Let’s continue from last week’s post inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing, which I found via Brain Pickings. If you haven’t read the first part, or want a refresher on the full list of commandments, you can click back to last week’s post here.
This week, we get to the second of eleven commandments:
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
This follows “Work on one thing at a time until finished,” which I added to for my own purposes last week. This second commandment seems to be two commandments pressed together. The first part, “Start no more new books” reiterates the first commandment then “add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’ ” gets into the often tricky territory of how you know when a book is done.
If we’re only working on one book at a time (and maybe also the occasional poem, etc., but one novel at a time, anyway) is Henry Miller trying to tell us that once that book is done, stop fiddling with it? Or is he trying to tell us that while we’re writing this one novel, not to go back and revise the previous novel?
I think I need to do a few minutes of research to see if I can shed some light on what he meant here . . .
These commandments, and the work schedule we’ll get to next week, were published in the book Henry Miller on Writing, which was first published in 1964 but has an earlier copyright of 1939, so I assume at least some material therein was first published then. The work schedule was from the earlier book Henry Miller Miscellanea, published in 1945 and is noted as having been written in 1932-1933. His novel Black Spring was first published in Paris in 1936, or three or four years after his work schedule was written, so what should we make of this reference to Black Spring?
The easy assumption is that at some point between 1933 and the 1945 publication, at least, of Henry Miller Miscellanea he added that reference to Black Spring. Assuming they were written in the order they were published, Black Spring is his second novel, following Tropic of Cancer (1934) and followed by Tropic of Capricorn (1939), leading me to believe that the one book Henry Miller was working on when he wrote the commandments as published on Brain Pickings was Tropic of Capricorn and he was telling himself not to keep revising Black Spring, instead concentrating fully on Tropic of Capricorn.
Safe assumptions, at least, so let’s roll with that.
This means, then, that at some point Henry Miller felt he was done with Black Spring and safe to move on, even if he felt he had to occasionally (or at least this once) remind himself not to keep fiddling with the previous book.
His first commandment reads “Work on one thing at a time until finished,” too, so that further backs up that he felt he was done with Black Spring and only started Tropic of Capricorn after the first commandment was satisfied. Looking back at the rest of the commandments, these first two are the only ones that seem to indicate that there’s a clear “done” point, and Miller doesn’t get much deeper into that.
Still, this is a question that, as an editor, I’m asked over and over again:
When/how do I know I’m done?
We still sort of glossed over that in my examination of Dean Wesley’s Smith’s look at a similar list of “commandments” from Robert Heinlein. I want to focus, then, on what I mean by “done,” whether or not either Henry Miller or Robert Heinlein would strictly agree.
First, you know when you’ve made it to at least the planned ending of the story, assuming you’ve planned at all. Some people rigidly reject the idea of an outline while others rigidly reject the idea of writing without one. I tend to outline, revise the ever loving crap out of that outline as I go, and maybe three times out of four end up more or less at the ending I originally had in mind. That other 25% of the time I’ve had an idea for a better ending somewhere along the line, and so begin writing in that direction. It’s still an “outline,” but it’s an outline that’s being revised as I go.
If you are a confirmed so-called “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants) that’s perfectly fine by me. If you’re actually writing stuff then by all means get there however you get there. But still, I think everyone has a sense of “this is the end of the story.”
If you don’t—if you don’t feel that and have gotten to either your outlined ending or some other more arbitrary goal like a target word count and it doesn’t feel as though the story is over yet . . . keep writing until you feel it.
Then, if you’re at all like me, you’ve also collected up a few scribbled notes here and there as you went along for revisions to be revised later, research to be researched later, plot holes to be filled later, worldbuilding to be built later, and so on. Once you’ve written in ecstasy up to “the end” it’s officially “later,” so time to do all that stuff. This is the revision pass that I think even Dean Wesley Smith would condone and (pretty much) everyone else assumes has to be done even in the simplest of short stories.
After all those holes are filled, placeholders made permanent, etc.—give it a top to bottom read. This is where you’ll find some typos, at least, but quite possibly identify another missing scene, some weird logic gap, or other issue that’ll mean some work.
Do that work.
Next, give it to someone else—anyone else—to read. Preferably that “anyone” should be smart, reasonably well read in the genre in which you’re writing, and positively inclined toward you enough to spend their time reading your novel (it’s a fair imposition, so approach these “beta readers” with respect and humility) but who you can also trust to offer real, actionable advice. Someone who just tells you, “It’s great!” isn’t helping. It may well be great, but it isn’t perfect. That’s not possible. So make sure you give that beta reader permission to criticize, point out issues, ask questions, etc. Then actually listen to those opinions, but always understand that they’re opinions and not commandments, so you still get to decide what to ignore, what to take to heart, and how to incorporate that into your manuscript.
Now you’re “done” at least to the point where Heinlein would say “You must refrain from rewriting unless to editorial order” and Henry Miller would say “add no more new material.”
Keep in mind, always, though, that creative writing is the very triumph of the subjective. There is no set of commandments, rules, no checklist that will tell you, definitely and definitively, that this book is as done as it’ll ever be.
If you’re sure it still needs work, do the work. If you’re sure it’s done, it’s done.
If you’re not sure, stop what you’re doing, sit down, and think. Better yet, find a kind ear to help you—your beta reader is a good choice, so is literally any other writer—and let that person play therapist, listening as you bitch about not knowing if your novel is done or not. Hopefully that person will smile and nod and occasionally say stuff like, “Okay,” and “Are you sure?” but otherwise not play the role of collaborator. By the end of that one-sided conversation, if you’re still not sure then I say you’re not done. Get back at it until you are sure, but if you get to the end of full revision pass number three and you still hate it, you’ve probably written a shitty book.
Add no more new material to it and start working on a new novel, to the exclusion of all others.
When you’ve finished or even while you’re working on that one, maybe some flash of inspiration will hit you and you can go back to the previous book and finish it happily. Maybe it’ll forever lay there on your pile of failures. Either way you’re writing, and it’s the writing that’s the thing.
That having been said, I’ll revise Henry Miller’s second commandment to instead read:
2. Start on your next novel only when you feel you’re done with your last novel, and take a break from the new novel only to revise that last novel according to editorial advice or flash of inspiration, then get back to the new novel as soon as you can.
More wordy, less restrictive, and admittedly more prone to navel gazing—to endless revision. But if you take that not as a separate bit of advice but in the context of the rest, which we’ll continue with next week, you may find that though Henry Miller doesn’t get into the concept of “done,” per se, a lot of the rest of what he has to say will help you avoid the kind of endless revision shame cycle we all dread so much.