hamster called Major Major spotted last week though.

  6. Jake Elliott 4 years ago

    Are you excited? Are you? Are you EXCITED?!
    AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

    Well, I sure am.

  7. ejrunyon 4 years ago

    tweeted this. too true not to share.

  8. Vanessa Harbour 4 years ago

    I love that song too and your description of the processes is spot on. Hope the writing is going well Nx

  9. jackie 4 years ago

    I finished my last book at least 3 times, and then just couldn’t read it. Books. Funny things.

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