Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 13, 2012

Slicing the Salami ~ When Is It DONE?

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.

0 comments on “Slicing the Salami ~ When Is It DONE?”

  1. This is probably the only problem with writing I've never had, James. By the time I wrestle a plot, chapter, or scene out of my head and onto the page, I don't want to change it. Okay, my crit group can tear it up, but after that? I'm done.
    My husband, a survivor of years in the aerospace industry, has a saying: "It's time to kill the engineer, and start production."
    I'm dealing with the now, due to an editorial revision letter on a book I wrote two years ago.
    I'm done with that . . . I don't WANNA!!!!

    1. Now, now, Laura, no whining. All kidding aside, great response! I would, however, venture to guess that you do your rewriting in your head, and when it comes out, it's done. That's awesome! Years ago I watched Harlan Ellison sit in a bookstore window and write a science fiction short story. I think it was a stunt for a local charity; could be wrong on that. Anyway, he wrote "The End" and that was it. Finished. I was impressed with him, too.
      Thank again for kicking off our dialog.
      PS. Our Goddaughter is a mechanical engineer. Can't wait to tell her what your husband said.

  2. A great Friday the 13th post!

    Even on my blog I realize I am in charge of the edits. It doesn't make it easy...it just means I know I am in charge of them. I often will reread something long after posted and ask, "Why did I add that or why didn't I add this?" I carry on though because I know there are people who enjoy reading it.


    1. Hey, Aaron. We could form a club. I sent off my blog contribution and thought, "ooh, one more tweaking . . . " I do believe you have hit on something when you say, "I know there are people who enjoy reading it." That, friends and neighbors, is the point. Yeah, sometimes it's not as easy as we'd like but we have to do it, get to the finish line, because people will enjoy what we do. We provide some pleasure. If it costs us some sleep along the way, well, that is the nature of the game. I used to be really shy about asking people to come to my signings, until somebody told me they come because they like it. As for your blog -- a scientist friend of mine says, "Perfect is the enemy of good enough."

  3. I'm not published yet, James, but I really struggle with this. I have a perfection gene which I constantly battle. I've rewritten, revised, and re-edited my 3rd and 4th books because I really like the stories, I like the characters. I've learned so much as I go along, I just had to go back and tinker. They are both now much better. I've got a 5th book completed, but I need to go back over it with the magnifying glass of current knowledge, and a 6th that's in progress. Fingers crossed that I'll come to the point of a publisher giving me a deadline. LOL I do better work with a "real" one and not a flexible deadline I can shove off a couple of months. Interesting post.

    1. Marsha, you are a busy lady! Working on the sixth book; wow! My guess is that you enjoy the process, which is a really good thing. Seems to me that you have reached the finish line on four of them, even if you revisit your friends the characters now and then. With that kind of output and discipline, you'll have no problem with a deadline set by a publisher.
      Glad you liked the post!

  4. Great post, James! Love the last line! LOL!

    My first novel, self-published last September, was good enough for an agent to sign me and send it out to several editors in 2004. I'd missed the chick lit wave and it never sold. When I decided to self-publish, I was a seven-years-better writer and I asked myself the editing question. But I decided that I'm too much a perfectionist. I was afraid I might do a page-one rewrite and never finish the new book I was working on at the time. So I published Little Miss Lovesick as I wrote it in 2004. Do I worry nearly every day that I'll regret not making more changes to it? Yes. (I did some polishing edits, but that's it.) But I know me and I'm going to think that about every book I write forever as I get better and better. 🙂 So for me, once *I* decide it's good enough, I have to get it out and leave it alone to live or die on its own. It's the only way to get more books written. 🙂

    1. Hi, Kitty -- Congratulations on completing and publishing your novel. Great title! Sorry to hear about the agent and the rejections, but that does seem to be the nature of the biz. Now, however, you have an audience. Your last line (and thanks for the kind words about mine) says it all -- it's the only way to get to the next book. And that one will be better. And so will the one after that . . .

  5. As a writer learning as I go, I am discovering that I need to make changes, drop scenes that are my favorites but don't advance the plot. To make the cuts easier I opened up a file called deleted scenes, and I cut and paste the scenes into that file. If I change my mind, I haven't lost it for good.
    I also have to make notes to myself for many times the scenes to cut pop into my mind when I'm in the shower or driving, or doing something else. What really hurts is when I've spent hours editing a scene, it still isn't working, and I realize that the real reason it isn't working is that it doesn't belong in the current MS. Have a blessed day.

  6. Hi, Heather -- You say you are "learning as you go," well, if you have learned to cut a scene because it doesn't advance the story you have made a lot of progress. There are a number of best-selling novelists who, because they are so popular, are permitted by editors to leave in scenes that are strictly "nice to have." (And no, I won't name names. Do I look that dumb? Don't answer that.) Saving material you have cut is a great thing to do. If you look closely you'll see that Robert A. Heinlein used material cut from the classic juvie Red Planet in the classic Sixties icon, Stranger in a Strange Land. Save those scenes, file off the serial numbers and they may find a home in a later work.
    Thanks for the post, and keep writing.
    PS. And what is it with the shower? Just about every writer I know says that's where they get a lot of ideas.

    1. LOL, I have kids and a husband who have radar - they know when I want to write and that is when they choose to talk or need the finder to locate an object, or need something. They don't follow me into the shower :). When I want to rub two uninterrupted thoughts together, I take laptop to library, Starbucks, a local coffee shop, or park and sit there for a few hours. If I'm just hunting out my pet words like "that" to figure out if they are necessary or superfluous, I can do that at home. Serious editing needs quiet.

      I love Stranger in a Strange Land - that book and people connected to that book literally saved my life (as I show in my memoir). I met Tim Zell (now known as Oberon) - Church of All Worlds when I was on a countdown to the day I was going to kill myself - turning eighteen. Tim started CAW from the Heinlein book, and I figured out a way to go to the meeting at his house in St. Louis - read that book and with the unconditional love of the group members made the decision that I was going to live, not die. That started my journey to healing. I just read Stranger in a Strange Land again to evoke the memories I felt during that time. Still a great book.

      1. Heather, that is a great story! Thank you for sharing it. Yes, Stranger is still a great book, isn't it? If you can, track down Red Planet and look at the similarities. Make sure to get the unexpurgated version! Heinlein was forced to remove major portions by his editor, they weren't restored until the eighties. You will see bits of what became Stranger in a Strange Land. You also might check out another juvie, Have Space Suit-- Will Travel. It's my favorite Heinlein. I've been a Heinlein fan my whole life, and one of the highlights of my career was meeting him at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City. It was at the Science Fiction Writers of America meeting; I was a 20-something new member, freaking out, sitting in a room full of people I only recognized from dust jackets, with a few short stories to my credit when Heinlein walked in. As one, the entire room got to its feet, standing in respect for him. He was gracious and kind and I'll never forget it. Thanks for letting me tell the story again.

        Keep writing.


  7. Greapt points, James. I'm a perfectionest and it's difficult for me not to second guess what I've written. At some point I have believe my crit partners A-okay and put it down and ususally by then I am very definitely sick of it. 🙂

    1. LOL, Sharla, Believe me, I know what you mean. I also used to tell writers that most projects I worked on ended not because they were really done so all concerned were delirious with joy, but because we were so sick of the nasty thiing that we had to drive a stake through its heart or jump off the roof. My sincere advice: Don't jump. Declare the project done. And, anyway, in the electronic age you can have your fingers crossed . . .

      PS My spologies for the delayed reply. Just got back from vacation. It's a weak excuse, but the only one I have.

  8. Like Laura Drake, I grew up with a saying only it was "It's time to hit the artist over the head and call it done." There's always something I could change or rearrange or make better, but a deadline is a deadline. Meet it and fret and finally let go. 🙂

    1. Louisa, I have the same problem! I'm in such a hurry to finish a chapter, I'll end it, and only realize later that the whisper in the back of my brain was trying to tell me I left out something important!

      1. Okay, ladies, allow me to weigh in. First, this is exactly the type of dialog I was hoping for. All of the comments are great and thought-provoking. Thank you! There is a saying, "Better is the enemy of good enough." Of course, the problem is identifying, "Good enough." Are there any painters out there reading this? Are you tempted to make changes, apply another coat to cover a mistake that only you can see? What about other art forms?

        Anybody? Anybody? (Gratuitous Ferris Bueller reference.)

        All kidding aside, thanks for the comments. I'm glad this has got us talking, and it's okay that we haven't found an answer. I guess the answer is that everybody finds their own.

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