Wednesday, November 16, 2011

When Good Enough Takes Time

I've been writing this novel of mine for nearly two years now, and there are days when that seems like 18 months too long. Writing friends have finished two or three, even more, books in that time. And yet I still struggle along.

Patience has never been my virtue. There have been several times I've decided, this is it. This book is done. I've tinkered with it long enough and it will never get better than this.

And then it does.

So I keep tweaking and deleting and rewriting and reorganizing and polishing. And then I do all that again. And again.

I was heartened my first semester when my then-advisor told me he'd revised his award-winning novel 17 times. I was heartened again when I had a discussion with my now-advisor about prologues, and how she'd initially written a prologue for her book, then changed it, then scattered parts of it through the book, and then eventually did away with it altogether.

And then last week I read Edgar Sawetelle, by David Wroblewski. This is the pedigree for Edgar Sawtelle:

David Wroblewski is the author of the internationally bestselling novel The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle, a 2008 Oprah Book Club pick, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the 2008 Colorado Book Award, Indie Choice Best Author Discovery award, and the Midwest Bookseller Association's Choice award. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was selected as one of the best books of 2008 by numerous magazines and newspapers around the country, and has been translated into over 25 languages.

Not too shabby, eh? I'm not typically a fan of Oprah-endorsed books. Clearly she and I have very different tastes. But this book was everything the awards say it is. Sublime, lovely, gorgeous, haunting.

But what I love love loved about my copy of the book was that it had an extensive author interview. I love author interviews!!  (And as an aside, I totally fell for David in it. Despite all the acclaim and publicity he's gotten, he seems very humble and down to earth and somebody I'd utterly love conversing with over a cup of coffee.)

What impressed me most in the interview was a question about putting some of the chapters from a dog's point of view. David's answer was inspirational to me, not because it gave me some great insight into point of view, but because it revealed that he'd worked on this book for years. Years, people!! Two years in his MFA program, and then years after that, when he finished it, changed it, revised it, altered the entire point of view (which originally had been first person but ended up being mostly third).

It makes me realize that sometimes, the really good stuff only comes with time.

I don't think taking longer on my debut book would have helped. I still think that book was ready to go after nine months, and although it may not be the book I'd write now, it's the book it needed to be.

But this book - this current work in progress - needs time. I won't be rushed, because I don't want to throw it out there until it's really ready. Something I can be truly proud of. Right now it's not. And I'm okay with that, mostly because the more I work on it, the exponentially better it gets. (Which isn't to say it's great, mind you. It started out pretty stinky...)

What about you? How long do you think you'd be willing to work on something - not just writing but anything - before saying, "That's enough. What I have now is going to have to be good enough"?


  1. I hit that point with my first book. What I have now is going to have to be enough. And it might not be enough to get it published, but I'm okay with that, because I learned a lot writing it.

  2. I can get a rough draft down fast, but time until it's ready??
    My biggest thing is that I can't see the story without setting it aside and working on something else.

    And yeah. We ALL work at a different pace, and our books are meant for different audiences, so yeah, timing will be different . . .

  3. Y'know, I think it depends on the novel and where you're at in your writing journey. I had a book I worked on for probably four years and it didn't need to be that long - that was just me simply procrastinating too much and tinkering too much. I don't think I was improving it so much as not embracing the notion that I needed to finish something and move on.

    I think there probably comes a time when we instinctively "know" that the novel is done and we need to let go. Hearing that voice and heeding it is the key.

  4. I think the "how long?" question can vary from project to project, like you've also found. Not every great idea comes to us fully formed. Some need our interactions with them over a period to really gel. Others arrive very clear-cut and it's a matter of getting it down piece by piece, usually pretty quickly. (One of these days I'll get an idea like that for something other than a poem or short story. Ha!)

    I think there is a huge expectation differential regarding "productivity" depending on genre. Lit fic readers expect titles more slowly than genre readers.

  5. I sometimes think that it wouldn't be taking me this long if not for all the procrastinating I've done.

  6. Roxanne - LOL!! So true for me too! I'd be whipping out books like nobody's business if the internet had never been invented! :)

  7. I feel the same way sometimes. My first manuscript took a year to write and edit. The first agent I queried asked for the full. Then she told me a major issue that needed to be fixed. So my rewrite took another 9 months. The agent read the rewrite and said it was great, but she didn't love it. She also said that it was completely personal preference. So now I wonder if I should do more tweaking or simply re-query. Friends say if she didn't point out any issues, I should just re-query.

    Who knows though. I think I'm hitting that 2 year mark too. :)

  8. I think I spent 7 years on Trouble. But I can't remember. There was a baby and moving house and life and all minds of stuff during that time so no matter how long it took, it was a very chopped up process. I think I finished the first draft in 2001. Is that right???? That's 10 years ago!!!! That can't be right. 2006? It's been on three or four different computers, so it's been a while.

    And of course last year after one last constructive rejection I set it aside. I lost track of revisions around 20 and just had to walk away.

    But not permanently. Because I am a sucker for punishment apparently.

    This current project will NOT take that long. That's a lesson I've learned.

    You know what, I just remembered. I started writing Trouble in 1995, or what would later become Trouble. That is waaaaay too long!!

  9. Great post, I needed to hear it. The novel I'm currently working on I started over 2 years ago. I haven't even finished the first draft. Yeah, take that news to the bank!! lol I have stopped and written a few things since then, but still. When will I be done? Before I die, I'll promise you that! :)

  10. I hear you on the re-writes. It is the worst part about writing because you could go over a work a million times and still find something to change. Not to mention that many writers do not believe they have written good enough to be published. I have just finished a memoir that is due out in January. It has taken quite some time to get to where it is going and I still don't know where that Anyway, forge ahead with your work in progress.

  11. Well, I suppose I would keep at it till it's done. I can't imagine myself just stopping before I've hit that point. And I'm pretty sure I'm an even s-l-o-w-e-r writer than you claim to be! ;o)

  12. I had a book I worked on for probably four years and it didn't need to be that long - that was just me simply procrastinating too much and tinkering too much.

    British Food

  13. mondal - it's a fine line between tinkering and tweaking... and believing in yourself enough to know it's good. :)