Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Futzing Stops Here

I’m often asked at what point authors should stop editing and revising their manuscripts. Frequently I receive emails telling me that a submission has been fully revised and could I throw out what I have and accept the new material, or I hear that authors are submitting but still actively revising. Stop! It all stops here.

In the world of publishing a published author should never, ever turn in a book to her editor until it’s done. Once she feels the book is the best it can be she sends it on to her editor for revisions, edits, and eventually publication. She doesn’t send a draft, and an editor would be horrified to learn that she has. The editor expects everything that comes across her desk to be the best (and then she’ll help make it even better). So why should unpublished authors act any differently?

Think of the submission process as practice for your career as a published author. You wouldn’t want your readers, your fans, to read your work until you felt it was the best, and at some point you just need to decide that the book is done and it’s the best it can be.

Published authors have a lot more on their plates than simply writing a book. A published author is charged with writing a book while often editing the previous book and thinking about the next book. When Book B is complete it’s immediately time to get down to publicizing Book A, editing Book A, and writing Book C, and for that reason the futzing has to stop, whether the author wants it to or not. Unpublished authors should really start thinking of working in much the same way. Once you start submitting you should be so busy working on your next book that you can’t even think about the book that’s out with agents. If, and only if, you get feedback that resonates on the book you’re submitting, feel free to go back and make some edits. If not, keep writing and shaping your new WIP and use what you’re learning from the rejections or feedback from the other book to make the WIP stronger.

So stop futzing and get writing.



Kimber Li said...

Good advice. It helped me to set deadlines and develop a systematic method of revision.
Here is a link which has helped me tremendously-


and here's a book-


Chro said...

I think the problem with unpublished authors (and I speak from experience here) is that they put their heart and soul into their book, and want their work to be acknowledged before they continue to pursue publication by writing another one. They feel that they've already put their best foot forward, and if that's not acceptable, why bother continuing the futile quest for publication?

Now of course, every writer knows that their writing gets better with time, but they might feel their first story had their 'one great idea' that is most intriguing, and that anything else they'd come up with is hackneyed and cliche. The form rejections and low self esteem just perpetuate the belief of "Well , if my best idea isn't good enough, why would any other stuff I write be good enough?"

There's also the fear that they are making critical mistakes in their writing which will prevent them from being published. Only by finding and correcting these mistakes can they get up to a publishable level. If they keep moving on from book to book before selling their first one, they could go years without finding that mistake. Particularly since form rejections aren't very helpful in determining where the problem is.

Yes, it's all well and good to tell an author to stop revising and just move on, but that's a lot like telling a widow to just move on and find someone else. Writers get emotional over their books, and emotion and rational thought don't often mix.

Helen DeWitt said...

When you submit a book you submit a text that's the best you could make it in light of available information. But the world sometimes sends you some new piece of information. Maybe you wrote a book that drew on Fellini's 8 1/2 - and after you thought you'd finished you discover that this is the favourite film of both Martin Scorsese and Terry Gilliam, who both have amazing things to say about it. You think quotes from Martin Scorsese and Terry Gilliam would broaden the appeal of the book. If an editor were to come up with these quotes from Scorsese and Gilliam that would be an amazing contribution to the book, but in fact that tends not to be the kind of input one gets from editors.

Adding in some quotes is a pretty minor change. But it may be that the comments of Scorses and Gilliam have affected your understanding of Fellini and your book more profoundly; you see ways of making the book much more interesting. Well, if we stop to think about it, it stands to reason that the book would stand to be dramatically improved if Martin Scorsese or Terry Gilliam agreed to edit it. You can't reasonably expect someone of that stature to hand-edit something you wrote, but all you're doing, really, is accepting editorial suggestions from two people of exceptional artistic stature who have in-depth knowledge of a film that is integral to your book. Look at it this way, if you wrote to an agent or editor and said Scorsese had read the book and had lots of suggestions, but you didn't want to do anything about them until you'd heard what the agent/editor thought of the MS as it stood, a) no one would hold it against you that you had submitted the book without waiting to see whether Scorsese could find time to comment on it, but b) failure to respond to his suggestions, once offered, would not do much for your claim to be taken seriously as a writer.

That's not to say, of course, that there is no such thing as neurotic tinkering.

Being Beth said...

I'm in the revision stage of my first novel, and while I have days when I get impatient with the process, it seems the best advice is to take my time, don't allow myself to get into a rush, and learn. The more I revise, the more I find myself reading and studying which has helped me catch a lot of beginner mistakes. The hardest part of slowing down is the well intended questions from friends and family that seem to indicate that I'm taking an exorbitant amount of time and should already have something out there for them to read. Well, however glibly an author goes into the task of writing a novel, s/he soon learns what a daunting task it it and there are many skills as well as much knowledge that must be sharpened and bought together before trying to publish.

Watching the Olympics has encouraged me in this process -- each of those athletes have spent hours and hours each week for years building their skill for that one day, and they've progressed incrementally. If I've got "Olympic Sized Goals" for my books, then like the athletes, I've got to put in the time and the training.

Chro said, "They feel that they've already put their best foot forward, and if that's not acceptable, why bother continuing the futile quest for publication?" Maybe I'm different than most, but I am saving my "best idea," that book of highest importance to me personally for later, after I've really learned the ropes. I felt I needed to "cut my teeth" on something I was a little less impassioned about so I could stay objective and learn the skills I need so my "Opus" gets my best, and I know I'm not there yet.

Great post, Jessica.

K J Gillenwater said...

Hard part for a writer is deciding when it's finished. I think any writer will tell you a book can always 'be better.' So how to figure out when to stop?

There is also such a thing as *too much* editing, which kills an author's voice.

I think the advice is great in principle, but hard to follow for most since there is no absolute...

Anonymous said...

Absolutely the best advice I've seen on a literary blog, hands down.

Yes, you'll work for eternity on that first book honing your craft. But while you're mired in that process, start another one. Time passes quickly when you're writing; months can turn into years. It's nice and sanity-preserving to have a good first draft waiting in the wings when you finally decide enough is enough and tuck that beloved first manuscript among the dust bunnies under your bed.

Sign Me,

Been there; Done that; Know better

Julie Weathers said...

I'm nearing completion on my wip now. I thought it was pretty much finished until I started a workshop with Barbara Rogan. The first two lessons showed me some things that needed to change, so now I am rewriting the final five chapters and shuffling some of the others.

I think any serious writer should strongly consider taking a good class that teaches you to break down the novel and examine the parts. Then you need to learn to examine the entire story and how it connects.

After your darling is stitched back together, you have to trust a competent and skilled critique partner or group.

To me, the outside eyes are imperative. They are looking at it from a fresh point of view and you are seeing what you think is there.

Stitch your poor dissected darling back together again.

Read it aloud and see how it sounds to your ear. Fiddle with it again to get it singing.

Have someone you trust read it one last time for simple edits like typos etc and put it down.

Trust you've done your best and imagine you hear someone yelling at you, "Put the manuscript down and back away before someone gets hurt."

This probably doesn't work for everyone, but it's my way of staying sane. I have to tell myself it's done and trust.

Jessica Nelson said...

Oh so good! I was planning to blog about this very thing. My first finished manuscript has been gone through so many times that I have been worried about editing my voice.
It's true. You do the best you can but it's important to learn when to stop.

Kimbra Kasch said...

OMG: I am such a futzer!

You hit the nail on the head this is the only addiction I have - I'm a futzaholic - to words and writing :(

Natalie Whipple said...

Thank you so much for this post--very timely for me. I've been struggling with thoughts of my first ms and now you've told me exactly what to do. Leave it be. Easy enough:) I have plenty of other things to focus on.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

I honestly believe I don't "futz" enough. I write the story, revise the story, send it to crit partners and revise again.
But then I lose perspective. I can't see the manuscript anymore. That's when I trust my crit partners and send that sucker in.
Having said that, I just had a crit partner ream me for my lack of comma savvy. Those cps are gems. Just sayin'
Still, I think epublishing has taught me a valuable lesson about writing and subbing. Being in edits in one, working on the next one and thinking about another keeps me from obsessing about a submission out.
Like now.

Robena Grant said...

Okay, so I'm one of the guilty. I recently withdrew a submission that Jessica would have read sometime in the next couple of weeks. (I can hear you all groaning.) Heh.

But, it had changed a lot from the submission. And not due to futzing. I'd discussed this story with Jenny Crusie and she offered to read the first chapter or so. She ended up critiqueing it and slashing it to ribbons. What she had to say was incredible and I found what I'd done wrong in my prior three manuscripts. (Please don't ask JC for a critique. I know her and she offered. I would never ask.)

As someone above said, I had repeated the same mistakes in each ms. So J.C.'s critique was a revelation for me as a writer, not just for this one piece. I knew I wasn't any closer to being published now than I was with the first one. I reworked the ms. and Jessica had the crummy old one. What to do?

There was a blog post here at BookEnds stating something about not asking to exchange an old submission for a new one so I thought I had no option but to withdraw.

Hope I haven't been red-flagged as a futzer and you won't trust me with future submissions.

And, kimber an I love Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It's a great book.

Mark Terry said...

Futzing endlessly is a trap. Call it good and move on. With any luck you're constantly improving as a writer so there's really no "there" there, but on any given day you've got to learn to say, "It's as good as it's going to get for the moment, time to send it in and start on the next work, which will be even better because I learned a lot from writing this one."

Be leery of what Lawrence Block and someone before him (William Goldman?) referred to as "washing garbage." At some point you're not really improving things, you're just rearranging things.

Santa said...

Okay since you're the fourth or fifth person who's said that, I'm taking it to heart. In fact, I'm printing that last line and tacking onto my bulletin board.

I'm officially stopping the futzing and continuing the writing.


Kate Douglas said...

No truer words were ever spoken, Jessica! I don't think any of us are ever completely satisfied with our work, but there comes a time where you have to just tell yourself the story is done. I've learned to finish a story, let it sit for at least a week, read it through and make changes and then send it to my beta readers. When I get it back from them, I make any suggested changes that I agree with, and then it goes to my editor. The only other chance to make changes at that point comes during copy edits--once I get to page proofs, the story is essentially done, and while I ALWAYS see stuff I want to "fix," I've had to learn to let go. It isn't easy, but I've had to remind myself that continually futzing around with a story can often "futz" the life right out of it.

Anonymous said...

No kidding. You can't run in place if you expect to be a successful author...and not a one-book wonder. Finish one, get it where it is the best it can be and start on the next one. And so on and so forth. This should be basic, but apparently not. Gotta let that baby go and begin birthing another. Don't get caught up in the 'Butterfly McQueen Conundrum: "I don't know 'nuthin' 'bout birthin' new novels." Or something like that.

Aimlesswriter said...

Ha! You think it's that easy?
We work and polish and polish and rewrite and do it all over again. We hold it up to the light, see if it works, clicks, resonates and when we think its perfect we hit the send button.
And then it strikes!
That quivering feeling in the pit of the stomach that makes us think...what if I changed...maybe it would be better if....should I have...
It doesn't matter how much we work, polish, rewrite-that naggy little thing called doubt will forever be waiting for us.
We're haunted.

Anonymous said...

OH I want to bow down at your feet for that. I've been obsessing and obsessing. I refuse to query until it is perfect.

But, the other part of me wants to get it done and over with, to just send in the slop, get the rejection letter and move on.

Your blog has allowed me to tell my other self to shut up and move out of the way. Perfection it is.

Thank you, thank you!

Anonymous said...

We're told to revise, revise, revise. Polish it to the best of our abilities. That's why it's hard to stop. Maybe if we go through the ms one more time, it'll finally be perfect . . .

I read somewhere that you know it's time to stop when you start changing things, just for the sake of change.

Madison said...

So, this post was recommended to me by Nathan Bransford (which I'm very thankful for) but I have a question. Who comes first, agent or editor? I can never get a straight answer on this. Can someone please just say "agent" OR "editor"?

T. M. Hunter said...

I've never seen the word futzing before, and suddenly I see it on two or three blogs today.

Did I miss a meeting or something?

Anonymous said...

when i first finished my ms, i was the opposite of futzing. i finished it. it was done. send it out. then...rejections. so i joined a writers group and learned a lot, got great crits, revised, edited, polished, and then...yeah, futzing...cold feet...it's not perfect yet. finally, i just started sending it out. hasn't sold yet, but getting favorable and positive 'rejections' with really nice comments from agents. so maybe i'm finding that middle ground, gradually. but 'aimless' got it right. DOUBT.

Anonymous said...

To Madison, I've also heard the question of "agent or editor?" bandied about quite a bit lately, but I think it's just important to know where you want to publish. Some places will be more likely to consider your manuscript if you're backed by an agent, others won't. The huge benefit of an agent (if you can get one) is that they're out backing your book and you don't have to do as much.

A side note: as for "stop the futzing!" I think the important point here is that an editor at a publishing company doesn't want to look at a manuscript, make a decision, and then have the author say "Um, could you reevaluate based on all of these changes?" Because, basically, if you've revised after sending it to them, that's what you're asking them to do. It's absolutely imperative to get it to the strongest you think it can be BEFORE sending it to the publisher.

That said, there are critique groups and editors like me who don't work with a particular publishing house, but are their to help writers with developmental editing, copyediting, and the occasional proofread as to better prepare your text for when you do send it out. That's the atmosphere for all your revisionary doubts, but once you've sent it to the publisher, STOP worrying about it and move on to your next work!

Peter Jurmu - Creative Byline said...

"We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master."

Unpublished authors--which includes young authors like me--have been instructed by authors and professors (apart from the abstract "instruction" one receives from simply reading) to be obsessed with our writing, that such is the only way that we'll ever publish. This advice is simultaneously quite sound and flawed: sound as they meant it, flawed as we perceive it. It is good to be consumed with an important thing whilst it is in your power to alter it. Once it is complete, or at least one step further on the road to completion, you can't undo that step. Put it behind you: wherever you go next, you've already taken it. I read somewhere else--I believe it was on Jason Pinter's blog--that if you have the tools to write, you have the tools to self-edit. Use them. When you've been at it so long that the page drifts in and out of focus, maybe it's time to think about submitting it. Or at least letting it marinate. But for the most part, once you've written something, it's a very bad idea to return to it unless you take with you a torch and a can of kerosene. (And an even worse idea if you've not yet finished the draft of the WIP.)

It sure is a hard thing to let go, though. It's like sending a kid off to college. Although I think I said once to someone that "when I send my kids off to college, I'll love them very much and never want to see them again."