‘Making changes’… uh, no… ‘editing’… umm, ‘revising’…

I’m “almost done” with the editing of the submission draft of A MAGIC OF NIGHTFALL, my current work-in-progress. Not that I’m done with the editing entirely, mind you. Sheila, my editor, will now read it and have her own comments and suggestions, and the manuscript will go through another intense pass, and then there’s the copy-edit to look forward to…

But the truth is, I could probably revise the manuscript forever

A brief anecdote: way back when, I was a Fine Arts student in college. I had a fabulous painting instructor at the time: Bob Fabe, a local artist. One day, I was laboring over a tempura painting I’d been working on for a few weeks. I could feel Bob standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. He watched for a time as I was painting, making tiny little changes. Suddenly, as I reached for another brush, he rapped me across the back of the head with his open hand. “Ow!” I said, annoyed, looking back at him. “What the hell was that for?”

He was grinning at me. “You’re done,” he said. “You’re just moving paint around now without accomplishing anything. Every artist need to have someone standing behind them with a baseball bat to hit them over the head when they’re done, or they keep working and working until they ruin it. You’re done.”

As it turned out, in later years I became much more interested in writing fiction than creating fine art, but I still think of that incident — because I know that what Bob said is true for me and writing. I can look at a paragraph I’ve labored over for half an hour and still make some change. I can go over a scene ten times, read it the next day and decide that it might be better if I tried this. I’ll read work I’ve published and want to have it back so I can change this phrase or that piece of dialog. In some sense, I’m never done. If I let myself, I could revise endlessly. I would always make some change in what I’ve set down.

But at some point, you have to stop and send the damn thing out… or you end up never being published. I’m just never sure where that point should be. For me, there’s rarely a real ‘baseball bat’ moment, no time when I rise up in delight and proclaim “Aha! It’s finished! There’s mostly a sense of being ‘exhausted’…

So how is it with you? Do you have the “Aha!” moments? Does the Muse use a metaphorical baseball bat on your head? How do you know when you’re ‘done’?

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  1. 1. Kelly McCullough

    I have an ongoing cost/benefit analysis in my head. It says, “sure, I could make this x amount better by investing y amount of work, but…” At some point the x-y graph hits a slope that my back brain says is counterproductive and I send it out. Whether it’s inherent laziness or some sort of survival reflex that’s rewired itself to the writing process or a learned skill, I don’t know. I just know that at some point the back brain says, “Done Now,” and refuses to let the fore brain invest any more resources.

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    To continue in the fine arts vein, I compare writing when you’re not published to oil painting, where you can take your time, start over if you like (scrape that paint right off the canvas), even put it aside and think about it for a while.

    Once you have a contract for the next book, writing becomes more like water colors. You have to work quickly and you have to know when to stop, or you can ruin a perfectly good picture.

    I’m still working in oil myself, but I hope to work up to water colors soon.

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I know exactly what you mean. I think I get to the point of being done when I’m no longer sure the changes I’m making benefit the story. It’s a very specific feeling I get and while I know it might be, and while I know if I keep looking I can probably find more stuff to change that would help, I also know that in doing so I’ll change some things for the worse. So then I know that it needs an editorial eye, and then when it comes back for revisions, I go through the same process where I come at it fresh, make changes, and then reach the point again where I’m no longer sure. Then it has to be done. But by then, I feel pretty confident that it’s largely a good manuscript, and my editor will tell me if not.

    Di

  4. 4. Simon Haynes

    I work my way through 15-20 printed drafts of each novel (I know this is so, because the 2-foot stack of printouts for my latest is an armslength from where I’m sitting now.)

    I force myself to edit with a red pen, then enter all the changes, then print again, then edit, etc. In the later drafts I put the pen down alongside me, and I only allow myself to pick it up for those must-do changes.

    I can track most changes & revisions in my head (probably why I have trouble remembering everything in Real Life nowadays), which prevents me toggling the same changes back and forth in subsequent drafts.

  5. 5. Laura Reeve

    Funny — I’m two days away from sending my second book to my editor for its first pass-through (tentatively called VIGILANTE, but since my first novel was renamed I don’t know if this title will stick).

    I learned that I, too, will edit copy forever if I’m given the chance. So I try to make a process for each draft, similar to Simon, where I work my way linearly through both hard copy and soft copy. Going from beginning to end, I’m done with draft #N when I get to the end. Unfortunately, I’m not as fast as Simon and I generally average only 3 – 4 full mss revisions before I have to turn it in to the editor, which means I’m DONE.

    However, I can tell when scenes are beginning to click and the story is holding together. If I get carried away with my own story, start reading like a reader, and forget that I’m supposed to be editing — that’s a good thing.

Author Information

Stephen Leigh

Stephen Leigh (aka S.L. Farrell) is a Cincinnati author with 25 novels and several dozen short stories published. Booklist called his Cloudmages trilogy "Good enough to cast in gold." He teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University, and is a frequent speaker to writers groups. Visit site.

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