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:
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.
- 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?’
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.