To Continue or Not??
When I first started my MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, I had a grand idea that I would systematically present chapters of a novel-in-progress to the small critique groups and faculty instructor I would be working with. Each month I imagined I would submit another chapter and make the changes suggested as we went along. I figured I would graduate with a degree and a finely-tuned, well-polished novel.
At least, that was the idea.
I’m sure that sort of strategy works for some MFA participants, but it didn’t work for me. I received a lot of feedback. Most of it was very valuable feedback, but it became overwhelming. In my mind, the novel I was working on wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t bad. I thought it would only require the sorts of cosmetic corrections which I was already capable of accomplishing. The readers didn’t agree.
By the last month of the first semester, I gave up on that plan. The readers were right and I came to see that. The book wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready, as a writer. I didn’t yet have the skills to produce a written work that matched my vision of what that novel could and should be.
The task of adequately “fixing” the novel was too much for me, at that point in my creative development. In fact, it remains an elusive goal of mine—one which I have returned to twice, now, and plan to come back to later this year. (It’s on my big chart of goals for 2015: Figure out how to re-work that early novel.)
Even though I was overwhelmed to the point of temporarily putting that project aside, I was not discouraged from writing, completely: I just had to reassess my creative focus until I was ready to tackle a project riddled with massive problems I was not yet capable of resolving. In my mind, I was not abandoning that book: I was putting it aside until I was a better writer, capable of fixing the problems I now knew existed.
When To Pull the Plug
Sometimes though, I have completely “pulled the plug” on a writing project when I realized—from feedback—that the revision process was going to be more involved and time-consuming than the project was worth. In other words, I decided the upside (potential) of a particular story was not high enough to justify the time and energy I would have to expend to make it a viable creative work.
The abandoned novel still had an upside, even if I wasn’t yet capable of realizing the latent potential. I had a vision for what it could become, which made me want to pursue it again, some day.
There are those stories, though, that simply aren’t worth the effort.
But, I have to carefully guard against using this sort of thinking as an excuse to abandon a piece of writing just because improving it will be “too hard.” Revision and editing a “good” story to be a “great” story requires hard work. It should be that way. But the hard work of real revision doesn’t always appeal to me if I have some new, exciting idea for a story making my fingers tingle. So, to guard against literary laziness disguised as reasonable assessment, I never abandon a creative work which has reached the stage of receiving feedback until I have attempted the following things.
Ways to Avoid Feedback Overload
Feedback overload is that point where you’ve received so much feedback—or feedback that will require so much work—that you find yourself either paralyzed by not knowing what to do, or you find you have no energy or enthusiasm to even attempt the necessary revision and editing.
The creative process stalls. Nothing is moving.
Here are eight ideas for avoiding this sort of paralyzing overload. I never abandon a stalled piece completely until I have worked through these steps:
- Free writing about general revision goals, based on the feedback. This exercise is done without looking at the critique notes, and it is a time to be completely honest with myself. If the feedback made me mad or disappointed me or made me want to take up self-flagellation as a hobby, it all goes in here. The idea is for me to get a feel for what I really want from the story, and what I really learned from the critiques. Often, this free writing will help me rediscover some enthusiasm for he story, or it may help point me toward some answers that I hadn’t expected.
- Based on the free writing exercise, I develop a theme statement and specific, written goals for revision. This becomes a key document I refer to throughout the revision process. Here, I do go back over reader comments and begin to decide which things I’m going to address, and in what directions my revision will attempt to focus the narrative. Basically, this is mapping out a revision plan for me to follow.
- Consider something radical, but only if you really believe in it. Major changes—like structure, plot, point of view, tense, etc.—are difficult to accomplish and radical surgery to your draft manuscript should only be attempted if you have great confidence in the cure such surgery offers.
- I get back into the text in bite-sized chunks. This allows me to not become overwhelmed by the feeling that I have to re-write the whole thing, today. One bite at a time: That’s how you eat the whole elephant.
- I focus on structure before specifics. I work from the big-picture level down to the finer adjustments. This can be difficult because it is much easier, and therefor more attractive, to fix comma errors and misspellings than to address a major structural problem with my writing, but fixing small errors too soon can wind up being wasted effort if the structural fixes obliterate a character, wipe out a page of text, or render a plot point obsolete.
- I implement a systematic and consistent revision strategy. I constantly compare the work I am doing to “fix” the piece with the theme statement and goals I mentioned in the second point. If I make steady progress, even if it is only baby-step progress, I will be less likely to give up.
- This one is counter-intuitive: Be open to late-game surprises. Since I’ve talked about plans and systems and intentionality, being open to things changing at a late stage can be tough. A dramatic change to the story can feel like starting over again. If there is some surprise you uncover, it can have a ripple effect throughout every nook and cranny of the story. A ripple can be a scary thing if it comes just as you think you’re getting close to completion, but sometimes those ripples are where the true heart of the story reside.
- If things still aren’t going well, take a break and reassess the revision plan you’ve developed and make sure you’ve give the project the best of your efforts.
Revision is Like This
Have you ever had a friend or a loved one who you adored, but no one else liked? You might say, “Oh, she’s wonderful, really,” and your best friend replies, “I just don’t see it.”
You might provide your friend with more information or examples of how your beloved is such a delight. You would attempt to explain away or provide context to some of the blemishes upon the beloved’s record. You would seek to give your friend a more vibrant and fully-formed picture of the beloved so that he, too, could grow to appreciate her.
This is what we are doing when we revise our work. It is the act of championing the beloved: the effort to reveal the story in its true glory, so the reader sees her with our eyes.
It isn’t always easy, but will you be your story’s champion?
***NEXT WEEK*** A bonus post to compliment this three part series. Stay tuned.