Wednesday, January 27, 2016

When to stop redoing (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

When I first started writing for publication, manuscripts had to be typed on good quality paper and mailed with a self-addressed stamped envelope for reply. I used to draft in longhand, marking up my manuscripts with cross-outs, and sometimes literally cutting and pasting. When a story was ready for submission, I typed it. A typo or two could be corrected with pasty white ink eradicator, but any more than that and you had to retype the page. Sometimes I typed off the bottom of the page, or my typing ribbon faded out halfway through, and those mistakes also required retyping. If I saw something I’d like to change in the manuscript, I didn’t want to change it if it meant retyping more than a page. Adding a whole paragraph to page two of a twenty-five-page manuscript? Well, I had to REALLY want to add that paragraph to make all that retyping worth it.

My word processor made things easier. I could correct my work right on the screen, and print out the story with a touch of a button. But I still drafted in longhand and marked up hard copies, because that’s what my brain was used to.

By the time computers came around, with their word-processing software, I was not only editing but also composing on the screen. Cutting and pasting was a breeze. I could try anything; all I had to do was copy a file, preserving the original, and I could do or undo whatever I wanted. I could make five copies of a manuscript and try five different endings. I could change a character’s name throughout a 300-page manuscript with a few keystrokes. And I didn’t have to worry about printouts anymore, about running out of ink or paper.

All of this has made me a more willing reviser, less attached to any given version of a story, more willing to write rougher first drafts, eager to try different possibilities.

And yet the tinkering process can be endless. There comes a point when a story needs to be finished. There comes a point when we must choose one road or another. When I was writing my third novel, I wasn’t sure whether one character’s nemesis should be his father or his brother. I carried two versions of the story forward for quite a while, jumping back and forth between them.

Eventually, I had to choose. Eventually, I had to stop writing scenes over, going to one version and then back to the other. Options give us opportunity, but too many options can be paralyzing.

Just because we can do something over again doesn’t always mean we should.

12 comments:

  1. Fun memories of the old writing/submitting days. I remember mailing off a full requested manuscript to an editor and as I was standing in line at the P.O., noticing a typo in the first paragraph. Oh well. Contrast that to fiddling and tweaking sentences forever in a word doc. You're right. Sometimes we have to stop.

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    1. It's amazing how typos suddenly jump out after multiple readings where the ms. had looked perfect!

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  2. I remember those typewriter and white-out days. Back then, I would first write out what I intended to type before I began typing. So there was less of that "I'll just wing it on the keyboard" stuff I do today. I am impressed when I think of all the pre-word processing system books I've read that were written via typewriter.

    There are multiple ways to revise any story. I think if we are overwhelmed with options a story can go, we should write those options down and use them for a different story. Ideas can be recycled.

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    1. Yes, my computer is full of such stories and story pieces! I call those files my "attics"--places to store stuff that may or may not be reused.

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  3. This takes me back to typing my thesis NOT on a computer--you weren't allowed to use white-out for the final copy. *shudder* I think the computer has made me have a sort of subconscious expectation that I can do all my revising through the keyboard, which means I'm working at the word level--instead of the idea level--sooner than I should be. I need to think some more about this as I head into the next pass. Thanks!

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    1. Yes, I notice I am writing down ideas sooner than I used to, just because it's easier. Sometimes they need more mental "cooking" first.

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  4. Yep, I'm noticing the same about always noticing new mistakes, but I love your last line. "Just because we can do something over again doesn’t always mean we should." This can apply to non-writing too. :-)

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  5. It can be hard to let go of a manuscript, especially if it's a stand-alone novel and you don't want to say goodbye to the characters just yet. I heard the writer Matthew Pearl speak once, and he said that he keeps a file on his computer titled "Extras" or something like that; that way, if he cuts anything, he can go back to it later, just in case.

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    1. It can be sad to finish a novel, to walk out of the world you've "lived" in for so long.

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  6. I soooo connect with this. For years, I juggled so many manuscripts that weren't finding publishing homes. I reinvented, rewrote, reinvented, reinvented, reinvented, revised, revised, revised. Now, I'm learning the joy of writing, polishing, then publishing. It does wonders for the mental outlook. I agree--just because something CAN be turned inside-out doesn't necessarily mean that it should.

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