"How do I know if my book is done?" This is one of the questions we'll be tackling in our next workshop, and it's a tough one. In my experience, no book is ever really done. At some point, you just stop writing. You decide it's as done as it's ever gonna be. You realize you could spend the rest of your life writing the same book over and over and you decide you're not gonna do that.
Years ago, a literary agent sat me down to explain about something called "the narrative arc." He thought my book, the working title of which was "Jungle Cowboy," needed more of one. An arc, that is. I had no idea what he was talking about.
Two years later, the book was still a work-in-progress. I took it to another agent, who said, "I love it, but it feels like it doesn't have an ending. I don't know what it is I'm reading to find out."
Damn. How do you fix something like that? She couldn't tell me. Nobody could tell me.
I was learning a craft—the craft of storytelling—but the process was painfully slow, because I couldn't find a teacher. Every good book I've since read on the subject had not yet been written. I would ask people—people who led writing workshops—about how to structure a narrative so that it lands on its feet and not on its face, and they'd just look at me with something like pity, as if this sort of knowledge was ingrained, and you either had it (and therefore you were a writer) or you didn't (and therefore you weren't).
I struggled with that book for years. It went through many working titles and countless iterations. One day, I logged into a publishing platform for indie authors and uploaded a PDF of what was by then called Our House in Arusha. I hit "publish."
The first shipment landed a couple of weeks later on my front porch.
Our House in Arusha sold over 20,000 copies on Amazon and was in the front window at Bud and Bella's Bookstore on Main Street in Randolph, Vermont. My mother was ecstatic.
I didn't sit right back down and begin writing another book. Instead, I began helping other writers learn the craft of story-telling.
My November workshop is a pilot project of the Korongo Writers Studio. We'll be looking at beginnings, endings, and everything in between. At least two of our writers have works-in-progress, and they are wondering how to tackle revisions. Here's some advice that was given to me, and I'll pass it along in the form of a writing exercise:
Before you begin another round of revisions, ask yourself two questions:
1. When I began to think of this story, what was it that intrigued me?
What idea did you start with? What thought could you not get out of your head? Write down in less than a page why you care about the story you want to tell.
One of the thoughts I couldn't let go of was the moment when Thomas, age 11, looked at me with big sad eyes and said, "I wish I had a real mother. One who would stay home with me." I was about to leave on a business trip of several weeks. I had just become his stepmother. I was still on trial.
2. What do I want my readers to go away thinking about?
See if you can nail the point of your story in a few concise lines. Try to drill down to its essence.
In fact, there are certain rules you can apply to test a story for doneness, but I'll save them for another post. For now, I just want you to stop, refocus, and take a deep breath before you head down that long, lonely road again.