Works In Progress

I’ll be teaching this weekend at the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop Annual Conference.  It’s an event I’ve done before and one I love at attend.  Great people, talented writers, and a welcoming community.

One of the topics I’ll be covering in the course of several panels and workshops I’ll be running is self-editing and revisions, and one of the questions that invariably comes up when I cover this material is “But how do you know when you’re finished revising?”

My answer?  I’m never finished.

I consider every book I’ve ever written a work in progress.  Still.  Even though a dozen of them are already in print.  I am never done working on a book.  At some point it gets published and I move on to something new, because if I don’t my publisher gets mad and I don’t get paid.  But my first book came out in 1997, and to this day I still think of ways I might improve it.  There are still passages in that first series that I’d love to go over one more time, especially now, with all I’ve learned in the past fourteen years.

This sort of thinking might sound oppressive, like some frenzied obsessive pursuit of perfection.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I find it liberating to consider all of my books and stories works in progress.  Perfection is beyond my reach.  I know that.  I think it lies beyond the reach of every writer, which is why every writer, even the most successful and accomplished authors in the world, still need to have their books edited.  In acknowledging that my book will never be perfect, I free myself from that frenzied pursuit I mentioned before.  I will never make it perfect, and so I work on the book, trying to improve it until it is no longer practical to do so.

Note the question I’m so often asked:  “How do you know when you’re finished?”  And again, the answer is that I’m never finished.  I can always make the book better.  But I believe the more appropriate question is “When do you stop revising?”  Ah!  Now that is a question I can answer.

A book, like any work of art, is a product of human labor.  Part of its humanity lies in its imperfection.  Part of its humanity also lies in the passion, inspiration, and work that contributed to its creation.  The philosophical answer to the question “When do you stop?” is “I stop when my battle with those imperfections begins to claim the passion and inspiration as collateral damage.”  We can overwork a novel, make it so precious, so polished that it loses some of the immediacy and passion that made us care about it in the first place.  Given the choice between a manuscript that has a few rough edges but reflects my passion for my characters, my plot, my world, etc. and one that is perfect mechanically and syntactically but lacks that energy, I will always — ALWAYS — choose the former.

Thinking 0f my books as works in progress has other advantages as well.  Believing that at some point a book might truly be done, immediately begs the question “When?”  Is it done when I send it to my editor?  Well, of course not, because he is going to have editorial comments for me.  I’ll revise it after he has read it.  Is it done then?  Well, no.  After that comes the copyediting, and then the proofreading, and then the proofs of the paperback edition.  My job as author doesn’t end when I say it does.  There is a production process that I need to accommodate.  By keeping an open mind to further work on the book, I make it easier on myself when the next set of edits or comments comes in.  And I come across as easy to work with, which is never a bad thing in this business.

And this openness to further editing, to additional work, also pays dividends when I move on to my next book, be it a new project or a continuation of an ongoing series.  As long as my books remain WIPs, I can continue to regard perfection as an ideal I can never reach.  While I may have stopped working on the previous book when it appeared in print, but I have not stopped working on my craft.  Because in the end, THAT is the true work in progress.  Or, more precisely, I am the true work in progress.  I seek to improve with every book I write.  I will never write the perfect novel, but I believe that I get closer to it with each subsequent book.  If I can still see places where my previous books can be improved, then I can also see ways in which I can become a better writer.

 

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There are 4 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Charity Bradford

    This post was comforting to me. I was beginning to think I was possessed because I couldn’t call my wip “done”. Now, I know it never will be and that frees me to let it go. Thanks!

    Also, wish I was at the conference. I just couldn’t convince my hubby the money was worth it. *sigh* Non-writers!

    Have a great weekend!

  2. 2. Mindy Klasky

    I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot this week, as I prepare my Jane Madison series for distribution as ebooks. I have the chance to go in and edit anything I want to change. *Most* of the language is staying the same, but some of the popular references are being modified…

    Self-publishing means never needing to say, “I’m finished.” ::wry grin::

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    Now see, that’s just your problem. My magnum opus was red-hot-ready to go and I just joined a writer’s critique group to get some pointers on submitting. Oh, boy. Ignorant arrogance, meet cold-hard reality.

    A year later (after completely revising the MS, twice) the group had evolved to a mutual-admiration-cum-snark society. And the polishing continued– solo– with better, sharper tools.

    Now, after reading Mr. Sambucchino’s 2012 Guide to Agents, (and details on competitive analysis, feasibility reports, and market share) I don’t know if polishing is just another form of hiding out.

    Great topic as always, Mr. Coe.

  4. 4. jere7my

    I was at a gallery show of Dalí lithographs on Sunday, and found this quote of his on the wall: “Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.”

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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