Writers are often asked how we feel when we've finished writing a book. Is there a sense of relief? Are we sad? Do we actually type 'The End'?
Having answered this question in schools many times, it only struck me the other day, roughly a decade since my first book was published, that I never feel I've got to the end. I finish the book, certainly. I write the final line. But the book never feels quite finished, not because I don't type The End (does anybody?) but because every time I open the book, even when printed, I feel I could make a change: a sentence more precisely written; a better word chosen; a comma that's begun to irritate. Worse, and particularly with a historical novel, I absolutely dread finding something new about the period, something that would have been transformatory to include. As a defence, once a novel is finished, I studiously avoid any dangerous reference books or articles. Despite this, facts I didn't know contrive to slip into publications or conversations about something completely different - some snippet on armour in a piece ostensibly about garden hoses; an observation about sailing ships in a romance; a desert colour in a fashion shoot.
These little facts lurk with the sole purpose of leaping out to slap me in the face. 'Oh crikey!' I think more often than any reader imagines, 'I want my manuscript back'. Naturally, I contrive to forget the fact as soon as possible. It's the only way to get a decent night's sleep. But though I occasionally forget my dogs' names, reducing them to 'hey, dog', and almost always forget to empty the washing machine, those pesky unwanted facts stick. If I can't include them, my book seems more incomplete than ever.
Do other authors experience the same agitations and alarms? Even after proofs and copy-editors, more proofs and the application of the pedant's toothcomb, even, indeed, many years after publication, do other authors still feel their work is still wanting a final something?
My hunch is 'yes'. If you listen carefully to authors giving a public reading, you'll often find they don't read exactly what's written in the book. They 'improve' it. And why not? It's the author's work. I've seen authors take a pen and rewrite on the hoof. I do it myself. It seems that writers must learn to cope with never truly finishing until they're dead and buried, and even then I'm not sure they rest easy.
Despite the above, finishing writing a book, even if one never really feels it to be 'the end', is a moment to mark. I'm marking such a moment now. My first foray into the adult world of fiction, the novel for which I, like my characters, have been learning the Goldberg Variations, is finished and, to my great joy, has been bought by Virago. 'Sedition' will be published in summer 2014. Then begins something new - the long road to the reader.
I've marked the ending of this stage in Sedition's journey as I mark all similar endings: by grabbing a saw. Hacking away at my manuscript is swiftly followed by a cathartic hacking away at unruly bits of the garden. The dogs look on with some concern. What will happen when the garden can be pruned no more? They watch me for a while, then creep back inside, counting their legs.