word craft


When is a book done? And well done?

Well done

Alas, nev­er. 

Yes, there comes a time when the changes I make are min­i­mal. That’s a fin­ish of sorts. Or there comes a time when I can’t bear to look at the pages again. That too, is a form of fin­ish­ing. Or, at least, paus­ing. Then there is that moment when the copy­ed­i­tor reviews the work and calls for x num­ber of changes. I do them. A kind of fin­ish­ing. Or I have gone through gal­leys a few times and don’t—at that moment—change any­thing, except adding two com­mas. More often than not, in my expe­ri­ence, I am fin­ished when my edi­tor says, “Avi! We have a dead­line to meet.” That said, I do not enjoy read­ing one of my pub­lished books—and rarely do so unless I need to—because I will always—always—find some­thing that could have been made better. 

Writ­ing, in this sense, is a life-long exer­cise in frus­tra­tion. Because it is also true that when I read works by authors I admire I rarely tell myself—oh, that could have been bet­ter. Those folks seem to get it all right. How come I don’t?  

Part of the rea­son is that the nov­el I write comes out my think­ing. And that think­ing is often vague, or unde­fined, or even illog­i­cal. Yet I sit down and try to cap­ture those notions in con­crete sen­tences, log­i­cal plots, mul­ti-faceted char­ac­ters, char­ac­ters well thought out. Then I take a break from my work and go for a walk and see some­one walk­ing with a stiff gait. “Ah! Of course. My char­ac­ter A walks like that.” Not exact­ly planned. 

One gets a hint of this when hear­ing a young per­son retort, some­one who is learn­ing to write and is being chal­lenged as to mean­ing, “Well I under­stand what I wrote.” What they are actu­al­ly say­ing is “I know what I thought,” which dif­fers from what they wrote. 

What makes a writer a pro­fes­sion­al writer? I’ve long believed that it comes about when one writes for strangers. My wife is a very good read­er, and pro­vides excel­lent cri­tiques of my work, but inevitably when she responds to my work she is also respond­ing to me. How could she not? 

A lot of my col­leagues shun read­ing pub­lished reviews of their work, par­tic­u­lar­ly online ones. I’ve even been encour­aged by edi­tors not to read those reviews. And it’s true, there are the dis­mis­sive ones (not to be con­fused with the crit­i­cal ones) which tell you noth­ing. But I read reviews in hopes I will learn some­thing. If twen­ty such review­ers say the book has an exces­sive­ly slow start, they are prob­a­bly right. 

So how do you know if you have writ­ten well? If a hun­dred strangers think you have done a good job, you prob­a­bly have. 

But of course, there are books which, when pub­lished (Moby Dick, The Great Gats­by), are brushed aside only to roar back to lit­er­ary life. 

And what of those books that are at first laud­ed and then fade away? 

Writ­ing, a life-long exer­cise in frustration. 

But enough of this. Time for me to go fin­ish the book on which I’m work­ing. Maybe.

3 thoughts on “When is a book done? And well done?”

  1. I love the fact, Avi, that your com­ments are real and down to earth. I have col­lect­ed and filed many of your blogs over the past three years. Thank you for shar­ing your thoughts about writ­ing and “fin­ish­ing.”
    Robin Beers

    • Dif­fer­ent cul­tures, dif­fer­ent pub­lish­ing visions, dif­fer­ent sense of design, dif­fer­ent marketing


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