Sunday, December 2, 2012

How to Know When You're Done Revising

The holiday season always reminds me of being a little kid and sitting through those long dinners that seemed to last forever. The adults would talk and talk about boring things. Eventually I would ask "Can I be done now?" And be corrected to ask if I could be excused. But the first question would be more true. Please tell me I can be done now, so I can move on to other things.

That's the good and bad of being a kid - you have to get permission to be done, but it also relieves you of the responsibility of having to decide for yourself. As anyone who gained a Freshman 10, 15 or 20 in college discovered, learning when you're done - and applying the discipline to stop there - is not an easy proposition.

I know a lot of writers who type THE END at the finish of their manuscripts. It gives them a sense of satisfaction and complete. A certain amount of triumph. This has never been a thing for me. Not that I don't enjoy that exhausted elation of finishing the draft, but it never feels like the end to to me.

Because, really - and we all know this, yes? - it's not really done at all.

Even writers who write really clean first drafts are not done at that point. For those rare sparkly unicorns who send it to their editors immediately, they still have at least copy edits to do. Even if a writer is self-publishing and chooses to skip any revision or editing, there's still formatting to do.

But, for most writers, there's a vast and rolling journey that lies between typing that last sentence and seeing the book in the reader's hands. For some it's a fairly straightforward back and forth of a series of revisions and edits - there and back again. For others, it's the equivalent of walking into Mordor.

Some never come back.

Why is this? Because there is no one, absolutely no one in this world who can tell you that you're done with a book.

There's no such thing.

It's never done.

The sooner you accept this, the more Zen you'll be.

There never, ever comes a point where a book or story can't be tweaked just a little more. Proofed once again. Massaged just a titch.

So how do you know when you're done? If there's no one to excuse you from the table, how do you know it's time to stop?

Only you can know.

I apologize if the title of this post was misleading. I'm really not trying to pull a bait and switch here.

The thing is, know when you're done is part of growing  up as an author. It's one of the most difficult parts to learn. Just as we all grow up and learn when enough food is enough, when to stop partying and go home to get some sleep, when a friendship is no longer good for us, a grown-up author has to learn when a story is ready.

This goes both directions. Sometimes we're ready to be done and don't want to hear that a story isn't working. Other times it's scary to let go and let the chips fall where they may, so we kept it for just one more pass. And, yes, you can absolutely revise too much.

As with all these examples, it takes maturity and honesty to decide. It takes that long, hard look in the mirror to examine your motivations.

Somewhere, deep in your heart, you always know.

It's up to you to listen to the answer and act on it.

14 comments:

  1. So hard! When I clicked on the link I was kinda hoping for a magical answer. "When the drop of blood spilled on the manuscript turns blue..."

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  2. This has come at the perfect time since I am on my 500th and final pass through my story. I vowed that this would be my final run through because I need to move on. Thanks for this post. :)

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    1. I'm glad to hear it, Candice - good luck!!

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  3. I have a lot of trouble with this one. On the one hand, I feel like I've really nailed down my revision process and have a pretty good manuscript after three drafts now, whereas earlier I required 4-5 drafts. But if I get a rejection, I start to doubt myself and the urge to tweak rises up.

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    1. ah, that's an interesting point, Nicole. Because sometimes a rejection means that you have more work to do. But you have to be careful - because sometimes it's just a rejection.

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  4. Hah! Sounds like the words of somebody who's hovering around at the end of a very lovely and hot ms. Oh, it IS so hard to know when to be done, though!!!

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    1. Hee hee hee - you know me so well. Around finishing off TWO of them, in fact. Chop chop chop, polish, send!

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  5. Oh my gosh, this is SO hard for me because I can always find something to change. But you're right. There is a "feeling" of... okay. I'm done now. I'm not sure if that's necessarily because the manuscript is done or because it's at the highest point I can get it to without additional eyes. Anything more is just me poking. :)

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    1. I think that's right on target, Jax! I don't think we get more than that.

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  6. I agree. One could keep tweaking forever. I worked on my first manuscript for years and now I'm on my final proofread before publication and I'm still finding things I could tweak.

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    1. Ah yes, it never ends, does it? Good luck on the final pub!

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  7. Awesome post, Jeffe! Nice to know that at some point I approached Zen. The urge to tweak never goes away, but I told myself if I give in to it, I'll spent my whole life editing and never be ready to publish anything.

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