Saturday, February 12, 2011

On How Do You Know When the Story is Done?

You know when the roast is ready when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees; the quiche, when the knife comes out clean. The pasta and veggies are cooked when sampling indicates they are appropriately chewy or crisp, respectively.

But how do you know when your story is ready for submission?

Your critique group has given you multiple suggestions. One person tells you to “dwell” a little more when the protagonist meets the stranger for the first time; another doesn’t like the blonde you introduced on page 8. Someone else feels you should begin the story in a different place. You’ve been given ideas for extraneous words to delete. You revise and revise again, following some suggestions, ignoring others. As you are doing so, you get a couple of “aha” moments, which lead to some restructuring. All of a sudden, one of the ideas you had rejected now makes sense. You wonder what else you’ve missed.

You give it to a couple of other people to read. They like it, offer a few additional thoughts, maybe more minor this time. They find a few typos. You feel like you may be closing in. You search for those submission guidelines and find that your story is 500 words over the accepted limit. Time to tighten. You can’t believe how many long-winded phrases you manage to find, how you’ve inserted an unnecessary character who never appears again (but no one else mentioned), how the ending now seems too obvious. You manage to shave off 600 words. Is it enough? Of course, now you notice a mass of typos because of all the changes you’ve made. Although your husband is a great editor and proof reader, you are hesitant to give him your story in case he hates it. You like it, but you feel you’ve lost all objectivity.

So you save it in the folder on “works in progress,” and go back to the novel you were working on. No danger of that being finished to your satisfaction any time soon.

Then one day you casually mention to someone you have just met that you “write.” “Oh,” he says. “Have you published anything?” “Yes, one story,” you admit. Almost four years ago. One lousy story. Now you feel embarassed, ashamed that you even brought up the topic, even though you’ve been writing like a fiend during this time. You aren’t a dabbler. And it’s not because you’ve had rejection after rejection; it’s because you rarely sumbit work. On those few occasions when you scrambled to meet the deadline for a writing contest, your work did not receive any acknowledgement, and you allowed yourself to get discouraged. You rationalize that it takes time to find the right places, and for now you want to concentrate on perfecting your writing, on producing a substantial body of work.

You are reminded of your young English cousin who didn’t say a word until he was three, and then the first sentence he uttered upon seeing a freshly painted door was, “By jove, what a smashing green door.” A fully formed grammatical sentence. It caused a bit of a sensation. Perhaps you are hoping that when your horse leaves the gate (to change the metaphor), it will win its first race. A debut wonder. A best seller. But really, how many agents will consider you if you haven’t proven yourself in the marketplace? It doesn’t matter if you have a couple of dozen stories and three novels in the bottom drawer.

One published story is a good start. It was a decent journal. It means you’ve got some literary chops. At some point, you just have to trust yourself to say, “This is done enough,” and take the time to find the appropriate venues or get help in doing so. Submitting isn’t writing, but it is all part of the process, isn’t it? And let’s face it, you’re no spring chicken with a whole life ahead of you. After you’re gone, your bottom drawer, all your hard work, may be someone else’s recycling.Then you're really cooked.

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