JWAM reader request no. 10: Finishing

Beth says:

My question is about finishing writing, and knowing when to stop.

Do you have a critique group, or a close group of beta readers that advise you (and if not, have you ever)? How do you know when to take their advice and when to ignore it? At what point do you look at the manuscript and think: this is well and truly done?

Taylor Hicklen says:

I know rewrites and edits are a good thing, but is there a point where you shouldn’t tamper with a story anymore?

My immediate response is that no book is ever “well and truly done”. They could all be made better. Every single one of them, yes, even Pride and Prejudice.1 There is no point at which “you shouldn’t tamper with a story anymore”.

Problem is that if we all took that attitude we’d all be working on the same book our entire lives and it’d only find its way into print when we carked it. Not very satisfactory. So, yes, at some point you have to let your story go. It may not be a forever letting go. It may just be letting go to send out to agents and/or editors. If it does sell it will be return to you and you’ll be rewriting it again. I know some writers who continue to revise books after they’ve been published.2

However, as a writer who’s had several books under contract, deadlines are my signal to stop. Deadlines are extremely good at focussing the mind. If I don’t finish on time, I don’t get my next wadge of dosh, which means the rent isn’t paid and the crops fail. No one wants failed crops . . .

But, of course, that’s not helpful for those writing without a contract.

Plus it’s not even true of everyone with a contract given that so many of them ignore their deadlines.3 Why, certain writers haven’t had a manuscript on time in ten or twenty years. (You know who you are.) I know of writers who are years late with their books. Who get a phone call every year from their editor, “So, um, would it be total madness to put you on the fall schedule of 2010? How about 2011? 2012? You can still type, yes?” Editor puts phone down and cries.

I suspect that part of the problem is that there are so many different meanings of “finished”:

  • There’s finished as in ready for someone other than you to look at. I remember the first time I showed someone part of my first attempt at a novel. I was TERRIFIED.
  • There’s finished as in ready to be sent out to agents for consideration.
  • If you have an agent, but the book’s not under contract, then there’s finished enough to send to your agent so that they can decide if it’s ready to be sent out to editors.
  • If you’re under contract there’s finished enough to send to your editor for the first round of comments.
  • Then there’s finished enough for the second round.
  • Finished enough for the third. Or however many rounds it takes.
  • Then there’s finished enough for the copyeditor.

I’m going to focus on the first of these. How did I decide that my first novel was ready to be sent to agents and editors?

This is a little bit embarrassing: I decided it was ready when I got to the end of the first draft. But I’d read somewhere that you should never send out a first draft, so I fussed with it a bit, moving around some words and phrases,4 and then sent it out.

It was rejected.

I “rewrote” it some more then sent it out to a couple more agents.

Rejected.

I started writing another novel. In the meantime a few of my writer friends read and commented on the first novel and I made changes based on what they said. Some of them were verging on substantive but I still had no real understanding of how to rewrite. I was focussed on line editing, when it was the structure that had problems.

I sent out my first novel too early. But I’m not convinced it was a mistake because I learned that the first draft (zero, really, in this case) of your novel is most definitely not finished. I did not glean that from my rejection letters because they were all form . Except for a couple which were too idosyncratic to be useful.5

I learned much more from the generous writers who read and commented on the ms. than I did from my rejection letters. Especially from Scott, who pointed out a whole raft of ways in which my novel was broken. He made me cry but he also taught me a lot. Such as how to rewrite.

I rewrote the book again. Really rewrote it this time. I’m very proud of the result. My agent liked it and gave me a new set of notes, which made it even better. As far as we were all concerned it was now finished and dusted and ready to go out.

It remains unpublished.

Which mean it’s still not finished. *Sigh* Not that anything is ever really finished. (See above.)

How do you know when to take their advice and when to ignore it?

Never take advice you feel uncomfortable about. It might be that advice is helpful, but if it feels wrong to you, don’t do it. Perhaps, after you’ve thought about that particular advice (this story needs a monkey!) for a while you start to see ways in which a monkey really would improve your story. But maybe not.

It’s your story. Do what you want with it.

My first five (almost six) years of being a pro writer have taught me to trust my own judgement.6 I also trusted my own judgement when I was starting out, but back then I was wrong. I regularly sent out half-baked, unfinished stuff. Paradoxically, it was only by doing so that I learned that it was half-baked and unfinished.

Trust my crap judgement was how I learned to develop good judgement. Some of the advice I was given then and ignored—never have too many characters whose name starts with the same letter it’s confusing—I now (mostly) follow.

Back then the only people reading my stuff were a few friends and the rejectors, who pretty much never gave any feedback. My improvements came very very very slowly. It wasn’t until I started being critiqued by pros—almost twenty years after I started sending my stuff out to adult markets—that I improved at a faster rate. Once I was published and getting detailed editorial letters my learning curve turned into a vertical line. Whooosh! I’m a vastly better writer now than I was in April 2003 when I first went freelance. I blush to think of the stuff I was writing then.

But I only ever took advice that felt right and in the process made many mistakes. But that’s how I learn. I’m pretty sure that’s how everyone learns. It can be confronting in a critque group to get ten different takes on how to fix your novel. But the more you write and the surer you are of what you’re trying to say the easier it is to pick out what’s useful and what’s not. Trust your judgement.

I stop working on a manuscript when

    a) it’s due, or

    b) I can’t stand it anymore

Usually, I can’t stand it anymore because I’ve spent too long on it and lost all perspective. When that happens it’s best for me to back away. That’s a judgement call disguised as visceral hatred. Usually at that point (if it isn’t due with my editor) I send it to my trusted mob of first readers, which gives me at least a week to recover. I send it to them knowing full well that it’s not perfect. Knowing exactly how to finish some of the major flaws, but too exhausted to do anything about them.

Part of what I want from my first readers is for them to confirm that the problems I’ve identified are real and not a product of my manuscript-hatred. So I trust my judgement, but I still like to get it confirmed.

They frequently come back to me with stuff I consider to be off base and insane. I ignore their suggestions, but look at the parts of the ms. they’re having problems with. Then I change what I think needs changing and fix the stuff I already knew was a problem. Then and only then does it go to my editor.

But that draft isn’t finished, just ready enough for my editor to look at it without completely losing her faith in me as a writer. I’m still aware of stuff that could be fixed. I usually have a fix list—build up thread about flowers, ramp up explosion in penultimate chapter, is Riad too bossy? etc. etc. I don’t think I’ve ever sent an ms. to my editor with every single item on the list crossed off. Did I mentioned the exhaustion? And the deadline? Then there are other probs that occur to me after I’ve sent it to her.

Finished is not a forever thing. I think “stopping” is a more useful way of thinking about it. For my sanity, there always comes a time when I have to stop working on a novel. I will take a week, a month, a year, or an even longer break from it as others read it, edit it, or as it sits in a (metaphorical) drawer.

You need to give yourself permission to stop, to take a break. Even if you don’t send it out. A good way to rest from a novel that’s been eating your brain, is to start a new novel. If my last novel was dark and intense, I will find myself writing something lighter and more relaxing next. After that I’ll want the intensity again.

I know I’ve said this for every post, but all of this depends on what kind of writer you are. I know many writers who only let their editors look at their work. They have no first readers they won’t even let their nearest and dearest take a squiz. Still others will not let anyone see their novel—not even their—editor until they consider it to be absolutely perfect. I think this explains why some writers always miss their deadlines. I know writers who never hate their books and never get sick of them.

Only you can know what your process is and when you’re ready to stop.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Austen rushes the ending. There. I’ve said it. []
  2. Not me. I can’t even bring myself to read them again. []
  3. Stop, giving the good writers a bad name! That’s right, I have, um, never been late. Oh, look over there flying killer monkeys! []
  4. I.e. Moving deck chairs on the Titanic. []
  5. This is not fantasy—your hero has not gone on a quest! Why is this not set in mediaeval Europe? No one cares about Cambodia! []
  6. Note to the first USian to tell me I’m spelling “judgement” wrong. No, I’m not. In most of the Commonwealth countries it’s legit to spell it with two “e”s. Deal. []

5 comments

  1. Nicholas Waller on #

    It seems to have been Leonardo da Vinci who said “art is never finished, it is only abandoned”.

  2. beth on #

    Thanks! This was very –well, comforting, odd as that sounds–to hear.

    Also: I totally approve of spelling judgement with 2 e’s. It makes more sense that way!

  3. Desdemona on #

    Thanks so much Justine. This post really helped.
    P.S. Oops. I’ve always thought it was spelled judgement.

  4. Nicola on #

    In Australia at least the current accepted spelling is ‘judgement’. That is going by the Macquarie Dictionary’s 4th edition. That is a recent change though. The 3rd edition had it with only one ‘e'; although I think the 2nd edition had it with 2. Who knows what will happen in the 6th edition!

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