Holding Pattern

>> Sunday, February 28, 2010

On the last post, many commented on the fact they also include a waiting period from the time they stop writing to the time they start revising.

I could not agree more.

Too many times, I've seen writers far more interested in "getting published" than in doing great work. They have their friends look it over, make changes on the fly, and send it out the following day. OK, you can do that if you've got someone looking for typos or a few poorly chosen words when it's otherwise "finished." But, if you're making major revisions and then hustling it out the door, you'd better be the Mozart of the spoken word or you're in for an ugly surprise.

Perhaps my attitude on this is influenced by the fact that I never read anything that sounded anywhere near finished and/or good that someone was in a hurry to send off to agents and/or publishers. I'd be slogging through an MS (back when I was in "writer's groups" on-line), thinking, "When she does the next revision, she so needs to fix the dialog," or "This makes no sense. I hope he fixes this during the next revision." I'd make comments, as encouragingly as I could, but they'd boil down to, "Seriously, read this dialog out loud because it's stilted and clumsy," and "What possible motivation would someone have to do this?" Why would I say that? Because, if you review something without being honest, it's worse than no review at all. But that's another post.

Sometimes, one of my talented friends will send me something where my reaction is, "Damn, send it!" But it's because they're sending me something that's effectively (if not already) finished.

The thing is, I feel strongly that one shouldn't rush writing. That doesn't always apply. Journalists have to get something in by a date. College students, perhaps some freelancers and, of course, people who have already agreed in advance to write book(s). Heck, I've got a paper for a conference I need to be kicking out yesterday.

But, when I'm trying to get my foot in the door, there's no advantage to becoming memorable because of the slipshod incoherent ramblings often found in early drafts. I want to put my best foot forward and it's better to send one thing late in the game but have it one's best work than to try to wear someone down by sending one piece of crap after another. In fact, that's a good way to get someone tossing one's stuff unread so that, if you ever do get to writing well, no one is willing to read it.

What does that have to do with a waiting period? It's a matter of perspective. When I'm writing furiously (because I tend to write furiously or not at all), I'm either in the white-hot phase of inspiration where everything comes out sounding like ambrosia to me or I'm slogging through something challenging that I'm sick to death of. Either way, if I turn around and start revising right then, my perspective will be skewed. If my baby's still beautiful, I'll be finding excuses on why an awkward phrasing is hilariously worth the confusion or wanting to add more flowing passages to areas that would do better to be made leaner rather than more eloquent. If, however, I've say been reading a master and therefore have decided I'm a lame hack who shouldn't be wasting her time writing, everything will sound terrible. I'll be tempted to chuck the whole thing.

I know. I've been there.

What I need is time, time to get excited about either other writing projects or life, time to forget why I did some things in this novel. That way, when I pick it back up, I can tell that I've glossed over some logical leaps or failed to explain something because it was obvious to me (since I already know all). I stand a much better chance of appreciating what actually works and becoming ruthless with what doesn't. It's still painful, of course, but I've gained enough distance that it's not like tearing myself apart.

And I'd tell anyone writing the same thing. Get some distance. How long? I say two weeks is the barest minimum. Two months is better. I take longer if I can manage.


  • Jeff King

    Yea I have learned this by trial and error.

    I have gone through several edits before I even finished a first/rough draft... huge mistake to say the least.

    If I could only give one piece of advice (once I become someone to listen to) it would be this: Finish what you have started, push forward, complete the rough draft before you stop to edit, research, contemplate or anything else that will stop composition. Once you do stop pushing it’s so hard to get the now massive boulder rolling again.

    Finish your manuscript then – revise –revise –revise… build the walls to your house before decorating the inside.

  • The Mother

    I agree. When you've written the first draft, you're too close to it. You've poured your heart into it.

    You need perspective.

  • Project Savior

    I found out the hard way as well. For my first novel I would write a chapter, revise that chapter, have my wife read the chapter, then revise it again before moving on. The result was a 180,000 word monstrosity that no agent would look at because it was 180,000 words. I tried editing it down and could only find a sentence here and there that, "It would just have to do without."
    After writing two more novels I looked back on it and was able to take huge chunks out of it, and often condense a page or two into one paragraph. The result was a 130,000 page novel that I am really proud of.

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