As a writer (both creative and academic), I find that’s pretty true. I don’t think I’ve written anything that couldn’t have been a teeny bit better with one more revision–but with most things, I was also writing up against a deadline. My task was simply to do the best I could with the time allotted.
But the question–is this finished?–plagues me as a creative writer. Since, to this point, I write primarily for my own pleasure, I don’t have hard and fast deadlines. And while yes, deadlines motivate me to write and to get things done, deadlines alone can’t tell me if I’m “done”–if a piece is well and truly polished.
I have a confession to make. Last fall, flush with the success of having finished–and revised!–my first novel in some time, I started querying that novel. Only to realize, as the rejections started trickling in and I started rereading the thing, that I wasn’t actually “finished” with that story. It wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I’d wasted some precious resources by jumping the query gun.
Now, I find myself struggling with the opposite problem–wanting to obsessively revise and hone this novel until it’s polished surface is blinding.
And while I’m generally in favor of revision (I tell my students to do it all the time), at some point I have to count the cost of the revision. Is that minor adjustment–that single word change–really going to dramatically improve the writing? Is it a good return on the time investment? It’s also possible to revise to the point that, while the prose itself may be flawless, you’ve revised the life out of the story.
So the question (for me at least) remains: How can you tell when you’re done with a story?
When I was writing my dissertation, one of my faculty advisors gave me some great advice. He said, “This doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be functional.” In other words, it needed to be good enough to pass my committee and (eventually) help me get a job, but it didn’t have to be perfect.
For those of us looking to publish creatively, I think the same rule holds. It doesn’t have to be perfect–it just has to do the job. In this case, the job is to get the attention of an agent.
With that in mind, I have a few ideas of how I can recognize when a piece is finished enough to try querying again:
*Have I revised for content? Is the story core as tight as it can be–for now?
*Have I revised for voice? Is the voice consistent throughout the story?
*Have I had my critique partners read through the entire draft? (This is an important step I wish I’d waited for the first time around!)
*Have I had beta readers look at the draft?
*Have I let the story sit for a while (anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month or more) and then gone through it with fresh eyes?
If I can answer yes to all of these questions, then I think I can be reasonably confident that it’s time–once again–to query.
What about you? How can you tell when your story is “finished” enough to query?