Wednesday, January 13, 2016

New Year, Final Draft

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee

I suspect that fellow writers will appreciate the idea of starting a New Year not with a goal to start something new but to finish something old. I’ve been writing a novel for several years. No matter how diligently I move forward, something always needs fixing. I’m not talking about some phony excuse to procrastinate, but actual problems: a conflict falls flat, a character feels one-dimensional, dialogue is missing, dialogue is redundant, internal life is absent, internal life is excessive and now momentum is absent...another draft, and another

A couple of months ago, I took a painting class with my sister. We each created our own interpretation of the instructor’s sample creation: a moon shining through flowering branches. At one point, while I tried to create a tunnel-like sensation of moonlight, I kept going over one section that wasn’t quite working. The teacher took one look and said, “Stop. You’re going to ruin it.” I knew what she meant. I was never going to achieve what I sought. Sometimes “good enough” is not a cop-out but the recognition that art can be too perfect, and then it’s no longer art. Sometimes smoothing out rough edges is not an act of creation but of destruction.

I’ve received plenty of education on novel-writing in general and a lot of feedback on my novel in particular: from conferences, workshops, writing groups, beta readers, and more. Despite all that, I never seem to reach the book’s potential. Still, the other day a colleague, who is doing a dummy-check of part one, wrote me a note that included the phrase, “thanks for the good cry, by the way.” That was my first hint that it’s time to wind this up, even though she also suggested the work is flabby in places. I’ll cut as much flab as I can, but, like me, my book might never lose those last five pounds. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t dress up and go out.

The same friend advised me that the new year was a perfect time to email an update to an agent who invited me to send her my manuscript when I’m finished. I felt leery, always nervous about the fine line between persistent and pest. But I knew she was right. It was time for me to make a promise I cannot take back, to commit to a deadline to be finished even if I’m not finished. I emailed the agent, saying I had hoped to send her my manuscript at the New Year, but “I now know that I will send it in February.”

Now that I’ve written that, I do know it, because I’m a woman of my word. She thanked me for the update and told me, “Keep writing.” I will, till next month. It won’t be perfect, but it will be my creation and it will be complete.

Fellow writers and I often discuss the “one more improvement” our manuscripts need. I recently moved cross-country, and it has slowed my progress a bit: a month prepping our old house to sell, a month closing, a month house-hunting, and so on. Yet moving to a new place, where few people know me or my book, has helped me avoid those conversations with fellow writers that might make me second-guess my decision to wrap this up—because my book really could use one more improvement, or ten.

How do I know it’s time to finish? The way I did in painting class. I looked at the section I was working on, relatively close to the end, and a gut instinct told me if I applied one more dab of paint, I would go too far…or worse, never stop.

How do you know when you’re done?


Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.

18 comments :

  1. This post resonated with me on so many levels, Cara. I, too, had a painting instructor snatch the brush out of my hand and say, "Stop. It's finished."

    And too often, I will let the momentum of a story slow down because I feel the compulsion to fix every little problem now. The time for fixing, at least for me, is when the first draft is finished. Then I can go back and start fixing.

    Finally, I just loved this in your post: ...she also suggested the work is flabby in places. I’ll cut as much flab as I can, but, like me, my book might never lose those last five pounds. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t dress up and go out.

    Yes, sometimes we have to let the babies walk out the door.

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  2. So glad it resonates with you, Maryann. I also write and edit in collaboration with clients, and I'm discovering that we humans all have some sort of issue with completion.

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  3. I had five versions of one of those novels I'd been working on for years. In 2015, I went back to version 3, did a little editing, and submitted the darned thing. I don't know if it will be a go or not, but at least I finally decided to put myself out of my misery and declare it done.

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    1. Put yourself out of your misery! Haha, Patricia, I know what you mean. As several authors have been quoted, "I hate to write, but I love having written."

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  4. I love everything you write, even the flabby parts, because to me, I will always say, "I want more".

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    1. Aw, Lori, I'm humbled by your kind praise. Thank you. I'll make sure to give you more. ;)

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  5. Being a parent is good practice for launching and letting go. I've launched two kids with two more on the runway and eight novels in print, so have had plenty of practice. Committing to a date certain does help. I have promised my editor that the final copy for 'The Millicent Factor' will be in her hands by Groundhog Day.
    Now, back to the final edits!

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    1. Groundhog Day as a deadline: I love it!

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  6. You make such a great point here -- completion and perfection are not the same thing. No imperfect human is capable of creating the perfect story. Excellence, on the other hand, is quite attainable. An excellent story can be a bit flabby, and its characters may be lacking in various areas. Are we not all lacking here and there? Our readers will relate to characters whose faults may match their own. However, a perfect book might not find many readers because we can't relate to what we don't know or understand -- perfection. Excellent post, Cara!

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    1. Thanks, Linda. You take my meaning perfectly, though the more I think about this, it truly is scary to engage in that sort of acceptance.

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  7. Deciding to stop chopping away at is as important as deciding to start.

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  8. Wow ... you found an agent who will read your stuff, Cara? That's impressive ... the only thing I've ever gotten from an agent was, 'good luck with your project'. Nice painting, by the way.

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    1. You always make me laugh, Christopher. I too have received many "good luck with your project" replies from agents. I just keep throwing spaghetti at the walls till one noodle sticks. Thanks for your kind words about the painting - that was about the halfway mark.

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  9. Such a good post, Cara. Years ago, I mean decades ago, when I got a new illustration account, I had to draw one shoe. I stayed up until 4 a.m. drawing the perfect shoe. A whole pad of paper was crumpled on the floor because nothing was perfect enough. At that time I realized that the last shoe I drew was the best I could do AT THAT TIME. And it was. I think it's the same way with writing. Best to put that imperfect effort aside for a while to look at it later with a fresh eye. Maybe then we'll see what's wrong with it. Or what's right.

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    1. I love the story of the perfect shoe, Polly. Thanks!

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  10. This is just what I needed to hear at the perfect time. Thank you Cara! You have such a gift with turning the abstract into the tangible--with a few belly laughs thrown in for good measure. I can't wait to read your published novel. Wishing you much success in 2016!

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    1. I appreciate that, Kara. Sometimes I worry that I have a weakness for turning the tangible into the abstract, which isn't nearly as useful as what you're describing. And hey, I too can't wait for you to read my published novel. ;) Wishing you much success with yours, too.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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