Writing–when is enough, enough?

I wrote once about not being tempted to rush things.  I tend to be a sparce writer.  My first draft of a scene usually only gets the bare bones down–the characters, some conflict and action to advance the plot, and hopefully some realistic dialogue.  I have to give the scene a second pass to add dimension, description, and emotion.  Often, I need a third pass to add any subtleties.  If I hurry, it shows.  My story has what it needs, but it’s  not enough.

There’s another danger in writing, though.  And that’s the desire to tinker with a story or a novel until you’re not improving it any longer, you’re simply changing it.  So how can you tell when you’ve rewritten and polished enough?

I don’t have a “for sure” answer to that, but for me, I’ve adopted the rule of the first three–I get three shots at making each page the best I can write before I give my manuscript to someone else to critique–my trusted readers.  I don’t hold myself to this rule for the first chapter.  I have a tendency to go back to those pages over and over again as I write.  But for most of a book, I give myself three stabs at getting it right.  First, I do chapter rewrites as I work–polishing the pages I wrote the previous day before I start work on a new chapter–this almost always involves adding more pages to flesh things out.   Then when I finish each quarter of the novel, (the way I organize my plots), I’ll stop to look at that one fourth of the story again.  And finally, when I finish the entire thing, I go through it as a whole.  Then it’s time to send it to my readers.

I’ve never had anyone read my entire novel and say, “It’s perfect.”  It’s never going to happen, because I’m too close to the story and the writing.  So…that said, once I get the readers’  feedback, I start another round of rewrites to fix the scenes and screw-ups I didn’t catch myself.  And by then, you’d think the book would be in pristine shape.  But when I send it to my agent, there’s always something I missed.  When I’m lucky, it’s only a scene or two.  When I’m not, well…there’s more.  But by the time I finish those, I’m thoroughly and completely sick of the book.  I don’t even like it for the moment.  And that’s when I know it’s done.

I’m not saying this is a perfect method.  No two writers do anything alike.  But this works for me–usually.  Which means, there are no hard and fast rules in writing, even though it would be nice.  But this system has helped me find a balance between writing too fast and doing rewrites over and over again and never finishing a book.

This rhythm almost feels like a part of me now–three rewrites, show to readers, ready to send–so it suprised me when I found myself reluctant to say goodbye to the last novella in one of my series.  I tinkered with it when I should have left it alone.  I’d accomplished what I wanted the series to do.  If I could say farewell to a novel, surely I could part with a series, right?  I’d intended for the Ally/Dante series to be a short one.  Four gargoyles, four novellas.  Each a sort of action/romance.  But I found that I really liked playing match maker for my gargoyles.   I enjoyed introducing them to their supernatural, soul mates, sifting through some of my favorite mythological immortals to introduce them to.  But the way I’d set up the stories, the series was over.  I left each gargoyle with the girl of his dreams–even if she was a gorgon or a winged horse.  They each had their own happily ever after, so…it was time to to be a good “writer mom” and get out of their business…and wish them well.  Even though I’ll miss them.  And just like my series, every writer has to reach a point when her “baby” grows up, it’s finished, and it’s time to let it go.  Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Don’t fall into the trap of infinite rewrites.

Here’s a link to the four Ally/Dante stories: http://bitly.com/bundles/judithpost/5  P.S.  The first novella, Flesh & Stone, is free on smashwords right now.  And here’s the newest and last novella in the series:

cover_mockup_22  (Sorry, this cover’s a little scandalous, but the girl’s a tree nymph, after all, and it’s hard to step out of some bark and be fully clothed.)

8 thoughts on “Writing–when is enough, enough?

  1. Knowing when a piece is finished is proving to be my toughest challenge. I went from never doing rewrites to not being able to stop revising! I will see if your rule of three works for me.


  2. Nice idea, Judith. I have a tendency to tinker too. One of the most powerful things I’ve learned during my writing is the importance of letting the words settle – leaving it alone for a while, then coming back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. Your ‘three-strikes and you’re out’ system could work quite well with my model, so I’ll give it a go and see what happens! 🙂


    1. It’s not perfect, but it helps me. I read your blog about letting your work rest. I try to do that too. I usually start a new book after I hand the one I just finished to my readers. I try to make myself write the first fourth of the new one before I go back and look at my friends’ comments and gear up for rewrites. Having new characters and a new storyline in my head help me distance myself from the first book and look at it in a new way. I’m not as attached.


  3. I only have a second to pen a quick comment – dashing off to work. I read this post and loved it! You’ve put into words something that I’ve been struggling with for the past year. When is it editing and when are you simply making changes?! That’s where I’m at with this blasted Irish epic.
    Time to take a break, step back and craft something new.
    I have to say that I’m so glad I’ve started reading your books, Judith. I can clearly see what you’re expressing in these posts. You have an “effortless” style that lets the readers relax and enjoy the story – now I know you’re like the proverbial swimming duck – all cool and collected above the water and paddling like heck below.


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