I mentioned last week that I was working on a story that I thought needed “one more pass” before it would be finished. It was a story I have been working sporadically on for over a year. I’m happy to say I finished the story and it’s been sitting in a slushpile for four days (not that this means anything of course). On my earlier post, fellow writer Eric J. Baker left a comment in which he observed that too much editing can sometimes stifle a work. I agree with Eric, but that got me wondering: When are you done tinkering with a story?
I don’t have a good answer. I know when I’m done line-editing a story (when I have nothing left to remove—yes, remove, not add), but I don’t really know how I decide enough is enough on revising a story. I guess I make that decision on the “feeling” that it’s compete, an intuitive sense that I’ve developed with practice and experience. (I know, not a useful answer, but it’s the best I have.)
When I started writing, I used to work stories to death, constantly tweaking and adding and changing and obsessing. I’m sure that I wound up editing the life out many of them, not that I think they had much life to begin with because I simply wasn’t a very good writer (I’ve since risen to passable…I think). I’m now more confident in my writing craft, and I find it easier to look at one of my stories and decide specifically what it needs to make it work as well as it can. Looking back several years, I used to approach revisions with a shotgun full of buckshot; now I approach them with the focused precision of a laser. This makes it easier to know when I’m finished, because I’m not trying to change everything in the story, only the “important” stuff. I’ve also developed a stronger sense of “voice,” the primary thing that I think gets ruined with too much revision. I can tell with greater confidence when my story has reached the point that more revision would compromise the voice. Most importantly, I now have the sense to stop revising when I reach this point.
If a story isn’t working by this point, there is probably not much I can do to rescue it. It’s time to put it away for while, possibly forever. I can’t see much sense in trying to revise a story that simply isn’t working. My writing time would be better spent on a new story, one that is more likely to come together better than the one that failed. If the trunked story has some ideas that I really like, I may periodically revisit it to see if I have gained any insights as to how to quick fix it. I might tinker for a day or two, but if nothing continues to work, I’ll put it away again. I may eventually scrap the story, and write another one using the elements I liked from the trunked version (I did this with at least a couple of stories that I later managed to sell).
I have several stories in this state. Some I have never gone back to (and probably never will); others I still believe in, and if I can get some distance from them, I think I can eventually figure out the problems and maybe even fix them. But this will only happen if I can avoid editing the life out of them.