I’ll be honest and say that I’m supposed to be writing. Touching up the ending of a novel and setting the blocks for its sequels, in fact. But we’re having a plot disagreement at present, so I chose to devote my evening to a blog post instead. I’m returning to editing tomorrow; I always end up going back.
Books are like children in some ways, and so, creating them should be handled responsibly, and with the knowledge that you will be tending to its needs at all odd hours for quite a few more years. My last four years have been solely dedicated to the same two or three books, chipping away at drafts and tightening details with each new pass.
“Why push through for that long?”, you might ask. Knowing when to complete a draft is tricky, after all. Some projects aren’t worth the effort. I’ve even often wondered if my persistence borders on wasteful and tactless.
There will be some stories that haunt you though, no matter what you’re writing. They tug at your hair and disturb you in the night. Ideas that crop up as scribbles on napkins, in the margins of homework. Those books? They are the ones that need telling.
But some stories haven’t been so fortunate. There are few truths in the lives of authors, other than death, taxes, lost data, and lots of abandoned writing. Every career is littered with unfinished ideas and unrealized plots. I spent much of my teen years composing stories via a notebook or my school laptop, all abandoned as I hopped from one story to the next. In fact, my current troublesome draft is the culmination of a few unfinished story ideas that I realized, quite amazingly, finished each other. The story I kept trying to tell was easier after I aged a few years. Even if it wasn’t the same general thing, it was still full of the same tropes, archetypes, and themes. I stopped throwing things away after I noticed.
Finishing a book came in waves; completing the first draft is huge, but completing the first revision is bigger. And just like writing styles, revision styles are wholly unique to the author. I know writers who work through second and third drafts with the complete guidance of beta readers. I know writers who guard their works jealously until they feel it worthy of sharing (whatever draft that might be). I suspect, from my own experience, that revision style is harder to pin down than anything else. Writing is such a natural creative expression, whereas revision means taking that methodical knife to your expression and knowing where to cut. Being a good editor and a good author aren’t always synonymous skills, and neither are easy-going.
So, can you lose a draft in these waves of completion? Absolutely. People have edited books to death, or lost the voice of a story in the noise of too many early readers. Or, honestly- in the disparagement of the author. Editing is harsh, messy, and full of obstacles; writing would be easier if plotlines just worked themselves out. Why write at all?
This all sounds very dreary, doesn’t it? I was originally heartbroken at the idea that a story could go sour, even after so much work and time. “Then,” I thought, “what’s the point of finishing at all? Why am I even doing this?”
Because of those stories that haunt you.
Effort has merit, and so does knowing when to release a story- whether that means focusing our efforts on the projects that matter or finally ending our persistent edits. We all reach a day when our book baby is all grown up and we can no longer predict what it will say to others, or where it will go, and who might read it. That’s okay.
This still makes most authors very anxious, and that’s okay too. You will have other stories to create, visit, and shape, and yes, more edits to weep over.
I’m still supposed to be writing, and have made a sport of actively avoiding it at this point. But I do always manage go back and finish something, which counts in my book. There are scores of abandoned things that I leave in my creative wake, but I am happier knowing we never fully abandon our stories; we just recreate and revisit when the time is right.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.