This is a question I constantly ask myself – Are we there yet?
It’s a question kids annoy their parents with on long (or sometimes short, but they feel long) car trips. It is a question that makes said car trips even longer – an endurance test that most parents only survive by gritting their teeth and trying hard not to lose their cool, wondering through each iteration of those four words if it is at all possible for the stress tension headache to create so much pressure in your head that your eye will, quite literaly, pop out of the socket. I have been one of those ‘are we there yet’ kids torturing my parents, and I am now a parent having to endure the ‘are we there yets’ asked ad-nauseum by the high pitched voices that I cherish the most.
But as a writer, that question has even more annoying and frustrating undertones than the ones intoned by my children in the car.
It’s a good question, but I don’t think I have a definitive answer either. I mean, as a writer, how do you know when you’re there yet? How do you know when you are done?
We write our first draft, sit back, jiggle around a bit in the excitement of having finished a novel, give ourselves personal high fives (yes, it is a bit pathetic, but writing is a singular occupation best done alone, which means you very often have to celebrate these little milestones by yourself.) Those of us who have been at this for a while know that the first draft is just the general map of your novel – now you have to go back and fill in the topography of your story, make certain your characters begin on the main road, get lost on sideroads but finally make the journey they needed to make in the first place and end up in the place they most wanted to be but never thought they’d get to. You have to make sure the journey is well paced, (that your characters don’t hang around the petrol station for too long filling up, that they catch enough of the sights), and that each scene has a purpose and adds to the photo album in ways that sometimes hint and other times fully express the whole of the journey.
There must be goals, motivation and conflict and they must be balanced to extend throughout the whole of the journey. Redrafting is a different kind of writing, one where you sweat tears and cry blood because so very often (particularly for those of us who are pantsers), chapters get cut, characters are whittled down or disappear altogether, and you realise so much of what you first wrote needs to be changed to make the GMC’s clearer and allow your characters and story to shine. Then you have to go over it again, reading for sense and structure, fixing grammar, punctuation and spelling, and very often, through all this time, you are getting critiques from writing groups or critique partners which indicate you need to do even more work.
But here is the tricky bit – when does this re-writing/editing end?
I remember, after I earned a place in the first Romance Writers of Australia 5DI (5 Day Intensive) workshop and having been told by my mentor, Fiona Brand, that it was ready for submission, I got feedback from a judge in a competition which indicated I had a long way to go. This was a fellow writer judge who was unpublished, but it made me doubt the feedback I’d got from a published author who knew perhaps a little bit more what she was talking about and had read the entire thing rather than the first 30 pages. I put said novel into a number of comps and had mixed results – getting into finals in some and placing and winning, and not getting into finals in others because one judge of the 2 or 3 who were judging, still thought I had a long way to go. Not to sound bigheaded (I know I still have lots to learn – to keep things fresh and make me keep striving to be better), but I do know my writing is of a good standard because I’ve had more and more people whose opinion I trust tell me it is good. So, I have learnt not to take very much notice of these particular judges opinions over the last year or so. But even so, I took the various feedback and made changes and made changes and made changes again, until I wasn’t really even certain what I was changing or why.
I have come to realise this is a massive mistake, especially seeing I began writing something that was perhaps more fantasy/paranormal than paranormal romance, and given these comps were all romance based comps, ended up turning the first part of the novel into more of a romance than the rest of the novel supported all to fit in with what the comp judges were saying. And it meant that the answer to the ‘are we there yet?’ question was always, ‘no.’ This is of course my bad because I didn’t take my own advice in regards to letting other people’s opinions change what I think – something I think I will always struggle with.
I have recently got some really good advice that I am going to try to follow, and I am going to share with you:
Write the novel you want to write, do the redrafting, have 1 person look over it – and only 1, because the more people who stick their two bobs worth in are really just going to mess with your voice and your original idea at this stage. Make sure this is a person you can trust to go to town in a good, constructive way, do a final draft/edit and then send it out. The more people who look at your work at this stage, the less likely you will ever be to get ‘there’ – the end – of your redrafting, because it is impossible to please everyone. There is nothing wrong with entering comps and being part of writing groups, especially if it helps to give you guidance while writing something, and I will continue to be a part of my writing groups because I do get so much out of them, but once I’ve written and done a draft, I need to stop getting ‘everyone’s opinion and just get one that I trust, so I’m not being led down the garden path and getting lost because nobody can agree on where we’re going.
I knew this, but self doubt can be a real bitch. I have to trust in my ability to know what is good. I have done the work on learning how to be a good writer (and have the affirmation from writing groups and competitions to tell me that my hard work is paying off), and I will continue to do this. But, what is most important is to write a good story and be happy with that story – to really feel that it is mine. If I have lost the love by too much redrafting and lost the plot – literally – of what my novel meant to me in the first place, then how can I expect someone else to see the value in it. I know I will need to do further work later – and an editor will certainly tell me what needs to be done, or so my published writer friends tell me – but that is just par for the course. There is no such thing as perfect, so it is ridiculous to strive for perfection. Even if you reach ‘perfection’ someone will see it a different way and turn around and tell you you still have a fair way to go – which has happened to me.
So, I guess, even though I don’t have a diffinitive answer for when I am ‘there yet’, I am the one who has to decide when enough is enough (or good enough) and just trust in my work and submit. I won’t change things just because someone else tells me it didn’t work for them. It has to work for me and the person I trust to take on the journey with me. Then, I will send it out, and hopefully have the priviledge of working on it with the person who will ultimately help me to shape it into what will be ‘on the shelf’ – the editor I hope to interest with my WIP.
Are we there yet? Yes, we are there yet, perfect or not. As a friend of my husband (writer M.J. Scott) said to him to tell me, ‘Stop tinkering and just send the damn thing out.’ And you know what – she is right.