by Phil Geusz
©2005 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
This article is the fourth in a series of five dealing with the Five 'C's of writing:
Conception, Composition, Critiquing, Completion and Commercialization
Dreaming up a story is no problem. Writing it up isn't all that hard to do, either. Nor is being an active member of a critique group. But Step Four in the literary process, Completion, can and will truly drive you mad.
It does me, at least. During the Completion phase of the writing process, a would-be author takes in all the good information he's gained from his critiquers, sits a while and contemplates it, then uses this data to put a final polish upon his work of art. Over, and over, and over again...
Isaac Asimov once claimed that a story is never truly finished, and the older and more experienced I get, the truer his words become. He once 'touched up' for publication works he had written no less than fifty years before, and which had achieved commercial success and literary acclaim many times. Why? Because his writing skills had improved in the meantime, and as a true craftsman he wanted his work to be the best that it could possibly be.
I've experienced this same phenomenon recently. It was my very good fortune to sell my Corpus Lupus stories to Raccoon's Bookshelf last Fall, to be published in one volume as a book. I'd written them in 1998, when I had far less experience as a writer than I do now. Once I reopened these old files and really read what I had submitted again, my face burned in shame. What was planned as a quick touchup turned into a full weekend of serious rewrite, involving work I had re-written at least five times before. (And I still wasn't done; more on this later.)
In truth, I probably spend far more time re-writing than writing, and I suspect most serious authors have the same experience. Beginners tend to get this ratio exactly backwards, however. The problem is that re-writing is hard work, where producing rough draft is fun. Yet re-writing is absolutely, positively essential to success.
Generally speaking, I try and wait at least six months after finishing a rough draft before doing Completion work; this gives me time to forget how pretty the words sounded in my head the first time around, and lets me see them more as a reader would. Also, when doing serious Completion work, as on a novel I wish to try and sell professionally (and someday I'll sell one; I just know I will!), I print the whole work out. For some reason, errors stand out much more clearly when printed on paper than merely projected onto a screen. However, I usually only print when I think I'm ready to make my last revision. This is because printing is so costly.
The first thing I do when I sit down to Complete a piece of fiction (or even one of these columns) is to think back on all the comments I received during the rough-drafting and posting. (It is very fortunate for me that I am blessed with an exceptionally good memory; if I had to develop a filing system for this kind of thing I'd be sunk before even beginning.) If a lot of readers had trouble with a particular plot point, then before doing anything else I'll try to smooth that over. I'll also at this point try to fix any major 'flow' issues, or make any major revisions to scenes. Then I go back and give the work a 'once over lightly' reading, in which I pay more attention to how enjoyable it is than anything else (though I'll fix any typos and such that I happen to come across). If the work seems to read fairly well in general outline, then finally I'll go back over my work again in detail.
And this is the part that absolutely drives me mad. Many people seem to be natural proofreaders, but I most certainly am not. I try to write the cleanest possible rough draft, and I flatter myself that I'm probably more successful at this than most. Yet I still find my manuscript littered with repeated and missing words, awkward phrases, characters whose names change in mid paragraph, and all the million and six errors that can and do occur when thoughts are translated into typeface. I go through my work at least three times looking for this sort of thing, each time hopefully finding fewer and fewer. I work hard at it, even though by the third pass I am gagging on every phrase and have become dead-certain that this story is the most miserable, ill-begotten work of fiction ever produced.
And yet, after all this effort and attention, all kinds of Bad Stuff still gets through to the would-be buyer. Take Corpus Lupus again, for example. It was a 'dirtier' rough draft than most, granted, due to my inexperience at the time. Yet I was not inexperienced when I proofed it again last Fall, and despite my efforts I could not believe the amount of errors the work contained when I got back my first hard copy to do the final, printed edit. In fact, I wanted to crawl under a rock and never come back out again! There were missing words, awkward phrases, words that should have been capitalized which were not, even stray words left in place from previous edits. Gah! Worse, the seller had already printed up ten copies that he needed urgently before my last edit, expecting (I presume) that I would not find much of anything.
There were thirty-two errors in under two hundred pages. Those ten flawed volumes are going on the market even as I type this. With my name on them. Anyone who gets one of those ten flawed copies has my most humble and sincere apologies. The sloppiness was mine, and I deserve all the bad things you now think of me as a writer. Thank God it's only ten volumes...
My point here is that Completion is hard work, the very hardest that a writer will ever do. Yet it must be done, and done right, if a work is ever to fulfil its true potential. Indeed, it's a miracle that I ever sold Corpus in the state it was in. My publisher was very forgiving indeed! I once attended a writing seminar where I was informed that about twenty-four out of twenty-five pieces of fiction that go up for sale in this country never see print. (Most attendees of this seminar thought that the odds were even worse.) Polish and perfectionism can put your work over the top, if you will but put in the hard work necessary along the way. My personal rule is that I rarely try to market anything until it's had at least five good, hard edits; until these are done, the work is as incomplete as if a chapter were missing off of the end.
And, for heaven's sake, don't put yourself in the absurd situation that I just did with Corpus Lupus. Learn from my mistake. Never let work go out with your name on it until you're certain that it's right.
That way, you'll never have to apologize to either your reader, or your editor...