Or at least, well, that’s what I thought. Sort of.
When back in May, in my third semester, I finished a new draft of a novel I had been working on for…ahem…a lot of years, I was ecstatic. But the glorious feeling that yes, I got it, that I nailed it this time, lasted for about…oh, twenty minutes.
After that, doubts and questions flooded my mind. Was my main character active enough? What did she even actually do?
Still I sent it to my then advisor, and after getting back her insightful and encouraging comments I tinkered with the draft some more. Then I thought, I was really finished. Really, really. That one lasted a few months 🙂
I am just back from a family trip to the Italian Alps, so I can’t help but think in mountain metaphors. Because it just seems so similar! When you’re climbing and climbing for hours past all these clouds, bend by bend, turning and turning up into the gorgeous infinite sky, and your whole body is screaming SOS, I am so done here!, and it seems you will reach the destination just around the bend, but when you get there, new breathtaking views open up and show you the path keeps snaking on ahead, what are you going to do, turn around and go back?
Revisions can feel that way sometimes.
My new fourth-semester advisor read the draft recently. She had some things to say, she had sharp questions; she had more insightful comments. She made me see things that I can’t now un-see. I am excited about the possibility of drawing more connections through my work, of making the story even truer. But you know how we all have that small chicken voice in our head? Well, the voice in my head wonders scared, is it worth it? Will I ever be done?
The best way to shut up the chicken voice, in my opinion, is to focus on the work. But another fun way to do it is to write up a blog post about it. 🙂
Ray Bradbury and many others talked about the idea of 1,000 words a day, the idea that it takes that many failures to master anything worthwhile. Some writers come to that mastery through many abandoned books, first or second drafts, perhaps, that are their learning, their stepping stones. Beth Revis, for example, a NYT bestselling YA science fiction author, wrote ten “drawer” manuscripts before she got to THE ONE (Across the Universe, one of my favorite books).
Me? I have a few dead picture books in the drawer, a few false novel starts, a rough novel draft of maybe-something-we’ll-see. One fantasy YA manuscript I wrote was so bad I deleted it, with glee! But mostly, over the years, I have been revising two novels. Two stories of my heart that I just can’t seem to let go. This latest one has been getting better draft after draft after draft. There is no doubt about it: I have been getting closer.
But the busy worried little chicken wants to know, how can I know for sure when I do get it right? Will I ever know?
I am sure I am not the only one wrestling with such questions. So I figured that just for fun, I’d ask some others for their take on this.
Here is what they had to say:
From Trent Reedy, a YA author and a VCFA alumni:
“My dear Katia Raina, (almost) MFA, you are asking my all time favorite question. I used to ask this question ALL THE TIME. Seriously, I would ask every visiting writer at VC. I would ask it at every Q and A time at book shows. Because….if we accept that we as writers are always improving our craft, then it stands to reason that our current manuscript can be improved. How is a writer to know when to turn in the manuscript, when to submit it for representation and publication? My first novel, WORDS IN THE DUST is the only book I’ve ever sent to a publisher “complete.” With all others I have earned publishing contracts on partials, by sending up three chapters and an outline. How did I know WORDS IN THE DUST was ready to send up? I had, of course, the help of my VCFA advisors with that one. But even then, I graduated VC knowing that WORDS required at least one more significant overhaul and another polishing. I didn’t know what else could be done. I sent it to agents and one editor and one of those agents and editor rejected with the same, useful revision suggestion. I did that revision and tried again. It worked.
In short, for the writer to know when his manuscript is ready to submit for professional publication, he must read hundreds of books and learn all he can about craft. He must teach himself to understand how unready his previous manuscripts were. Then he must apply what he has learned about craft over and over again until he has exhausted the sum of his knowledge, until he has worked until he has dulled the tools in his writer’s craft toolbox. After that, he seeks out his writer friends so that he can use their suggestions to revise again. And when all that has been done, and the well learned writer has no idea what else can be done to improve the manuscript, then, MAYBE then, it is ready to submit for professional publication.”
And from Amy King, better know to the world as A.S. King, multiple award-winning author of contemporary YA novels and a member of the VCFA faculty, who writes one new book a year:
“The answer to your question really depends on the book. A wise friend of mine says that you know that you’re done writing a novel when you’ve revised so much that you hate it. In my experience, this has held true. However, I’ve also had books that I don’t hate when I’m done. I just know I’m done because after so many revisions and printed manuscripts and reads, there isn’t one more thing I’d change.”
Finally, here is perspective from my own advisor, Louise Hawes:
“I’m never finished, I’m always revising. Because as I pointed out, via Graham Greene, in my lecture on openings, you’re not the same person when you finish a book as when you start. Or a week after you publish as two weeks after that. So I’ve never read a book of mine at a bookstore or school or conference, that I haven’t “revised” for that reading. As for when to quit “tinkering” with a manuscript and send it off to a publisher, agent, or competition, that’s another question. And the answer, of course, is different with each writer. For me, when I stop waking up wanting to fix this or change that, I know I’ve stopped living with a story. It’s time to send it out into the world to live with its readers!”
As for me, I love revision as much as I love the mountains. I am proud and excited and yes, nervous, too, to go back to the work, to see it again, with new eyes, then to delve in, and try to get even closer. That’s my learning. That’s the fun of the writing life. I guess it’s never really over. Like Louise says, at one point, you just let your book go out into the world and focus on the next one.
When will I know when I get there? I don’t have my answer yet. All I have is trust that one day I will. Meanwhile, the winding journey is scenic. I might as well enjoy the views!
“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.” Ray Bradbury