Back Away from the WIP, Please

It’s incredibly easy to ignore the reams of good advice about revising and editing. We see the same suggestions so many times that they eventually fail to make any impression on our minds. Or maybe we don’t think some of that advice actually applies to us.

Take, for example, the one about taking time out from something you’ve been working on for a long time, in order to gain a fresh perspective. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But until you’ve gone over your WIP so many times that you’re ready to trash it because it still sucks, you’re not going to take that advice seriously. How do I know? Because I’m guilty.

I spent half a year or more writing Boundaries, all that time going back over previous chapters, filling in plot holes, smoothing out sentence construction, catching punctuation errors, and doing all the other housecleaning that writing requires. The damned thing was finally done, even though I wasn’t happy with the ending. Overall, it looked pretty good, so I started serializing it on Live Journal. Before I posted each chapter, I’d go over it again and always found one more bit that needed to be cleaned up. That was fine; one more bit cleaned up was one less bit to catch readers’ eyes.

But after all that work, there were still sections that just didn’t work right. And I still couldn’t figure out how to fix them. As soon as the last chapter was posted, I plunged into what I hoped would be a final revision. It turned out to be a pretty major one that made the novel a lot better, but those stubborn spots still refused to wash out. And I was still unhappy with the ending. Luckily, NaNoWriMo intervened. I didn’t want to leave Boundaries on the shelf, but I needed plenty of time before November to work out the novel-to-be. What with one thing and another, I didn’t finish The Warden during NaNo. Instead, I spent December trying to finish it , and Boundaries languished.

Without having planned it, I had taken a three month vacation from Boundaries. Was I grateful? Hell, no. I was champing at the bit to get back to it, and resenting The Warden because it was sucking up my attention. Then the inevitable happened. I burned out on The Warden, with only a couple of chapters more to write.  Only somewhat regretfully, I put it aside and picked up Boundaries again. As I started working my way through the chapters, most of the nasty knots started to unravel, almost without any real effort. I’d look at a scene that had resisted my efforts to make it work and wonder why that had ever been a problem. Just add this bit of dialog, move that sentence, eliminate this one, and poof! A scene that flowed and worked just the way I’d always wanted it to.

What happened? The deep grooves that had been worn into my brain by going over the same ground so many times had a chance to flatten out. The more you look at something, the more familiar it becomes, and the harder it is to imagine it any other way. Every time you see it, its reality as it is at this moment is reinforced in your mind. Time away allows it to become less familiar, less set in stone. Time away lets you come to the work with fresh eyes and a new perspective. The horrible sentence that you didn’t notice before stands out like a sore thumb, and the solution is right there in front of you. The dialog that marches stiffly along  is ludicrous because you know people don’t talk that way, and now you know exactly how it should sound.

Boundaries still offers challenges that don’t yield right away, but the time away gave me a clearer vision of what I was trying to achieve and why I didn’t. Three months vacation would have been worth it at twice the price.

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4 thoughts on “Back Away from the WIP, Please

  1. This one is a hard one for me to follow, too. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my writing, and the more resistant something is, the more I want to keep working at those stubborn knots. But I do find when I put it away for a while, I see it much more clearly and can make it work a lot better.

    1. I’m not sure I would have been able to do it if NaNo hadn’t come up as a priority. But now that I’ve done it and seen that it works, I’m going to try not to forget it.

  2. Talking to my artist friends, one thing that keeps cropping up again and again is: when do you know to stop? With anything creative there is an element of the organic and deciding the project is finished is difficult for the creator to evaluate. A furled bud is as beautiful as an open bloom, but when the petals start shedding you’ve gone too far. Readers generally want the newly unbfurled bud, without the blemishes of greenfly and blackspot.
    I don’t think an artist/author/poet/musician is ever 100% happy with a final product. In fact there is no ‘final’. Everytime I read through my work I see something I want to change/add/delete and I am glad when my editor waves her wand and says, ‘no more!’

  3. Bea, I’ve read about writers who never publish because they can’t let go and say “enough.” It’s a fine line, for sure. When it comes to punctuation and grammar, I try for perfection. But when it’s the way a sentence flows or what a character says (one thing rather than something else just as good), I have to ask who the heck would know the difference.

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