|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?
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 Press, Rivet 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.