You'll often hear writers say that starting is the hardest part. All that dramatic stuff about wrestling with the tyranny of the blank page, the haunted hours spent waiting for inspiration to strike or simply wishing for a sustained burst of consistent mediocrity to help push you out from dry land into open sea.
But, really, it's not true. Starting is relatively easy. I suspect famously fallow writers such as J. D. Salinger have started many, many new books over the years; it's deciding when and where to stop that keeps them silent. In all walks of life, beginnings are usually meticulously planned, brimful of good intentions, and erring on the side of hope and optimism for the journey ahead. Endings, on the other hand, like most goodbyes, are often enforced, clumsy, and just a little unsatisfactory.
In fact, it's tempting to imagine that the majority of books aren't definitively finished, and instead are simply abandoned with as much care and consideration as possible: tight deadlines, financial restraints, dwindling inspiration. Each can play their part in rushing a writer to the end long before they have exhausted or articulated every relevant strand of inspiration.
At least biographies, of which I've written two, have a natural ending stitched into their DNA. If the subject is alive, you aim to get as close to the present day as possible; if the subject is dead, so much the better: you have your full stop. But with fiction or — in the case of my latest book — musical criticism, there is no such chequered flag telling you when to pull in. Which is one reason why good editors are worth their weight in gold.
Writing a book isn't just about reconciling yourself to this nagging sense of incompletion. Getting the final article in your hands can be nerve-wracking, too. I was reminded of all this last week when the finished copies of I Shot a Man in Reno arrived on my doorstep. It should be a moment of sheer elation, but for me and many other writers I know, this event takes the form of a more ambiguous reckoning, usually defined by a gnawing sense of unease deep in the pit of the stomach.
Having negotiated the optimistic and energised beginning, the various drafts, the final manuscript, and bound galleys, here is your statement to the world set in stone. Any typos, stray commas, factual errors, or clumsy constructions are there to stay. Likewise, any new and brilliant ideas have missed their departure slot. Little wonder leafing through the finished work for the first time can hardly be described as straightforwardly enjoyable; and little wonder so many writers now love to blog — the internet can be used to construct a supplementary text for your book, a place to explain, elucidate, apologise, or dig deeper. I'm no different: you can usually find me making my excuses here.
It's almost exactly four years since I was handed a finished copy of my first book. It happened to be my birthday, which I know, through personal experience, is rarely a good omen. The book looked absolutely wonderful, beautifully bound in hardback with two glossy plate sections. The thrill — and it was a mighty big thrill, let me tell you — lasted around 40 seconds, until, leafing through, I spotted the first typo (one that I had consistently pointed out to my editor and which I'd been promised had been changed. And it had been changed, just not correctly). Immediately, all that elation fizzled into impotent fury. About nine months later, I was sent the paperback copy of the same book, and discovered that the 2,000-word update I had written for the revised edition had been omitted entirely through an act of almost heroic incompetence. Believe me, these are the kinds of things that can spoil forever the anticipation of sending your book out into the world.
Happily, I Shot a Man in Reno looks great. Even better, a good six months after finishing the bulk of the work, it remains the closest I've yet come to achieving the goals that were in my head when I first started. That's not to say that there aren't some things I would change (why didn't I discuss Family Snapshot by Peter Gabriel? I mean, really, why?), but in terms of the always imperfect art of writing a book, this time it's something close to a happy ending.