Writers in the Storm welcomes James R. Preston, mystery writer, for our Friday the 13th blog. Could be scary stuff, but personally, I think James is part comedy writer, and we couldn’t be luckier to have his help with a question we’ve all wrestled with.
Slicing the Salami
Or, “When is It Done?”
by James R. Preston
Warning! Problems with this essay! SPOILER ALERT! (Okay the last part isn’t really true, but it got your attention, didn’t it?)
Today I come to you with more questions than answers. My hope is that together we can kick around some issues I consider important.
First, I want to say thanks for having me back. I have been immersed in the last draft of my new mystery and have done very little else for the last few weeks (Months? Can that be right? Novels are a lot of work.) Fortunately for me it’s work I love — as it is for you.
And there’s the problem.
At some point we all have to say goodbye to characters we care about. One more rewrite will make Kandi (heroine in my mysteries) funnier, smarter, tougher, and so on.
That’s true — but I have people who are kind enough to write me weekly asking when the next book will be out. (Warning for when you find yourself in this position: as time passes the emails become less friendly and more uh, insistent.). So you have to finish. But the question is — when is it really done?
For most of my career I led teams of writers developing books and electronic media about fascinating things like the Tactical Computer Terminal. It never failed that when a deadline rolled around one of my writers would come to me and ask for more time, usually to resolve a technical issue. That way lies madness in the technical world. In the world of fiction it leads not only to madness, but also to no book, and as we all know, that’s worse. More often than not I told those eager young writers, “It’s time to slice the salami. It’s good enough.”
But for your stories you won’t have me babbling to you about sausages, so you will have to decide. The approaches to making the decision divide pretty neatly into three categories. External — you have a contract and an editor and a delivery date that drives your work. Internal — you just know it’s over. And finally, internal number two — you’re just sick of it.
Hopefully, you will avoid the last one.
My advice for Option Two is to keep track of changes. When you wake up at 2:00 in the morning and think, “Wow I should . . .” first look back at your notes. If that “wow” is something you have thought of before and rejected, it’s time to stick that proverbial fork in it.
Ah, but now we are in the electronic age, and now the game has changed. A work doesn’t ever have to be done. There is a story that Spielberg edited out the FBI’s guns in one scene of ET, replacing the weapons with walkie-talkies so the kids would not be threatened. The original Star Wars has been altered so that it’s Greedo who shoots first, making Han Solo a nicer guy. The list goes on, and it’s not just films.
Most of us, myself included, think of a piece of writing as first an idea, then a project, and then a product. Something frozen in amber, like the first moment you heard a Beatles song. It’s not like that anymore.
Lately writers have begun to refer to novels as “living, breathing documents.” Whoa, what a concept! Harlan Ellison revises stories when they are reprinted. F. Paul Wilson has said that he is “heavily revising” Nightworld, one of his Adversary Cycle books. Wilson wrote Nightworld years ago and the rest of the series was written out of chronological order; the changes will blend it with the rest of the series.
So, Gentle Writer, you find yourself at Door Number Three (sick of it). Publish the nasty thing, and a month or a year later you can come back and change the end. ET doesn’t phone home; he moves to Vegas and gets a job as a Chippendale’s dancer. The question is, of course, should you? Is it fair to your readers?
For me this is not a rhetorical question. I have been asked to post some of my early science fiction stories on my website. Do I revise them, based on decades of life experience and writing? Truthfully I haven’t decided.
Enough with the questions; here are some answers. Here’s what I think about these interrelated issues.
First, you really do have to finish. Now, however, you must also define “finish” even if that definition only exists in your own mind. That definition can range from, “Good enough for now,” to “Let’s see what the response is.” It may be, “Done. Forever.”
Second, if you decide to make edits you will have to decide what kind of edits, and when (how often) you will make them. Will you make major plot changes? If you do, and your email shows everybody hates it, will you change it back? If memory serves, there was once a novel called Naked Came the Stranger that was written by committee. If memory serves, it sucked.
Finally, is a revised novel fair to readers who invested the time to read the first version? I say yes, if the book the first time around was as good as you could make it and if you carefully label the revised version. Stephen King handled this problem well when he brought out the revised version of The Stand.
You are in charge. As a writer it is your job to decide what happens in your story. Once it’s out there, leave it alone.
You are in charge. As a writer it is your job to make the story the best you can. If you get an email saying, “Your heroine was blonde in Chapter One and a redhead in Chapter 23,” and you have the opportunity to fix it, you should.
You are the writer. You are in charge. The knife is in your hand, nobody else’s. Only you know when to make that cut.
Spoiler Alert (fooled you, didn’t I? There really is a spoiler.). Here’s what I might talk about next.
***If I get the chance, next up is Little Nell is Dead! Or, Why What We Do is Important.
I hope this has helped you a bit with these questions and I look forward to hearing what you have to say. I know writing this has helped me to articulate issues. I know that because I must say, “Goodbye, Kandi.”
How do you know when your Work in Progress is ready to send off?
James R. Preston is the award-winning author of the Surf City Mysteries, the most recent of which is Pennies For Her Eyes. It will be available in October. James promises that if you don’t like this essay on the mutability of modern documents, he will change it until you do.