Finishing a Manuscript: The Strange Maths of Slacking
Finishing a book is like approaching the speed of light. The closer you get to that magic end point, the slower time passes. As you reach the speed of light, time stops and theoretically you occupy all points in the space time continuum simultaneously. Which is how I imagine you feel when you finally finish editing the manuscript for your first fiction title. Interestingly, the ending of time as a variable is why we can’t exceed the speed of light in space time. Einstein posited the idea as attempting to stop a parked car, it’s already stationery so you can’t make it more stationery once it’s reached that point. This is all useful stuff for a science fiction writer to grasp.
But of course you know, deep down, that the apparent slowing of time as you finish is illusory. Or perhaps it’s not, perhaps it belongs to some branch of quantum theory at the fringes of theoretical maths, like Stephen Hawking’s Imagined Time. Perhaps, as we perceive the passing of time within the electrical signals that comprise thought, time can become a variable that slows and speeds up based on our perception. It’s an intriguing thought. And it’s keeping me from finishing my book too. I am procrastinating, and as Charles Dickens’ famous Mr. Pickwick noted, procrastination is the thief of time. At least, presumably, until he reaches the speed of light at which point he’s pretty much buggered on that front.
I know that, as I sit working through the edits, time is moving at the same speed as when I brushed my teeth this morning. But that seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. Book-finishing time is more like watching the car ahead in a traffic jam, aching for it to show some sign of movement. It’s that kind of slow.
Sip the coffee. Look out of the window. The jackdaws are fighting with the chicken on the patio. The chicken is winning. Check the watch. The little second-hand spirals slowly down but never crashes into the face beneath it. It’s trapped in an endless flat rotation. Like me.
The book took me seven weeks to write the first draft. The story possessed me. I locked myself away in my office. I became this distant, unkempt man in the attic. Boo Radley. And like poor Boo, this made my children utterly determined to find out what I was doing, locked away all day in self-imposed exile from the world beyond my door. They would creep in, hiding behind the box files, and watch. They’d sneak up behind me, read over my shoulder. “Daddy, that man said the F-word” they’d whisper. Shhhh. Don’t tell mummy.
It took me about six months after that to self edit my draft to finished. The children were emboldened by then. They knew the story had superheroes in it. They’d ask about the costumes (none, well, not really) their powers (life limiting, more like disabilities at times), the action (unglamorous, violent, the grim reality of actual fighting, not like the comics). I answered as best I could in words that wouldn’t confuse them. I loved it. It’s was a great way to help me understand my own story.
Now I’m working with an actual editor I realise the time was never moving slowly at all. That was just an illusion. The truth is the story gets denser as it progresses. The plot quite literally thickens and, consequently, there’s more editing to be done. It’s as simple as that.
Supervillain is about 112,000 words but it’s about a five-week period in the antihero’s life, as he unintentionally goes from being an ordinary private citizen to being public enemy number one. A story like this needs a sense of perspective. Characters, places and events all have their own timeline to explain their presence on the page, and as the plot gathers pace, you’re writing more and more time into the same space on the page. It’s not the book that’s warping time, it’s the writer.
The backstory to the events that shaped the plot goes back about three years. The backstory to the character and his relationship with his wife, goes back about two years. The backstory of the bad guys goes back to the 1920s. The tale of his sidekicks maybe push back four years. The world, the scene setting, begins to sprawl in time, ahead with anticipation and behind with retrospection.
The big picture stuff is quicker to edit than the intense, personal events. The personal events are faster edits than the action. The action, which covers short, intense bursts of events (over just a few short hours when aggregated together throughout the story) takes the longest. Action needs detail to avoid becoming cartoonish. Detail is edit heavy.
And so, I solve my temporal dilemma: Plot Time (p) is inversely proportional to Edit time (e). Or p=c/e if you’re a mathematician.
Which explains more of the time warp effect. Editing detail, making it consistent, avoiding repetition of words and phrases takes a lot of focus. And so does editing for pace or keeping dialogue natural and flowing. And the closer I get to the end, the more I have to do it because there is more detail and dialogue to do it for. But the p=c/e equation also predicts another mathematical formula, namely the fact finishing a book (for a writer) becomes harder because their tendency to procrastinate (tp) increases exponentially as they reach the end of the writing process (0wp). Or tp=Ex 0wp in mathematical notation.
This secondary formula can be proven by the fact I’ve just spent time, and effort, to create two totally pointless mathematical formulae when in fact, I should be editing my book to completion. Q.E.D Or as I prefer to say, adopting a latin term from trigonometry most frequently associated with congruent triangle algebra, Quod Erat Facendium or Q.E.F., meaning “that which was to be done”.
And there I did it again. Q.E.F and Q.E.D. I think. Ha. I felt pretty smug for a few short moments there before realising I’m wasting my time and should be getting on with the edit. Bah. Hoisted on my own petard… which interestingly refers to being blown up by your own grenade, and is one of Shakespeare’s best fart gags from Falstaff. As it happens. I’m doing it again, aren’t I. Damn you latin. DAMN YOU.
In the end, I suspect have to force myself to end it. My editor (a brave and heroic woman called ReRe Simpson) has done her best. Now it’s over to me. Work through it. Wade on through the thickening time, get to the end. Save the algebra and theoretical physics for a well earned pint… after you’ve finished.