"Are we there yet?"
Ignore or read, here are my thoughts (as always, a far cry from George’s deeply thoughtful replies):
You’re deep into a work of your own creation. That is to be congratulated. I’m happy for you.
You say you are asking for a sign that you are on the right track. Well, since you asked, here’s your sign: YES. Every time you get that feeling in your gut that things are working, that’s great news. Trust that gut. That gut knows things.
You also say that you’ve been working on this far longer than you anticipated. How long did you anticipate? Maybe take that number and put it in a drawer or the garbage can. There is no “anticipated time frame” for completing a work of art. You know this already. Some books take decades to write.
You also say you worry you may be chasing an impossible dream of perfection. Yes, perfection is impossible! Give that one up. If an impossible goal is your goal, well then….you’ll never get there. You know this already. It’s embedded in your comment. So, toss that one in the garbage, too.
I’m with George here—ask your editor to take a look at the current version, now that you’ve made some changes. Or ask a trusted reader. You may be far closer to the end than you think.
Lastly, that sentence you sort of toss in at the end of your question—the one about having no worthy project to take up after this one, and so you almost dread finishing—that’s something to knock around a bit. Because that’s exactly what life is, a series of projects, relationships, time frames, jobs, life transitions, meals, books, etc. Everything comes to an end and then we’ve got to begin again. Holding onto something out of fear of what comes next is a ticket to standing in place. I hope you’ll complete this thing and get on the next train, the one that leads to you don’t know where until you climb aboard.
I just read this over and I think I sound like an asshole. Apologies. Who do I think I am, always giving advice? I don't know. But here I go, posting.
I just had a story published in an online journal, a story that I never thought would get published. It was a lengthy story (originally 15,000 words, now 12,000) that I initially wrote over a few months in 2017-18. Because I didn't know what to do with it at the time (very few journals accept submissions of fiction longer than 10,000 words), I submitted to the few places I could, which weren't really good matches for it, and put it away. But over the years I would take it out and edit it, sometimes trying to see if it could be cut down under 10K words, other times seeing if playing around with tense helped, noodling with the ending, etc. Well, I kept a lot of those edits, reversed others, and finally reworked the ending into something I thought really worked. I discovered the aforementioned online journal earlier this year, submitted the story over the summer, and got a response that was incredibly positive with the offer to publish it (as a novelette, which is to a novella what flash fiction is to a short story, I think). Anyway, it came out yesterday, and I immediately started reading it to see if it was as good as I remembered after I finished my last edit. Well, it is and it isn't. After six years, it still isn't perfect. But I am satisfied with it, proud of it even, and as George says (or Faulkner, I guess), I know the long process I've been through will help me in the next story I write, whether it's of conventional length or not.
I haven’t read all of the responses to this question, so perhaps someone has already said this; if so: sorry. But I think sometimes the simple mechanics come into play.
I’ve been at this for a very long time. My first book was published in 1977. I wrote it on the same Smith Corona typewriter that I had schlepped to Brown when I was a freshman there in 1954. The physical act of writing that book—and revising it— was torturous. Remember something called white-out? Remember carbon paper? Each time I re-read a chapter, its pages stacked there beside the typewriter, and decided to change something—a phrase, perhaps, or sometimes the placement of a paragraph—it meant rolling in a fresh sheet of paper (and the carbon paper, and the second sheet, etc.) and typing it again. If the slight revision threw off the formatting, which it almost invariably did, it meant re-typing the entire chapter. Sometimes it threw off the following chapters, which meant more re-typing, rolling in each fresh sheet. And god forbid, when I felt it was finished, but then re-read the entire 200 pages—and realized that because I had added that small bit of dialogue in chapter 7, it meant that I should have introduced that minor character in chapter 2 instead of 4…..I just said the hell with it, I can’t re-type all of this again. And so I sent it off (US mail in those days) to the waiting editor, putting my only other (carbon paper, remember?) copy in the vegetable drawer of my refrigerator because in case the house burned down…
That book is, amazingly, still in print. And I still, when called upon to reopen it and read a page, cringe because I should have re-worked it one more time. Or two, or three.
In contrast: I got a computer (okay, actually, at that point it was just a word-processor) in 1992. Later, a real computer. And then it was too easy. Change that word back in chapter 7. Re-think the pacing in chapter 4. Change it. Do it again. Print it out. No, wait: how about that one character‘s name? Will readers attach religious significance to it, which I didn’t intend? Search and replace. Now print it out again. Oh, look! That chapter ends with just two sentences on its last page; it looks weird. Let me add a few more lines. And while I’m at it…maybe that description in chapter eleven goes on a bit too long…
It is sometimes too damned hard to quit and click SAVE and then SEND.
Every project is its own learning experience! Sometimes those experiences take years of your life. Sometimes they take only a few months. But always try to get something from them.
Wow & hooray & congrats about the opera, George! I'd been wondering about it & wish you all great success in Cincinnati & beyond. Please keep us posted! As for the question, I'm wondering if the questioner has ever considered putting the project away for a while. I mean completely out of sight, buried somewhere where you can't lay hands on it. And leaving it alone for a while, a good long while, like six months or so. And then taking it out & reading it again. In my experience, leaving the thing alone like this & then coming back to it with fresh eyes reveals all the strengths & all the project's weaknesses. And often any problems that come up will also appear, almost magically, with solutions, or at least suggestions of fixes. I've found this approach to be very helpful---it sometimes seems as if I hadn't even authored the thing in the first place, and yet this period of rest not only allows for easy identification of strengths & weaknesses, but helps me better grasp & acknowledge my own writerly powers. I really believe that the back of the brain continues to reconfigure, to realign and make improvements even when the work is not consciously before us (no matter what that work may be). And I don't think I'm alone in this.
Done, for me an intuitive feeling, almost like the hairs going up at back of my neck. The more I learn to trust my gut, the better I am at recognizing done. Of course, I have also lied to myself a number of times by sending something out before I had that feeling and knowing it's not really done, but that never works out well.
I had a similar feeling as the questioner when I was done with my novel and ready to start something new.... it was very intimidating to be in the big unknowns of imagination, when I'd been spending so much time with people and situations, and while things were not perfect, I at least knew them really well. Writing a new things is different.
When I'm in a certain mood, all my writing strikes me as a few errors surrounded by extensive commentary.
Just a note to the writer to say I feel this whole question, and especially this: "Lately, I've really just been tracking the energy of the writing itself. So I'm paying attention to wherever there are "sags" in the energy. And I've become much more sensitive to where there are even slight hiccups in this energy flow. I am much more attuned to my intuition about where something is needing attention."
Mine's a novel, and I love my story and I'm proud of it, but it's 118K and there are moments of energy and sagging, and I feel like it does need likely need a few healthy chops here and there and some structural work but at the same time is in decent shape overall. But it's huge, I'm a poky and erratic reader, and the hardest thing for me is I can't seem to see the whole thing at once. With a short story, I can do a full run-through in one session. But a 400 page novel? It's impossible? My thesis adviser/committee read the second draft and liked it (with enthusiasm!) but liked it as a draft. I've revised again with their comments in mind. When I couldn't get much traction with my queries, I set it aside. I don't want to give up on it, but I don't know seem to know how to work on it in a way that really moves it forward or helps it become the best version of itself.
I don't know. I wish I knew what to say that would be helpful and productive, but mostly I just want to say that I hear you, and you're not alone on this one. And thank you for asking, because it makes me feel less on an island about this, too.
Oh, but you will TOTALLY have more ideas. Do not worry about that! You will find the next project, and it may come from an unexpected place or memory. Seriously, I tripped over mine via a throwaway paragraph in a New York Times article. As humans we contain multitudes of stories. This one book is not it for you at all, not one bit!
A really important question (thanks, Angela!) and a great response from George. I'm working on a novel (historical, eighteenth-century, no kings and queens involved) that should pan out at 120,000 - 140,000 words. It's been once-finished, then picked up again. Everything in it has been rethought and rewritten, often according to impulses coming from who-knows-where in the mind (characters sometimes appear to me, almost as visions, and do something that is absolutely right and results in change, even major, in the story). But one thing (among others) I've learned here from George and SC is to work and rework and revise the beginning and to plug away at it until it feels dead right. My beginning is a first-person non-omniscient and possibly flaky POV, one of three POVs in the novel. The hardest thing I've been struggling with is finding this character's voice. As long as I don't have it, the narrative feels baggy and fake. And once I have it, I know what to tell and what not to tell. Things slot into place, or jump out, no need for them.
Lately I feel I'm getting there. What a burst of energy that feeling gives! I've got the beginning nailed!
"...this feeling usually comes before it should. So this is something we want to try to learn to recognize, with practice: the difference between the premature version of this feeling and the “true” one."
So we plod on, astride our broken-winded Rosinantes, searching for the Holy Graal of Truth...
Oh, thank you, George, for this—I REALLY REALLY appreciate it. Just seeing that you'd answered my question felt like winning the lottery and your suggestions are SO helpful and grounding! I'd had a bad couple of days of editing this week but earlier today came around the bend (what an emotional roller coaster this has been!) so things are looking up.
Yes, I can see that chapters and sections are definitely "cohering/congealing" (and I'm even finding new connecting threads that are happening)—so this shot in the arm has been enormously helpful and I'm taking heart.
THANK YOU, THANK YOU!
PS: I can't wait to get to hear the opera—have a great time with the workshop and performance!
Have an amazing time in Cincinnati (my hometown, I've sent you postcards)! When I heard about the Opera Fusion workshop I texted everyone I know to tell them to attend. George, Missy Mazzoli, and my favorite opera company in the same room... I wish I could teleport! Looking forward to hearing Lincoln in the Bardo myself some day, hopefully in Cincinnati's beautiful Music Hall.
I worked on my last story for over a year and after about 60 drafts and countless revisions it felt like I was finally done and I submitted it to some journals. But the subconscious kept throwing out suggestions for improvements at random times. So I ended up withdrawing and re-submitting at some of the journals – too late at others because they have already started reviewing what I had originally submitted. Now I feel bad that I submitted my non-best effort. And I am still updating that story for any future submissions, even as I have started on the next one.
Several of you have commented here, and I am learning the hard way, to let the story rest and go work on something else, then come back to review it with fresh eyes. I find that really helps, but still need to develop the discipline to do it consistently.
Strange that I just joined substack and found you here this evening, and the first post leads with a photo here in my hometown of Oxford! When you came to Square Books for CivilWarLand, I worked at Sq Bks and went to dinner at Taylor Catfish with you and the other booksellers. Been a fan ever since. AND you wrote me the most lovely letter after you read my piece “What Happened To Me” in the Oxford American. It meant the world to me.
"(Here, we’re guarding against the possibility that you are just endlessly changing things and nothing is congealing/cohering). (Is the Rubik’s Cube getting closer to having all of its color’s lined up, or is it just in different states of randomness?)"
I've spent so long in that loop, it's not even funny.
I guess there are many reasons why 'the end' takes longer to get to than we think / expect / hope. One might be unrealistic expectations ('I'll write this twelve-volume novel in a month'), which just needs a reality check; but that doesn't sound like the issue in your case.
A slightly different version of this is the unrealistic dream of the outcome if we do a really good job. No matter how good the individual finished piece work is, it's not going to make us a foot taller, and it's unlikely to win us the Nobel Prize, or make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.
Worse, the longer we work on something, the more unreasonable the desired effect can become.
Finishing then might be an issue because we'll have to accept the fact that - no matter how good the work - it simply can't achieve those things. It's not so much fear of failure, but fear of the reality check a reasonable success might bring. On some level, we know this, no matter how deep the denial; hence the reluctance to finish and know it for sure.
Another issue might be the fact that we're aiming at a moving target. Are you writing about a subject that's evolving fast? Makes it tricky to formulate a 'definitive' work; I'd imagine you'd need to aim for some sort of 'snapshot' of the current situation, perhaps with some closing thoughts on what the future may hold.
The flip-side of this: the longer the work takes, the more we will have evolved by the time it's finished (or at least we will have evolved if we're still engaging with life). It's a bit like the calculations needed for space flight: you know the mass of the rocket, and work out how much fuel it would take to get that rocket into orbit. But you'll also need to get that fuel off the ground, so more fuel is needed to lift the weight of that fuel; then more fuel needed to lift THAT fuel; etc.
If you keep getting to what WOULD have been the end, but now find it dissatisfying, it can be healthy to remind yourself of what the original brief was, or the exact nature of the initial impulse or inspiration. If you can re-embrace that perspective, this can be a decent antidote to perfectionism.
Of course. So much work. I have two boards now, one for inside, like Dahls, for the chair, and a smaller one , just a tray really, for ouside as now under the apple tree dapple. Full bloom of spring here in the South Pacific. So I type in the shade of a tree of the usefulness of this question. Oh God, to be sucked in by your own work, bliss! Who wrote this, you ask. Then you read Faulkner, just a graf and you realise , oh stone-drunk fool, You're not as good as you'd like to think you are. hah aha.
After 4 years on a novel, and feeling tired of working on it (I know it could be better), I’m dragging out another book I abandoned at least 10 years ago to see if it comes alive for me. Maybe? And if it does, I hope the same thing happens to my second book. Maybe there’s something to be said for letting the dough test so it can rise.