One of my favorite nonfiction writers recently blogged this:
“There is a common saying about creative endeavors, “It’s never finished, it’s only abandoned.” In my own life, I’ve found this to be mostly true. When it comes to books or essays, things are finished in my world when I’m both reasonably happy with them, and very tired of them. On the last day of writing my book, my friend Kate… my copy-and-sometimes-content editor said, “At this point, we’re just moving commas around.” I realized she was right, shrugged my shoulders, and sent it to my editor. Also, my book was due that day, so what else was I going to do?”
And that right there is why writers have deadlines.
But what if you don’t have a deadline, because you don’t have an editor yet?
How do you decide when it’s done?
Well, after a summer of intense revisions with my amazing critique partners, I realized I’d gotten to the point where I was basically just moving commas around. And that’s when I realized it was time to send it out to the agent who requested it at RWA Nationals (as well as start sending out to contests, etc…)
It was really, really hard to call this manuscript “done.” As a perfectionist by nature, I’m rarely satisfied with anything I write. I want to keep revising, tweaking, making little changes… and then I had an epiphany: I could keep doing this forever. There came a point where I had to just….stop. The agent was waiting. The contest deadlines were looming. And thank goodness – because if not for that, I might never finish.
I’m not saying revision (and more revision, and even more revision!) isn’t important. It’s essential. I felt like my story was born in the revisions, not in the first draft. The revisions were where the novel took on its voice, its color, its particularity. I’m all the more appreciative of the difference multiple drafts make now that I’m writing a first draft again (of my next book, a Victorian era fantasy murder mystery!) Rough drafts are just that…rough. The polish can only come later, on the 2nd pass (or 3rd or 4th or 5th…)
There is a deeper challenge of perfectionism that being a writer makes you face head on. It’s admitting to yourself: this is the best I can do right now.
I’m sure I’ll continue to grow as a writer (while moving recently, I discovered a box of old notebooks and realized how far my writing has come even in the last five years.) But for the moment, this is my personal best. It isn’t Tolstoy…but it isn’t bad. I can’t wait for a future “best;” I can only submit my present “best.” Because only by putting it out there will I keep getting better.
So I’ve started to send this baby book out into the world (one agent and two contest this week, more to come.) Waiting to hear back what ‘the world’ thinks of it!
Would love to hear from you, dear readers and fellow writers – how do you know when a writing project is ‘done’? How do you know when it needs more work, and when it needs you to walk away? Please share in the ‘comments’ section 🙂