Sunday, October 26, 2008

Knowing When You’re Done

The other day Damien and I went to see Patricia Hampl read out of her new memoir, The Florist's Daughter (which was extremely engaging and now I desperately want to read the entire book). Afterwards, she answered some questions and one of her responses really struck me. One of our Creative Writing Professors here asked if she had any advice for the people finishing books soon, people who would soon be looking to get their first book published. Amongst a lot of the other useful advice that she offered, she mentioned that one important thing, if you’re finishing an MFA program with a book length thesis, is to understand whether this book is actually done or whether you still have more revising ahead of you.

In my experience, many people, after they finish the program here, still have a fair amount of work ahead of them before their thesis is actually publishable. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently since, with only a semester and a half left, I’m going through a very dramatic revision of my novel in which I’m actually rewriting the entire thing on a fresh blank document to make the changes easier to work in smoothly. I had always thought this thing would be done, ready to send out, by the time I finished the program, but now I’m starting to wonder . . .

One important thing that you have to learn as a writer is how to tell when something is ready, (force yourself to stop tinkering already and send it out) and how to tell when something is not. It’s a skill I don’t have a lot of confidence in my own abilities with quite yet, as I’ve had I-can’t-even-say-how-many-times where I’ll be sending something out, getting back rejection after rejection, and then I go back to look at the piece again and find all kinds of ways I can tighten it or even make the plot better. And then there are other pieces where I let it sit on my computer, keep opening it up and looking at it and never find anything to change, but can’t force myself to send it out because what if I’m just missing something . . . and then when I finally do send it out it gets accepted right away.

Being able to recognize whether your piece is ready is an even more important ability when it comes to a book length work, since if you exhaust your options for agents and publishing houses that’s it, you won’t ever be able to get it published, and if you have a book that’s totally ready but you never send it out, it’ll never get published, either. So I’m hoping, for one thing, that my committee will be honest with me next spring and tell me whether they think this book is actually ready or whether they think I have more work to do. And I’m also hoping that, when I finish the program next spring, I’ll have honed that ability of being able to look at my work myself and see whether it’s good enough, yet, whether there are still things to work on or whether it’s done.

But one thing I know I’ll be ready for is the extra work ahead of me if it turns out it isn’t ready this spring. The revision process on my thesis has been exciting and fun, way more fun, actually, than writing the first draft was. If I finish the program with the understanding that I’ve still got several more drafts ahead of me, that’ll be alright. I’ll stick with it. Because I love this book and I think it could be really good, if I just get it to that point, and I do not want to put something out there in the world that could have been really good, if I had kept working on it, but it isn’t good. And now it never will be.


Justus said...

Yep, you definitely hit the nail on the end of the nail that isn't the sharp end but is the end opposite from the sharp end, the end that is flat and is in fact where you want to hit the nail.

Master Dayton said...

Great post. That's been the challenge the past year and change here. It's amazing after 30 some revisions that in some chapters I can go 15 pages and not see anything that needs changing, but then I'll hit some pages that I end up almost rewriting completely. Hemingway was said to be the master of revision - but I know you don't particularly care for his work so I'll search for a better example :) Keep at it, and let me know which publishing company ends up buying the book when you finally do send it out!