Friday, January 04, 2008

When is Enough Enough?

The beginning of a new year, with the attendant emphasis on endings and beginnings, is an appropriate time to discuss a matter that often confronts writers: the question of when -- or whether -- to shelve a manuscript and start a new one.

When I'm wearing my editing hat over at Gentle Pen, I often see manuscripts that are in dire need of a rewrite. Of course, the authors are upset when I impart this news. Some say they'll buckle down and get to it; others refuse. Why? Quite bluntly, some are just lazy. But others are so exhausted after having done at least one major rewrite that they freak at the thought of having to do another one. So I suggest ways to handle the edits, ways to break them down into manageable stages. (After all, sometimes just a few changes in choices can having resounding effects.) But even with the task broken down or when given line-by-line directions, some writers feel overwhelmed. They're so horrified at the idea of having to work on their manuscripts again that they inwardly shudder. What to do?

First, I reassure them. I explain that rewrites, or even multiple rewrites, are simply a fact of the writing life, sort of like death and taxes. Some of our most lauded and/or bestselling authors have written, and rewritten, a work five, or six times or more. And sometimes that encouragement helps. But every now and then a writer just shakes his head and says, "I'm sorry. I just can't bring myself to work on the dang thing anymore." What do I say then?

I tell them that I fully understand. Believe me, I do. There have been times when the thought of rereading, much less actually reworking, one of my manuscripts has made me ill. I've "rewritten" myself out, so to speak. Those are the times when I start wondering, "When is enough enough? When is it time to set this baby aside and work on something else?"

Scenes tend to come to me with almost 3D cinematic brilliance. I can see the sparkling evening gowns, smell the sexy perfume and the gun smoke; I can hear the jazzy saxophones, the screeching cars, and the scream of the silenced witness, etc. So when I start typing, it's with high hopes. But then I reread what I've written and, low and behold, everything is in flat 2D. The mental images conjured up are washed out, the pace slow or inconsistent. The dialog just doesn't have that snap, crackle and pop it's supposed to. So I work on it, work on it, work on it. The manuscript improves. I set it aside, wait a while, and read it fresh eyes. It's better, but it's not quite there yet. I work on it some more, set it aside, etc., and the cycle continues. For weeks or months, it goes on. Does any of this sound familiar?

Eventually, comes a time of reckoning. A decision must be made. I've run out of ideas for improving the book and it still isn't as rich an experience as it could be, should be. What do I do? Depending on the story, I might actually decide that I don't YET have the storytelling (i.e., technical) skills to tell a tale the way it should be. It's time to set it aside and move on.

If I make such a decision, I do it with faith, not frustration. I don't toss the manuscript aside, bury it under a pile of papers, or banish it to the nether regions of my hard drive. I know that I've done the best I can and know that I will return to it -- when the time is right. I have learned something new with every book, so I look forward to the wonderful experience of applying a new insight or skill to a previous finished but unpolished manuscript.

(Please note that I said 'finished.' You can substitute the phrase 'full draft.' I've often seen people rework one or two chapters to death and never get any further. It's important to set those chapters aside and move on. For the most part, rewrites should not be attempted until you've written down as much of the story as you can. Most of us get new ideas while writing and the story can take off in unforeseen directions. You'll never get to that point if you confine yourself to the first few chapters. So write the story through, then do your cycle of rewrites and set asides.)

One final observation in this jumbled entry: So many not-yet published writers are so focused on getting that one book out that they lose sight of the fact that authors mature and develop over time. The publishing industry's emphasis on its bottom-line has put writers under the gun to have a "bestseller" the first time and every time we come out of the gate. What a terribly unrealistic and destructive idea.

The fact is, authors build up their skills over the course of writing book after book after book. And they build up their fan base by putting out a body of work. Have you ever heard of the term "one-hit wonder?" Well, it applies to writers, too. If you don't want to be a one-hit wonder, then as a writer, you'll have to produce, again and again, at a fairly consistent level of quality. That means an investment of time and practice and learning from your mistakes. Writers who focus too long on one manuscript, telling themselves, "It just has to be perfect," run the risk of neglecting other ideas that could be developed and of stunting their learning curve.

In conclusion, I'd say please do acknowledge the realistic and unavoidable need for writing a story to its end and then doing rewrites of it, but don't let a sense of frustrated obligation to one manuscript keep you from going ahead and working on others. Strike a fair and realistic balance. Each manuscript is a work of art; each provides a lesson in the practice of your craft. Give each your best and then move on.

My best wishes for a Happy and Productive New Year!

Persia Walker


Cherlyn Michaels said...

This was a great read! I can relate to the desire not to re-write. Although I've yet to do major re-writes this early in my career, I've been at the point of going through may edits with my publishing house editor and wanting to move on to the next book. :-) I agree with the building of a fan base and becoming a better writer over time (and not the first book out). Thanks for posting this. :-)

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