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Feeling Nostalgic? The archives > The Last Stages of Writing: On Polishing

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message 1: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Clausen In the end, the whole thing might be mediocre. The short story, the article, the novel—though you want to finish something, though you want to declare victory, there is something in the back of your brain that tells you that if you stop now the project that you thought could have been great will just be plain mediocre, or worse embarrassing.

As I’m editing my novel (or should I be polishing, or should I be revising) it occurs to me that my hair is thinning…and it won’t be long before impotency sets in. Life is short, and how long am I really going to spend not-writing, but editing? I get up to go make myself a cup of coffee and realize that there is a full cup right at my desk.

Ah, I see. Well, how long has that cup been sitting there? When to keep pushing and when to give in? When to let it sit and when to ask for a second opinion? The great Dr. Lance Carbuncle (author of Smashed, Chunked, Spewed…) recently told me that at some point your book just becomes a petulant teenager and you need to kick him/her out of the house when they become too much to deal with. But that brings up the question: Is that troubled teenager going to eventually find his/her way? Or are they going to role up under a bridge smoking crack?

The Japanese have this great word—Kaizen. It means continual improvement. Their traditional business system is known for being able to eliminate errors, produce something close to perfection. At the same time, the Japanese are infamous for being short on revolutionary innovations and creativity. Bill Gates would dispute me on this, tooth and nail—he points to Japanese and Anime as his support. A Japanese student of mine once told me in all earnestness that he didn’t have any imagination. I asked him to picture himself at an airport and he couldn’t produce a single mental picture. So when the need for a revolutionary change comes along, the focus on Kaizen, gradual polishing, only serves to obscure the fact that large parts of the system or even the entire system itself is in dire need of an overhaul. I could be writing about the Japanese economy, but actually I’m still talking about writing.

But if your book is an arrogant teenager, do you really want to start all over again?

A last thought: Is it possible to polish every unique and genuine thing from a piece of work? Have you ever listened to a rock band and thought “wow, their independently produced album was so much better. Raw, yes, but better”? Where does all this polishing get us, anyway? Is it just raw process that that takes us away from the Real of desire? In the end, isn’t it that moment, that pure writerly moment that you have to communicate?

I’m going to post this around to see what others come up with. Give me a holler if you have some ideas.

message 2: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 777 comments Hi,
You raise a lot of good points. You have to edit, but you also have to stop. What a few of my friends have done, and I plan to do it too, when I get done editing my first draft, is get the manuscript as good as you can without becoming OCD about it, then make a few copies and give them to trusted friends in writers groups, people whose opinions you value, for feedback. When you get them back, if every single person said they didn't get what was going on on page 63, fix page 63. Etc. Continual improvement would work for a system, like government, economy, education, but how can it work for a piece that is meant to be completed? What if someone made a beautiful sculpture, then they polished it for so long, that they polished the face off? It could happen (would take several lifetimes, but it could happen.) We all have the potential to edit too much, fiddle with it endlessly, maybe as a way to delay the next stage--the scariest one of all--sending our little darlings out into the world. Like you said, will they have productive lives or hang out under local bridges? Will the agents and publishers love our manuscripts and start bidding wars to obtain them or will our cherished creations gather dust in slush piles all over NYC? It's scary. And I think that fear is a common reason why the editing is sometimes so very prolonged.
Just some thoughts, I'm in the same boat, believe me. I took four years to write my book, could probably take ten to edit it if I let myself. But I'm going to do my best not to let myself. It's hard.

message 3: by David (new)

David Katzman (daviddavid) Agree, essentially, with what you're saying. But you just need to trust yourself. You need to get the vibe of when it's done. i'm halfway through my 10th draft and this is the draft i've been postponing until i felt everything else was absolutely in place story-wise. This is my one intense polishing draft where i have broken the novel into 7400 pages...each sentence on its own page so i could focus like a laser on one at a time. I'm halfway through and discovering quite a few things i didn't notice when revising it all together. My 11th draft, i've already decided, will be my last. I'm planning to read the whole book in one sitting to see if the rhythm overall needs any tweaking. Then i'm done. How do i know? Just instinct. It just feels right. You'll just have to trust your gut to know when it's ready. It takes courage, frankly, not to worry about it being "perfect."

And regarding polishing too much. Yes indeed. If you take all the redundancy or awkwardness or this or that out of your sentences, you might find it turns your piece into a style-less, soulness piece. Welcome to being a writer! :-)

ps. Leslie, been 5 years on mine! My first novel only took 2 years, but this one is much more elaborate.

message 4: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Clausen David wrote: "Agree, essentially, with what you're saying. But you just need to trust yourself. You need to get the vibe of when it's done. i'm halfway through my 10th draft and this is the draft i've been postp..."

David, thanks. That helps. I think this one is going to get finished sometime soon. I just don't want to declare victory prematurely. I wish you the best of luck on your work. I'm going to go ahead and add you as a friend if that's alright with you.

message 5: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 777 comments Thanks David! And I agree totally about trusting your instinct about when it is finished.
That is an amazing idea about making each sentence a page. I do look at each sentence individually, but still in the context of the whole. I might have to try that!
The analogy of the kids going out into the world is a good one, because that is very scary. I have a 16 year old, and her getting her license, going on dates, etc--how can we let our human babies or our book babies out into the scary, mean world? But we have to, somehow.

message 6: by David (last edited Aug 30, 2009 11:28AM) (new)

David Katzman (daviddavid) Yes, Leslie. I'm sure we all can see those rejection letters, those bad reviews in newspapers, on amazon, on goodreads! cliched! poorly written! unbelievable characters! smells bad! tastes great! it's tough as an artist, especially one who is unpublished to put the work out there come what may. i'm certainly not above the fray as far as insecurity about my work goes, but i will say that while i'm writing it i am not concerned with what people will think. i'm only writing it because i love to write and want to create something. i'm sure once it's published though, i'll turn into a sniveling ball at the first critique that hits home. :-) But i think that if you write with criticism in mind, you'll never create anything original.

If you're writing to create a best seller then that's one thing. But if you're writing to create art then the only opinion we really need to care about is our own.

Best of luck to the both of you on your work!

message 7: by David (last edited Aug 30, 2009 11:33AM) (new)

David Katzman (daviddavid) ps. yes, i read somewhere in an interview...i believe it was with Don Delilo...that he put one sentence on every page to review them one at a time. I decided that was a great idea, so i'm following it. I don't print it out of course! :-) I found the most efficient way to do it was as follows:

Make a copy of the file, then do a find and replace...change all periods to a period followed by a line break and question marks to a question mark followed by a line break. it can screw up quotations a bit this way, but it's pretty close, you get it when you read it. Then i review each sentence and if i see a need to make an edit, i play with it in the new document but when i'm done, copy and paste it into the old document. That way your original file remains pristine. I'm finding it very helpful and improving the quality of many sentences that sounded okay in the midst of a paragraph. helps avoid lazy writing.

message 8: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 777 comments That is incredible! What a great idea! I am going to do that as part of my editing--Wow! I wonder how many sentences my book has. How many pages is your book? You said you had about 7400 sentences?

You're so right, we can't worry about critics when we're writing or we're hobbled, crippled, even. I'm writing a memoir, so I have had issues about what people will think--but not strangers--the people in my book! UGH!! That's a hard one, but I'm doing it, so it's ok. Some of this stuff is very hard to write about.

message 9: by David (new)

David Katzman (daviddavid) Well, it depends, of course, on the size of the book pages, font used, and number of lines per page in the final design. They say 250 words per page is industry standard but looking at most quality paperbacks today, that seems quite low to me. Purely on word count, mine will be around 314 pages, but i suspect it will be closer to 250.

message 10: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Clausen I wish you both the best of luck writing your books. I just got done editing a five page journal article submission and I got a little worn out. It seems I spend less time writing these days and more time editing.

message 11: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 777 comments
Editing is a big job. I feel like I'm one of the lucky ones, because I enjoy editing almost as I do writing the original text. Some people hate it. But it can be trying--to say the least!
Good luck to you, too, Daniel.
Was that article for a professional journal?

message 12: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Clausen Yeah, I'm an International Relations grad student. The article was for the Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences (JAPSS). It's a grad student friendly journal, so I thought it might be the best place to get my start.

message 13: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 777 comments Wow--that's impressive! My sister published some articles while she was in grad school. So are going to school to be a dipolmat? Is that what International Relations is all about? Are you learning a lot of different languages too?

message 14: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Clausen My Japanese is alright, but my department is heavy into the theoretical aspects of IR. I would indeed love to be a diplomat--but there is a lot more to the field of IR: defense, humantiarian issues, human rights, trade, business. Not impressive yet, but I'm working on it.

message 15: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 777 comments
wow--that's interesting! I never heard of that field before. Do you have a certain country you want to be in?

message 16: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Clausen Leslie wrote: "
wow--that's interesting! I never heard of that field before. Do you have a certain country you want to be in?"

No, not really. I'm easy. As long as I get to live abroad somewhere...hopefully, not someplace cold.

message 17: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 777 comments That's true. You don't like the cold? I barely remember what real cold feels like, because I've lived in Florida since 1983. What we call cold here is pretty wimpy compared to lots of places in the world. I don't think I would like real cold, but I do get tired of the very real heat here.

message 18: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Clausen For some reason, I don't mind the heat so much--now that I work indoors :). But it's killer if you have to do things outdoors.

message 19: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 777 comments I know! I don't know how people work outside down here--but they do. I feel lucky that I work inside in the air conditioning, and I also get to work at home 3 or 4 days a week, so that is extra nice.

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