Interstitial Moment:

Dawn asked: “When do you know if (your novel is) really “done”? When do  you know if all the threads have been tied together? When is the time to send it out? And what kind of system do you have to organize your plot elements? Notebooks? Post-its on the wall? I’m curious.”

Dawn–that is a question that comes up frequently at conferences. I may even have tried to answer it my journal once or twice before. The problem is that there is no easy answer.

John Ciardi said: “A poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.” That is true in all the creative arts. I have heard painters say something similar. And musicians. And I am sure it applies to novels, too. (It sure applies to movies!) At some point you realize that you have moved on in your head to the next project, next poem, next painting. At some point you are damaging the piece, overworking it, not fixing it.

Betsy Lewin told me about when her husband Ted was illustrating my book, Bird Watch. He’d laid down what he thought was the underpainting for the title page: several ducks on a misty lake, early morning. Then he went to breakfast or to stretch or run or something. (I don’t remember.) She wandered into his studio, saw the painting, thought it was perfect, and stood guard over it till he returned. (Betsy is herself a Caldecott Honor Award illustrator as well as Ted’s agent.) “You’re done!” she told him. The painting is gorgeous. It is perfect as the opening for a book of poems and paintings of birds. In effect, the misty lake picture tells the reader: “The mist will soon clear away and you will see all these birds and others in their full glory feather by feather. But for this moment they are lake and mist and not fully formed except in your imagination. And mine. . .”

What does this have to do with the writing of your novel? Everything–and nothing. A writer gets better and better at recognizing when to stop, when to let go. Sometimes, though, even well known and oft-published writers don’t let go soon enough and overwrite. Of course it helps to have an editor waiting with a hard deadline. But even when writing on your own without a pre-sale of the manuscript, you have to get to an understanding with your material: I’ve done as much as I can or should do. I have read and re-read you, worked and re-worked you until I can no longer tell what is there and what isn’t. That’s when you let it fly to an editor.

As to my plots. . .well, there are two kinds of writers. (I have said this before as well, though it bears repeating.) There are tight plotters who write rigorous outlines and figure out the gross national product of their fantasy world, or have climbed the very mountains or swum to the bottom of the various lakes they are writing about. They work out everything ahead of time. And then there are those of us who “fly into the mist.” (I don’t remember who first coined the phrase, but I have borrowed it because it is perfect.) Er–I see I am overworking the mist element in this post! Anyway, I give my characters a life, a place, a tree to climb or a hole to fall into or a box to unlock or a treasure to find and then race after them into the mist to see what they are going to do. As I run, I try to watch and write about it, and not butt in while they are up to whatever it is they are up to.

Oh–and I read every chapter aloud and speak in the voices of y characters and hope no one overhears me or else they would have to have me committed.

Hope this helps.

Comments are closed. Please check back later.


Comments are closed. Please check back later.