Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Revisions without end

As a response to a post earlier today on Patrick Shawn Bagley's Bitter Water Blog, Sandra Seamans asked, "[D]oes there come a point where you can revise a story to death? [...] I'm not against revisions, just wondering how you know when to stop, how you know that you've gotten the story right."

I'm not certain it's possible to ever get a story "right." I revise until I've created a story that's "publishable." There's a point somewhere between "publishable" and "perfect" where the amount of effort necessary to achieve perfection becomes counter-productive financially. Even if you put in the extra effort, the story won't be any more publishable, the story won't earn any more money, and only a handful of readers will ever notice the difference.

Which, perhaps, leads to a discussion of the difference between an "artist" and a "craftsman." An artist might spend the extra time to achieve perfection, but only produce a new story every 19.3 months, while a craftsman might produce several stories in the same amount of time and never achieve perfection.


sandra seamans said...

I've spent most of the day thinking about this and it just runs counter to everything I've learned about writing. Most importantly, that you should write the very best story you can, not just a good enough one. Yes, I know most readers don't give a damn, but as a writer, shouldn't we? And if we cared more, wouldn't the reader on some level?

And I don't mean taking a year and half to write one story, that's just plain stupid, but writing a story and knowing that you've done your very best should count for something other than just a paycheck.

I mean, you wouldn't tell those kids playing basketball that shooting close to the hoop is good enough. You expect them to hit a slam-dunk everytime out. They won't always, but they'll try.

Maybe it is more cost effective to write "good enough" but when did writers stop striving for the very best that they could be in order to just get published?

Well, scratch that, there's too many novelists that hit the right note and never change from book to book for fear of losing their contracts.

I'm not trying to offend or attack here, I just wonder why we shouldn't strive for better every time out of the gate. Why shouldn't we keep reaching beyond our current skills, if only to satisfy ourselves?

My apologies for taking this beyond the revising question that started this. And maybe I've just wandered into the artist vs job aspect of writing, which wasn't what you were talking about.

Michael Bracken said...

Much of my writing experience runs counter to the official party line, perhaps because I am essentially self-taught and had minimal contact with other writers and formal writing education until after I was already established. (For example, one of the things I've "learned" is that nobody can make money writing short stories; my experience contradicts that.) So, take my comments with a large grain of salt.

I would hate to advocate that writers not write the very best stories they can--and I've read enough slush pile submissions to know that many writers stop revising waaaay too soon--but let's agree that writing a publishable story--a story that gets published professionally and not something that gets thrown up on a friend's Web site--isn't easy. Many people think they can write professionally; few actually can.

Once a writer has reached the point where writing a publishable story is a given and not a goal, other factors--some creative, some not--begin to impact the writing process. Time is one of those factors. Money is another.

A writer who does not rely on writing as an important income source is in a better position to practice art; a writer who relies on writing to put food on the table is more likely to practice craft.

But when I write that "[t]here's a point somewhere between 'publishable' and 'perfect' where the amount of effort necessary to achieve perfection becomes counter-productive financially," I mean the little things--a missing opening quote mark on page 3 and a misplaced modifier on page 7--and not the major things that trip-up beginning and unpublished writers--bad plot logic, story endings that come out of the blue, characters that act out of character, and so on.

Ultimately, yes, we should continually strive to reach beyond our current skills. One of the ways I do this is by trying to write outside my comfort zone in a new genre or for a new publication. And, if I work hard enough at it, pretty soon I'm able to write stories in that genre or for that publication that are merely publishable.

And that's how I strive to keep improving.

sandra seamans said...

I'm in much the same boat as you were. Self-taught, no writers groups and still struggling to learn the business end. Where I'm at the beginning of this, you've reached the place where you know what you're doing and trust yourself to get it right so you look at it differently. I hadn't thought about it from that direction. So thank you for helping me to see that there are other ways to improve and stretch yourself when you reach that stage of being publishable. A goal I'm still working towards.

Charles Gramlich said...

You're right about the point of diminishing returns with each new edit. I have a hard time leaving my stuff alone even after it's publshed though. I'm a tinkerer.

Michael Bracken said...

Before I offer a story for reprint--or when an editor contacts me about reprinting a story--I'll go over it again. There's always something that needs to be corrected or something I want to tweak. I can't help it.

Leigh said...

Sandra, I struggle with this issue too. I used to think I was a slow writer, but I realized that wasn't true. I'm slow editing, re-editing, and re-editing dozens of times. Although I've never worked with wool (well, I worked with 'live wool on the hoof', but that's diffrerent), I think of it as combing. I comb bugs and nits out of it. After a while my effort is reduced to knocking out one modifier per pass.

I've tried to think of this as ROI… return on investment. At what point does my investment (in time) fail to pay for itself? My answer is usually about four or six edits earlier, if I don't mind 50¢ per hour.

I had a story I'd written long ago accepted for publication and when I went back to read it, I freaked. It looked so amateurish, I didn't want anyone to see it. Fortunately, I was allowed a couple of passes by the editor, but I have to steel myself when it appears, that it is what it is, and pray that I can look at it and say, "Maybe that's not so bad after all."

Michael Bracken said...

When I sell something from my files--and I've sold manuscripts that were more than 20 year old--I try not to look at them too closely before or after publication. I'm reasonably comfortable with the knowledge that they were the best I could do at the time I wrote them.