I won't put it here, for fear that it will semi-spoil the ending for the nine or ten people who are eager to read it. However, let's just say it's more or less this:
I strode outside, slid my sword into its scabbard, and began my quest.
So, just to make sure you understand: the book is not a medieval adventure, OK? It takes place in the present day, in spite of the title ("Castle"). But the sentence above is structurally similar to the real last line.
Now, I stared at that thing for about ten minutes, and after some consideration, changed it to this:
I strode outside, slid my sword into its scabbard, and set off on my quest.
Then I alerted my agent, editor, and editoral director, and asked them to please make the change in their copies of the ms. Done!
Except of course I wasn't. Yesterday, the cat woke me up at 5:30, and I couldn't go back to sleep, from thinking about that sentence. What I didn't like was "off on." Off on? What the hell was that? Of course, you don't notice that unless you're obsessing over it, which I was--but it's the last sentence, and it has to be perfect, in meaning, rhythm, and connotation. So at 6AM I emailed everyone again and asked them to please change it to
I strode outside, slid my sword into its scabbard, and set out on my quest.
And I immediately turned off my computer and didn't turn it on again until midafternoon.
You see the problem, right? "set out" and "outside" in the same sentence. Again, it's perfectly clear, but that repetition does not sound right. After another 12 hours of consideration, and a request for my associates to vote on which was best, I went back to "set off on my quest." I'll leave it that way until I get the copyedits, and maybe I'll come up with something better.
There's a school of thought that says that, when you start changing things and changing them back, you're done. The implication is that eleventh-hour hairsplitting is inherently unproductive, and if you're doing it, the problem isn't the work, the problem is you. And personally, I'm sympathetic to that argument. I'm a writer who likes to get things done, and move on to something new, and hairsplitting of this nature is not especially conducive to that goal.
That said, if you're not hairsplitting, maybe you're in the wrong line of work. The sound, the feel, of sentences is important. It's what fiction writing is. Psychological acuity, emotional depth, gripping narrative: these are the things we like to see in a book. But the way they're delivered is as important as any of them individually, and perhaps as important as all of them together. As important, say, as the pot is, when you're making soup.
Every novelist has to find his comfort zone between the need for every sentence to be perfect, and the need to get it over with already. Skimp on the former, you're a hack. Skimp on the latter, you never publish a thing. For some of us, there is no comfort zone, and it's these writers who suffer from a block. And there's danger in finding a comfort zone, too, because if you get too comfortable there, you'll never discover anything new in your work. You will be boring.
Anyway, making art of any kind is a balancing act: between self-confidence and self-loathing; between accessibility and obscurity; between the audience and the artist. Most of the time, a good writer isn't even aware of being balanced: she is in her element. Sometimes, though, even the best writer looks down and notices how narrow the rope is, how far the drop is, and wonders how exactly she's managed to keep standing there all this time.
That's what I was doing this week. But houseguests are coming, and it's summer, and so I'm scabbarding my sword and beginning my quest.
Setting off on my quest.