Sometimes you just have to stop
Every year in Winnipeg, several dozen authors descend on the city for The International Writer’s Festival. For two weekends and the week between, they do workshops, public readings, and sessions in schools, bookstores, coffee shops, and performance venues all about town. (This year, the festival, for years now called Thin Air, is Sept 22 – 30.)
In our ethnically diverse and culturally rich city, there are multiple festivals one can attend. But this is one of my favourites. There are a number of reasons for that. One has to do with an experience I had at that festival a number of years ago.
I had taken a break from work and driven to a nearby bookstore where one of the authors was doing a public reading. I do not recall the author’s name, nor what his book was about. But I do remember that his writing was rich with well-manicured sentences, witty turns-of-phrase, and colourful (in the best sense of that word) vocabulary. So, after he had finished, I decided to thank him for his presentation. As I stood near him to wait my turn, I glanced over at the lectern he had used. There, lying on the top of the podium was the book he had used for his reading, chockfull of editor’s marks. And there weren’t just one or two of them. He had packed the pages with strike-throughs, arrows, and re-crafted sentences. There was even (as I recall) a delete symbol over an entire paragraph.
When my turn came, I pointed to the book and asked him about the marks. His reply was interesting and, as it turns out, has stayed with me as a kind of ‘writer’s life lesson.’ “Oh heavens,” he said. “I would never read in public today what I published more than five years ago. I am a much better writer now than I was then.” Then he looked at me and said, “A book is never actually finished. One simply runs into a deadline and stops.”
Now I must admit two things here. One, although I placed his words in quotes, I would not swear that those were his precise words. But I am quite certain that I am close. Two, that writer put me on to something that I think I am just now beginning to learn. If you are a consistently improving writer, any book you write, when it is finished, could always be better. Sometimes, you just need to stop.
I just “finished” a book. It is titled, A Travel Guide to the Bible. As I write this, I have been looking over the “galley proofs.” The book is 268 pages long and represents about four years of work and at least nine rewrites. That does not include multiple copy edits and partial adjustments. And I have had two other editors work through the book and make editorial corrections and suggestions as well. Are those numbers a bit excessive? Perhaps, but I know that they are not terribly so. Perhaps that seemingly high number has to do with the nature of the project.
I wrote the book to introduce the Bible to people who have little or no familiarity with the Bible. Then, I re-wrote the book using a limited vocabulary set and an abridged grammar. The rewrites were needed because my target audience is the reader who speaks or reads English at only a Threshold or beginning level. I wanted to make a book that would be useful to missionaries who are teaching English overseas who have asked for such a resource. I also wanted to provide a tool to help churches in North America reach the ever-growing number of immigrants and refugees who are finding their way here. Writing with those self-imposed limitations does not make for quick rewrites nor simple edits. How does one, after all, tell a story in which a woman pours expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet when neither the word perfume nor the word expensive is among the 2,400 most commonly used vocabulary words in English?
But, after four years (more like four and one-half from the first concept), it is time to stop. No, the writing has not been continuous. Various drafts were field-tested and amended based on the feedback. Numerous people read the book in draft form while we lived in Vietnam and others during multiple trips to Haiti, and West Africa. But now the book is finished.
OK, I probably will go through the book one more time just to smooth out a spot here and there, but I am going to stop – soon.
Four and a half years is a long time. But maybe my next book (in the draft stage now for a similar audience) will reap the benefits of what I have learned writing the first one. At least, that’s what I’m counting on.