The Fossil Record

You’re Still Writing That Story? You’re Still Writing That Novel?

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Yes. We are. Thank you for asking, Mom/Dad/non-writing friend. We’re behind here because we’re on deadlines with our writing. As some of you know, Marco’s novel is out to editors and he’s received some very encouraging responses. This turned a light bulb on over his head about changes to the novel. He called his agent, ran it by her, and she said, Go for it. He has until Labor Day to get his revisions done.

It’s so simple to tell when our radishes are ready to harvest. But our stories and novels — not so much.

For me, I’m working on what must be the 20th rewrite of a short story about a teenage girl and her grandmother who sneak out of an old folks home and run off to Mount Saint Helens. I wrote the first draft of this story eight years ago. That draft was so bad even my mother—my first and kindest reader—described it as “fine” and “not too bad.” Which is basically the equivalent of an F+, if you’re grading on the mom curve. Every couple years I pull that story out and take a stab at rewriting it. The last draft got some great, personal feedback from editors at literary magazines earlier this year, and I made revisions based on that feedback. But now I’m plagued by the same question Marco’s been struggling with: How do you know when it’s done?

Over the years I’ve participated in plenty of writing groups and workshops. I remember many times teachers and students discussing how to tell when a story is done. But I never took them seriously. With youthful bravado I thought, “Um, isn’t it obvious?”

Turns out, it is not always obvious. In the last several weeks as Marco and I have spent many, many hours revising and rewriting, we’ve been astounded by how, when viewed in a certain new slant of light, cracks and needed changes are suddenly revealed in pieces we once thought were “done.”

While sometimes these newly exposed cracks feel like a curse—why can’t the story/novel just be perfect already?—they are actually a gift. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Of course, we all want to be able to churn out brilliant first drafts that are both fun to write and fun to read. But in real life, at least my real life, that doesn’t happen. First drafts—and second drafts and third drafts—are usually painfully bad. But what about 19th drafts?

Several years ago, Marco and I had a conversation over email about just this topic. I suggested he consult an oracle. Which he did. The Oracle (AKA Alexander Chee) had this wisdom to impart:

The answer to the question of knowing when it is done, is that you need to learn at some point the book cannot be perfect but it can be whole. And then it is done.


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