A story a dancer once told me: It’s opening night. Six dancers wait in the wings, nerves taut. Their entrance is imminent—the overture has begun and they are counting the music—when the choreographer, heeding an infamous penchant for change, rushes over to them aflame with last-minute inspiration. The dancers do the only self-preserving thing they can do—stick their fingers in their ears and ignore him.
You’d think writing is more set—after a certain point, you are limited to the little black marks on the printed page, right? Ha—that’s what the “delete” key is for! And I’ve seen more than one author pause a public reading to decipher last-minute changes scribbled in the margins.
Truth is, we could tinker forever. But all artists—painters, poets, and novelists alike—eventually have to trust that it’s time to let a project go.
Deadlines and other useful delimiters
This post was pulled from a larger collection of wisdom than I could use, but I was limited by: 1) how much I could cram into a reasonable word limit, and 2) my deadline. But is reaching imposed limits reason enough to consider a piece “finished”?
In some cases, preset parameters can both inform a project’s conception and provide a sense of its completion, says writer and painter Joe Skrapits (Allentown, PA). This is particularly true in one of his specialties, plein-air landscape painting.
“The light is at a certain angle, or of a certain quality, or the shadows are in a certain place, and so you give yourself an hour or two to state what that is,” says Joe. “When the light changes, you don’t keep changing. It puts a limit on your participation of that day, anyway. And sometimes that’s good.”
A novel can’t be written in a few hours, but Skrapits offers a useful metaphor. Creating limits around your work is one way to practice walking away from it. A baby’s nap can give you an hour or two to free write. A contest provides a deadline. NaNoWriMo sets a one-month, 50K word-count goal. Creating limits will bring your finish line into clearer focus.
Perfecting vs. finishing
So how can you be sure you’ve come up with the perfect combination of the 90,000 words in your manuscript?
Of course, you can’t.
You will use the word “finished” many times in the life of your novel (you’ll finish… each draft. Developmental edits. Beta reader edits. Concision edits. Agent edits. Publisher edits. Copy edits.) But beyond the mechanics of writing “The End,” from whence comes your sense of completion?
“A piece is finished when it satisfies the artist’s intention,” Skrapits says, adding that his definition presupposes that the artist has a fairly clear vision of what he or she wants to achieve.
That leads us into the first of many ways to define “finished.”
Philosophical: What were you trying to say, and have you said it? Such a simple question and yet we can forget to ask it. Writing a new synopsis after each draft will help determine if your accumulation of words has indeed fulfilled your intention.
Editorial: Is it as tight as it can possibly be? Readers won’t want to wade through excess verbiage to find your story and publishers won’t want to cut down one more tree than necessary to print your book. Make every word count. [Read more…]