Monday, February 23, 2009

Is It Ever Really Done?

Is the story every really finished? Or do writers just keep working on it until time runs out?

This question is commonly asked among writers with a good amount of experience (after we realize that a first draft does not equal done). :) If someone asked me this question a year ago, even six months ago, this would have been my answer: "I would like to think so, but no matter how hard I try I keep finding things to change. And I'm always left with a niggling feeling that something isn't quite right. So, maybe it'll never really be finished."

I've had this sentiment for pretty much my entire writing life (since age sixteen). It's only just recently that it has changed.

I've been working on a story, called ROYAL ROSE, for the past two and a half years. It's the hardest story I've ever written, hands down. It's not a story I would typically read, and it's so far out of my comfort zone it's not even funny. And yet, it was a story that got into my face and demanded to be told. So, I sat down to write it. But, everytime I thought I was done, a feeling that it wasn't done followed me around everywhere.

No matter what I did - let the manuscript sit, ask others' to read it, etc - that feeling never went away. Until recently.

I just finished my fifth draft for this story, and it's done. There might be better ways of executing certain aspects of the story, or a better way to say certain things, but the story itself is done! I've said everything I want to say in a way that's consistent with the characters and the setting. In other words, I knew the story I wanted to tell, and i finally figured out how it needed to be told.

Other stories I've written are still not "done," in that there is still something niggling me about them. Either something is missing, or an aspect of the story is bothering me, or something. I can't look at them and get a satisfied smile on my face that says all is well. And, it's now glaringly apparent that I wasn't absolutely sure of the story I wanted to tell, except in a general sense.

With ROSE, I have known her story since day one. I think this concept is simiar to an idea being "fully formed," like JKR said about Harry as she was sitting on that delayed train. Rose's story fell into my head with a very clear direction and outcome, and for the past two and a half years, I've been trying to figure out all the details. Now that I have, it has made so many more things clear.

My writing process will need to be adjusted because of it - before I write a single word, I want to know my story. Inside and out. Backwards and forewards. Upside down. Everything.

So, there may be some stories that can never be truly done. But my answer to the opening question has changed: "If you truly know your story and where it needs to go, then, yes, it's possible for it to be done."


Unknown said...

I always think it's done. I really do. I always talk myself into thinking that everything's perfect.

But since joining crit groups and getting beta readers, I've realized it's not done until there is no comment that bothers me. If a comment makes me defensive, or makes me self critical, then I've got to rewrite. But if a comment just makes me go "eh, that's just a difference of style, no need to change that," or "eh, that's just you--these ten other readers disagree," then I know it's done.

And I think getting to a point where you know your ms. is done is brilliant--this has only just happened to me with my recent ms.; before, I just accepted what I had as done, but now I can see a difference in my own writing.

Tabitha said...

Exactly. :) After I wrote my very first novel (which is in a deep, deep drawer), I was shocked when I realized that a first draft isn't anywhere near done. :) It really is a journey we've decided to embark upon, isn't it? :)

Marcia said...

To make the question even more of a quandary, the story can be done but the writing not be.

This question really arises for me when I read a book and think it's got glaring problems in the story, writing or both. Obviously, a whole chain of people thought it was done, or it wouldn't be in print. All I really know is that "done" is much farther down the road than we usually think. Unless you're on deadline, in which case a draft plus a pass-through revision is about all you get.

PJ Hoover said...

But then comes the editor. And your eyes open wide and you see all the things that still need to be done :)

Seriously, feedback from editors has been so eye-opening to me. And I can't believe I couldn't see those things before.

Sydney Salter said...

Several times during the writing process, I think the mss is done (and I guess at that point is it--for me). But then I get feedback from my agent or editor, smack myself on the forehead, and dive back in. Plus, it seems like I'm always finding sentences that could be better worded.

Great topic!

C.J. Raymer said...

I agree about the story being finished but the writing not. I'm so OCD, that I tend to keep on going until time runs out. I always seem to find "one more thing" that needs additional attention. I'm a knit-picker, plain and simple. It's hard for me to let it go. When I do, I still question myself.

I have this same issue with my art. It's never really what I thought it could be. I'm painfully perfectionistic and it drives me nuts! I think that ultimately, it just depends on the person.

Write2ignite said...

I know exactly what you mean. There are times I think "what is WRONG? Why can't I send this out yet? The i's are dotted...the t's are crossed...everyone says it's ready!" BUT it's not. BUT once I get it RIGHT - THEN I can send it out. If that "feeling" of incompleteness is still there, it's NOT ready. But when I have the peace that can NOT be explained...then I am able to send that baby out. It's done.


Ronald L. Smith said...

This is such an interesting topic. Some writer once said that when all you are doing is moving around commas on your manuscript, put it down and step away!

When I was at the Winter SCBWI Con in NY a few weeks ago, MG writer Bruce Hale quoted Zora Neale Hurston. It reminds me, Tabitha, of what you said about your short story having to be told.

"There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you."

That is a beautiful quote.

Tia Nevitt said...

I finished one novel. That's my trunk novel. I still tweak my second novel and I'm still honing my third novel. My fourth novel is a WIP.

I think any work of art is perpetually unfinished. Even a potter who has fired his clay probably still wishes he could go back and fix imperfections only he can see. When I play the piano, the piece I'm playing is never good enough.

Leonardo Da Vinci said it best: Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Thanks for visiting my blog and I love your sites--both your website and your blog. Very impressive and professional. I'll be coming back.