Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"When Do You Stop Tweaking?"

Another way to pose the question is: “How will I know my manuscript is ready for submission?” Or, my own uncertainty: “Every time I open the file, I change something. When will I be able to let it go?”

The quote in the title comes from a comment Jana made in response to Anita Mae’s post on secrets a couple of weeks ago. During the writing exercise, Anita Mae realised that not just one of her main characters, but both her hero and heroine, had a secret. This discovery created an ‘aha’ moment for her, and she admitted she was going to have to further revise her story to show how important it would be for each of them to keep their respective secret. (She’s already in the middle of a big revision.)

Jana said this about when you stop revising: “When the book is on bookstore shelves (or in my case available for sale online). I'm only sort of kidding. Don't send it to the editor until you're convinced it's as polished and as good as you can make it. If you think this idea will add depth to the story, I think you should go for it. When I talked to Donald Maass in Surrey he said it didn't matter how long it took to send in my work, as long as it was polished.”

Thank you, Jana, for yesterday’s post when you told us more about your pitch to Donald Maass at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, and about your overall experience at the conference.

The final workshop I attended at SiWC was Lisa Rector’s, entitled “The 11th Hour Checklist.” I scribbled notes for an hour and fifteen minutes, not wanting to miss a word. The checklist can be downloaded for free from her website, The Third Draft. All I can do here is attempt to capture some of the essence of her message. She speaks eloquently and passionately about writing.

Lisa Rector is an award-winning writer and independent editor in New York City. Her workshop is described in the conference program: Your manuscript is ready to go. Or is it? If you’ve done everything you can think of to improve the story, if it’s already the best thing you’ve ever written, it’s time to think like editors and agents ... learn the questions to ask before you submit.

Many writers who have reached the point where the manuscript is 90% done will know the feeling, their eyes glaze over if they have to look at it one more time. It may not help to be told that the last 10% is the hardest 10%. Rector encouraged writers who are that close to try to figure out why they are resisting that last push to do what is best for their near-ready novel.

Her checklist encompasses some big picture questions, such as the first two: Is there a reason to care about these characters? Does motivation escalate with story progression? The list includes questions about conflict, exposition, multiple plot lines, emotional triggers, setting, heroic qualities of the protagonist, moments of doubt. The last question sums up: Has the author said what they wanted to with this manuscript or are they merely scratching the surface?

Of course, how to answer the questions is the most difficult part of the exercise. As I see it, it involves more than mere tweaking. Rector suggests beginning with the first page of the first chapter. As you look at how you began your story, ask yourself why you wanted to tell the story in the first place. Can you still feel the joy of the world you created? Did you put everything into the beginning that should be there? Does your first line raise questions? Do the same for the beginning of every chapter, not chronologically, but at random. Then examine the last line of each chapter. Do they lead progressively to the next action?

Look for random passages from the middle section – pieces of dialogue, description – does the sentence suggest animosity, dissension, offer joy, a new way of looking at things, does it complicate things? Look at what sustains the scene, find turning points. What questions are being asked throughout all the scenes?

Lisa Rector suggests that you close the manuscript, close up your computer, and distract yourself for a couple of hours or a couple of days. Then ask yourself: If I were going to write this novel today, how would I start it? Ask yourself what is the very first thing you would want to tell the reader. Recognise that the time lapse since you started writing the manuscript may have changed your priorities or your perspective. If the story doesn’t fascinate you any more, the reader will detect that you don’t believe in it. Ask what excited you about it in the first place and try one more time.

Ask yourself: If you were a reader in a bookstore, what is it about the book that would capture your attention? At the very least, the reader has to know from page one that something important is about to happen.

Back to the beginning: Do I open by telling about the familiar or throw in something unexpected? It can be internal or external, but is it on the page? At the eleventh hour, you have to think about it some more. It’s not necessarily about what needs to be cut or done better; it’s about being self-aware. Can I set it up better? Is the plot too obvious? Did I forget to allow for twists and unexpected events to surprise the reader?

Style, substance, voice and language – all work together to push characters deeper or to further develop the plot. These are the elements that work somewhere within the writer who wonders if it can really be pulled off. Look for the story within the story. Have you said all you want to say, how you want to say it? If you’re sure, it’s time to send it out. If not, take a little more time.

Editors look for books that are the best they can be, so you need to write to the best of your ability. They are seeking works that will be competition for what she called “the big guys,” but 90% of the manuscripts Rector reads are missing the most important element, whatever that particular manuscript needs is not there. Expectations that are set up at the beginning have to be delivered. Sometimes problems are too small to sustain interest to the end.

You also need to examine whether you are writing what others expect, or something new, more original. Find something that gives you a fresh feeling about your story, because you are not the same person you were when you started writing it. Take the extra time to make sure you have a story that lives on every page. If you’re unsure about anything about the story, you aren’t ready to put the manuscript forward. But the writer willing to put the extra effort into it, to set the story apart, is the one who will make it.

Her final advice: Push it, and have fun with it, because it is your story.

This workshop was inspiring and thought-provoking for me. Do you have additional suggestions or different approaches to ensure that your manuscript is polished for submission?


Janet said...

As you know, I'm on my final go through of Lady Bells - waiting word from an agent that she wants to see more (fingers crossed). Your post and the Lisa Rector's questions that you share with us come at a perfect time. Thanks, Helena. And I agree totally - that last 10% is the hardest. I've had to dig really deep on this final run through. So deep that sometimes I just wanted to push that manuscript under the bed and forget it.

But - I believe in this story. And I want people to know my characters. It's amazing how many times it's been suggested that I give this up and move on. And. Stop. Tweaking. But, as you said, a writer can't do that unless they are absolutely sure they've given everything they have to make the story the very best.

But - in the mean time, a writer needs to keep writing. Because the story you thought was brilliant might not be right at this time. If you've worked it until it shines, you can always come back to it once you've published something else (my good friend Alannah Lynne has recently done this - she's returned to her first manuscript and it will be published).

Of course, I'm speaking of unpublished authors. I think published authors have deadlines which forces them to stop tweaking. And maybe that needs to be what new writers do too, built into their goalsetting a timeframe to end the tweaking?

Chatty today, aren't I? You may have touched a nerve, Helena - either that or I'm procrastinating so I don't have to open up a spreadsheet and work on the paying job :) Great topic.

Lu said...

I'm so glad you posted this today! I thought my story was ready to go out into the big, scary world. Except for one niggling worry. I"ve been arguing with myself for a week now about where to start the story. I used to start a little further in, but I convinced myself that I needed a bit more explanation in the beginning. Now, that explanation isn't an info-dump, it's an action scene. But it's been bothering me. Your post convinced me I should listen to my gut. Thank you!


Anita Mae Draper said...

Morning, Helena. I'll have to check more on Lisa's words when I get back as I'm off to ND today.

However, you were sort of right about my 'secrets' for Emma and Dan. The thing is, I wrote the story knowing they each had their own secrets to preserve. The part I discovered during the 'secrets exercise' was that Dan himself was the biggest secret of all - not for what he was hiding - but that he was worth 1000 times more than what the outlaws were even asking for Emma. That's the aspect I now have to write into the story.

Thank you for this post, Helena. It's just what I need to get this story done. Have a great day!

Helena said...

First of all, Anita, thank you for your 'gentle' correction. I hope you didn't mind that I used your revising as my example. Just as I hope Jana is okay with her comment being quoted.

I was not trying to speak for you, in fact I was trying to be as general as I could. Of course, I know that you were aware of the secrets and the consequences of being discovered. I meant the 'aha' moment was when you recognised the need to write more into the story, to heighten the tension for the reader.

I think Dan's true identity is the kind of situation that illustrates very well Lisa's point that a manuscript needs careful scrutiny, even in the final stages, to make sure the story you have written explores all the possibibilites, includes all the stories within the story.

Good luck with your rewrites!

Helena said...

Lu, I'm so glad this is timely info for you. There is definitely something to be said for listening to that gut feeling ... at least to give it some more thought, before it's out of your hands.

Lisa's admonition was to take time for that final step, to re-examine all the things that you may be either taking for granted or that are niggling at you for change of some sort.

I hope your new opening will really hook the editor's attention, and ultimately your readers!

Thanks for stopping by today.

Helena said...

Hi, Janet. This was such a good workshop, but was the last one on Sunday morning. It was one I really would have loved to sit around and jaw about afterwards. Of course, we were beginning to go our separate ways at that point.

Glad I could share some of it with you now. Your response indicates that you still have a fascination for the story, and love your characters. That emotion is more important than tweaking little details. You will have a chance to do that sort of thing when you get to work with an editor (fingers crossed here, too). If you are confident that the story has been told to the best of your ability, and is a story that readers will care about, then you have dealt with the big questions.

While you're waiting, writing another story is the best thing you can do. Whatever happens to Lady Bells this time, you should always have something else on the go.

You have such a positive outlook. Even if your story rests for awhile in a drawer, the next time you pick it up, you will be trying to answer the question Lisa posed: If you were going to start writing the same story today, how would you do it?

You make a very good point about self-imposed deadlines. I'm trying to work on that for myself (since I don't have editors doing it for me -- yet.)

And, yes. We both have this tendency to chat. Thanks for taking time.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Really excellent post, Helena. Going back into my manuscript partway through to work on the point of view has really shown me just how much things change over time. There's better perspective on the merits of a scene, obviously, but also things that change simply because I'm handling those topics differently now, and thinking more critically about the implications behind them. I'm sure if I came back in five or ten years, I could go tweak everything yet again, but I tell myself this story does not need the wisdom of experience smoothing everything out. That sort of perspective will be better suited to a few books from now, when the story I'll be telling has grown a lot as well.

In terms of revisions I've always sworn that if something makes me embarrassed or uncomfortable, some scene or sentence would make me want to look away and say "Oh yeah, that..." if someone read it out loud to me, that I won't let it slip by without fixing it or removing it. When I'm willing to stand behind every moment in the manuscript, that's when I've pushed it past that last 10%.

Vince said...

Hi Helena:

While it may be possible to write the perfect short poem, in which no change could improve it, I would venture that it is not possible to write the perfect novel. There are always ways to improve a story. Yet, each ‘improvement’ creates the opportunity for diminishing the value of the novel in some other respect.

In addition one needs to ask if ‘polish’ is a value per se. Would you really want Rod Stewart or Joe Cocker to have a more polished voice?

Also, as you approach perfection, each incremental improvement comes at a much higher price. If you are a world class swimmer, think how much extra effort it takes to improve your speed by only two seconds!

If you could write four “B” quality books in the same time it would take to write one “A” quality book, all being publishable, which would you choose? In short, we all have to make ‘real world’ choices.

I believe that if you want to sell the most books, creating the most rewarding reading experience will prove to be the most profitable approach. By all means, correct all mistakes. But you can only cut bait for so long. At some point you have to fish.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Good topic today. Yes, I'm doing my best to polish my WIPs, to make them the best I can, at this time, given the time I have. I don't want to send work to an agent or editor that is not ready for prime-time. I've heard writers say, "Well, I knew there were weaknesses in the story, but I hoped no one would notice." Trust me, editors and agents will notice.

BTW, it's a lot easier to revise when you have an editor telling you what they want. When it's just you and and universe, you're always wondering, should I go this way or that way?

Vince makes a lot of good points as well. While you want to make your work the best you can, at some point you have to send it out into the world. Just be confident it's your best work before you send it out.


Helena said...

Thanks, Hayley. I think when Lisa talked about being a different person by the time you get to the final draft, she just means 'is this still the book you want to write? And does it say what you mean in the way you want it to -- now?'

I guess you could become less enthused over time, or you have been influenced by something or other, and she just wants you to step back so you know what it is that you are putting out there. Mainly, I think, is your heart still in it? Because readers can tell if it isn't.

I think your conclusion is exactly where she wants you to be after that last 10% push.

Helena said...

Hi, Vince. I appreciate your comments. I'm not sure that we are talking about 'perfection' here. It's not a word I remember Lisa Rector using in her presentation.

Her emphasis was on telling your story the best way you know how, giving life to your characters, and creating the most compelling read for your audience, whoever that may be. She wants depth of characterisation, and twists in plot that will surprise and take the reader on a journey. She wants 100% investment from the writer, whether that produces a perfect book or not is for the critics to judge. And she wants the writer to feel it is the best effort possible at this point in time, and that it says what the writer intends it to say.(That's my shorthand interpretation of what she is looking for as an editor.)

And I definitely agree. Fix all the mistakes that you can find, but after that, when you are satisfied that you've done the best you can with the story, it's ready to go.

Thanks for your ideas, Vince.

Helena said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Jana. I can't imagine submitting something that I didn't feel was my best effort, whether that pertained to plot, or character, or the more nebulous stuff like style and voice.

But sometimes the universe isn't responding when you send out those cries for help, so you have to rely on your own best judgment, and then get the help of an editor if you should be so lucky.

Thanks for being here today. And thanks for the title!

Karyn Good said...

Very good questions, Helena, and ones I wonder about all the time but I think the changes I'm making are improving my works-in-progress and I'm learning lots as I go along.

Thanks for the informative post. You've given me lots to think about and so have the comments today.

Helena said...

Hey, Karyn -- sounds like you have a grip on what you're doing. Good luck with your current wip(s).

You're right about the comments today. Lots of food for thought.

I hope folks have also taken a look at Lisa's website and downloaded her checklist. She has some interesting questions for us to ponder while we decide whether our final draft is really ready to submit.