Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Less is Not More, But Too Much is Not Good

by Scott Adlerberg

Years ago, I remember, I was watching a TV interview with English author Anthony Burgess.  The interviewer asked Burgess something about his writing process and the question of striving for perfection in a work.  Burgess said that he keenly felt his own work's imperfection the moment he started writing.  In his head, carrying images and ideas, cultivating feelings and sensations, his novel was perfect. When he started to put all that abstract perfection into words, however, that very instant, he became keenly aware of falling short of his ideal.  This doesn't mean he disliked everything he wrote - far from it- but that he had to accept the idea of his own work's inherent imperfection if he was going to see it through to completion and then let anyone see it.   Burgess's observation sums up as well as anything for me a prime reality of writing - how much imperfection are you going to accept before you let go of a work? It's something I try to keep in mind when I focus on editing and revising.

I'm thinking of all this now because I'm in the midst of polishing what will be my next novel.  It's about seventy per cent done, and since I don't do drafts, but am the sort of person who proceeds slowly, revising and rewriting as I go, constantly doubling back to rework and polish, re-write and edit, unable to advance very far till I feel what I've done is adequate, I am now in that fixing up phase. Just as I went over the first twenty percent of the book, then the first forty percent, and so on, now I'm going over the first seventy per cent.  This should be my last round of revisions until I do the rest of the book.  Then I'll have the entire novel pretty much as I want it, and I'll take a breath before going back through the whole thing for the final touch-ups.

But here's where it gets sticky.  Over the years, I've come to realize I have a propensity for fussing too much and perhaps over editing.  It goes back to that notion of trying to put on the page exactly what you had in your head.  You want the reader to be engulfed in that dream as if they are in your head.  But you can't capture that.  Not really.  The reader of course brings their own perceptions.  They need space to breathe.  And after a point, as you tweak this and change that, cut a phrase here, search for the proverbial perfect word there, you run the risk of squeezing the life blood out of your work.  What came out free and rhythmical earlier, because of tinkering, gets twisted into something overly stylized. What sounded natural before now sounds cramped.  Then you go back and restore a passage to how you had it earlier.....except....somehow....it just isn't exactly as you want it, though overall it does read okay....

You can go on like this forever.  Letting go of a work has never been easy for me. But at some point, you start to realize that your changes are bringing diminishing returns, and the effort you're spending on these minuscule "corrections" would be better spent working on a new story.  I don't know about anyone else, but I tend to feel a mixture of relief and irritation when I tell myself I'm finished, that I may as well stop and let the thing be.  Beyond a certain point, I remind myself, my editing can only damage the writing.  The writing will never be an exact manifestation of what I have in my mind.

It's a delicate balance that must be maintained, a severe tension. You need to edit your work ruthlessly, but not overdo it.  You need to make your work as good as you can while still accepting it will never be as good as you want it to be.

After all these years writing, I have to say, I still have trouble maintaining this delicate balance.


Rick Ollerman said...

Amen, Scott. Stevie Wonder would set a date for the completion of an album and when that came, that was it, otherwise he'd keep working on it forever. And someone else (whom I don't remember suddenly) said they never finish a work, they merely abandon it.

Dana King said...

I work in drafts and have a process set up where once I'm satisfied everything I need is there and in relatively good shape, I begin The Final Draft. It's a very specific process consisting of four steps, and I undertake each with the knowledge that once I complete Step 4 for a chapter, it's finished. I'll not look at it again. When I get to the end I type THE END and move on.

scott adlerberg said...

Sounds like a good method, Dana. A good way to ensure that you keep starting new things.