Monday, December 29, 2008

Sculpting to Perfection

By Julie Wright

A friend of mine, Matthew Buckley, posed a thought to a writing group we belong to.

When you carve something, you are basically taking away what doesn't need to be there. First you start with a block and you take things away until they are just right. At that point, if you take off more, you are damaging the product. If you keep working, eventually you just have a pile of sawdust or marble shavings.

So at what point do you stop tweaking your writing? Is it easy for all of you to think, "Yep, that's done. It's perfect. If I change it anymore, it will be a weaker book."

I am one of those authors who could "tweak until it's weak." I could, but I don't. I'd love to say it's because I'm brilliant enough to know when to say, "when," but really I think it is my lack of patience that is to blame. I want to see my book on a bookstore shelf NOW, never later.

So the fine line we walk is knowing when to stop tweaking and whittling away, and when to start putting it out for public consumption. For every person I daresay the answer is different. But for me, after several years of stupid manuscripts, I came up with a five reader rule. If my book hasn't been workshopped through five readers, then it isn't ready to hit the desk of someone with buying power. And I don't mean five readers who like you and are afraid of hurting your feelings. And typically, I don't recommend your mother ever being one of your five. Pick five readers who you trust to be straight shooters.

How many drafts should you write?

I write two initially, rework the manuscript several more times as reader reports come in and once more for the publisher. My attention span isn't long enough to do more than that. What's right for you? I could not say. Maybe more, maybe less.

But I know people who have been working on their masterpiece for years, tweaking, adding commas, changing modifiers, removing adverbs and dead words. I wonder if they are tweaking because they are perfectionists, or are they tweaking because they are afraid of submitting?

It is a fine line, because you must turn in your best work--you MUST. The competition is fierce. But you also must actually get to a point where you let go and TURN IT IN, because if you don't, you will forever be a dabbler and never really an author.

This thought of sculpting to perfection, of whittling away until you are truly done is subjective. Every writer needs the luxury of having his own way of doing things. The freedom to create offers limitless possibilities. But if you're worried your whittling your manuscript to a pile of sawdust, you might just be guilty of being afraid to move on. Only you know the answer to that. But in my household we have a saying, "Courage is being afraid, but doing it anyway."


Annette Lyon said...

Fantastic post and great reminder. Putting out something that's not ready and over-revising . . . tough balancing act that will be different for everyone.

I think most writers, in time, will reach a point where they can feel at a gut level that's it at least close to as good as they can make it.

Josi said...

I love the 5 reader rule--getting that much feedback will give you a really good overview of your book, often times finding those weaknesses that you wouldn't notice on your own. Great reminder

Charlie Moore said...

A couple year end comments, if you don't mind. I came across the LDStorymakers site early in '08 and have made sporadic contributions to the various blogs associated with it. In case I've forgotten to mention it, not that it's necessarily relevant, but I am LDS and a published writer.

I believe letting others read your prepublished ms is useful. It is useful in finding those pesky grammatical errors that infect everybody's writing. They're useful for letting the writer know what is generally liked or not by a particular reader. And whether or not your story logically flows; that is, does the ending logically and effectively support the beginning.

But I would also voice a word of caution. When I write I do so, first and foremost, for myself. By that I mean I have to please myself first. The story has to mean something to me. When you pick out readers whom will be direct and forthright in their analysis, you know some will say this isn't right or that doesn't fit well or the flow is off (where did that chapter come from). Suddenly you begin to question what you've written and, of course, you respect the opinions of your readers or you wouldn't have asked them to do it in the first place. You begin making changes (that tweaking mentioned by the original poster) trying to make your reader happy. Before you know it your story is becoming their story. Guard against that.

Listen to reader's comments. Heed the advice of those you respect. Use feedback wisely and above all make sure the story stays your own and makes you happy in the end.

Charlie Moore

Annette Lyon said...

Charlie, you have a point. Knowing what advice to take and when to take it with a giant grain of salt is a skill writers develop over time and with the more manuscripts that GET critiqued. It's something that, after years, you learn in your gut.

When I do magazine articles and the like, I don't usually get critiques like this--it's not worth my time for something that short and (relatively speaking) simple in structure. But for a book-length work that I've spent months or longer on, it would be arrogant to think that I can see all the holes and weaknesses without outside, talented eyes looking at it too.

In my mind, the difference between good fiction writers and bad fiction writers is that the good ones are willing to rework and rewrite and are open to getting outside criticism. Not that they'll USE all the feedback, not by a long shot, but they're open to suggestions.

Heather B. Moore said...

From an author's point of view, your book will never be perfect. And even if it's the best you feel you can make it, a couple of years down the road, you'll probably want to fix something else yet again. I think having several readers (3-5) before submitting will give you a very balanced view of your story. You don't necessarily have to take everyone's advice 100% of the time. In fact, I probably take 75-80% of advice.

Janette Rallison said...

I know my manuscript is done when I've gone from loving it to hating it and I know I can't make myself read it one more time.

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

I really liked this. Mainly because this is one of my dilemmas. Also, people who read your book will ALWAYS find things they think you should change.

I just read a book published by Bonneville, that I can't believe made it to publication. I'm not even that great at editing, yet, I saw many things I would have done different.

So, I guess you do your best, eh? Then send it in. I'll try that!