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Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Repeating Finish Line

Last night I finished the fourth draft of my manuscript. As I stared wide-awake at the ceiling several hours later, I worked out that it was indeed my fourth draft (I have been puzzling over this) because my third one was a non-starter. I began enthusiastically then gave up and went back to the drawing board. I'm still counting it as a draft because of all that pointless thought that went into it. Then again, it was all part of the process. It just felt like a complete waste of my time. Anyway, as I ran through the novel again in my head at two o'clock in the morning, I began to think about the different types of manuscript completion, at least the ones I've encountered.

Firstly, you've got the idealist souls. These are the people who rush enthusiastically to the end of their first draft and believe that their job is done. Of course it's perfect: they wrote it. Why wouldn't it be perfect? Distance is alien to them and perhaps they start submitting the manuscript straight away to anyone they can think of. If they're an absolute genius of Dickens or Woolf proportions then it gets them where they want to be. For the rest of us, we must start scribbling away at that second draft, often a major overhaul.

Once you close in on the end of that draft you become an optimistic soul. You've probably lost your initial enthusiasm for your project but you recognise what you have now is better. However, since you've spent all this time fiddling about with the plot and characterisation, your prose reads like cardboard. Your images are all muddled up and at some point you described your protagonist in very biblical language which may or may not indicate you believe him to be the saviour of mankind. It needs fixing.

When you enter the third draft you're more of a hopeful soul. You're praying that the novel will be done at some point but you think you might have numerous medical conditions before it is. But, still, when you reach the end of it, it looks better than it did at the beginning. Of course it does. It's not like you'd waste time, is it?

Then you enter the stage of the obsessive souls. These are the people who are happy with their plot, happy with their characterisation but can't leave the manuscript alone. The number of drafts spreads into the teens, with no real tangible differences between them. Perhaps a word has been altered or an image bettered. This novel isn't going anywhere, except through the printer so you can edit a few words again.

I realise that I'm in danger of falling into the latter category. I'm insistent that there needs to be a fifth draft of this manuscript and I swear I'll consider letting it go after that. However, I do have a legitimate reason for another edit: I've substantially changed plot points in my fourth draft and, as a consequence, I need to check all that makes sense and do some polishing.

Will I be able to let it go afterwards? I may need some of you kind readers to pry it from my hands...


Mockingbird said...

Tinkering is the dangerous trap to fall into... If you tinker endlessly there are two perils. If one doesn't get you, the other most assuredly will.

The first peril is like flower arranging. (Or moving a body... but I think we will stick with the happier, prettier and less disgusting image.) The more you pull an arrangement of flowers apart to redo it, the less attractive the finished result will look. It will look more haphazard and thrown together. Thus it is with manuscripts. They look tinkered.

The second peril is the ABD... the graduate student trap of "all but dissertation". In other words, you never quite get there. You keep dismounting but never quite release... A most unsatisfactory state of affairs.

You have to learn when to let go.

CharmedLassie said...

In my head I'm moving a fragrant body around... Ahem.

One of my favourite episodes of Father Ted has Ted noticing a dent in a car he's putting up as a raffle prize. He tinkers, he gets out a little hammer, he taps away. He works for hours. Then the camera draws back and the car is an absolute wreck. I dread to think how many potentially good novels that could be applied to.

Steven Chapman said...

Is there room for a procrastinatey soul?? Someone who never gets around to finishing their manuscript and just starts another?

Steven Chapman (writer)

CharmedLassie said...

Oops, forget to include that. Possibly because that's the next stage in my own development and I don't want to think about it!

Annie said...

Even the geniuses of this world need more than one draft. If you read Virginia Woolf's journals you will find that she drafted, drafted and then drafted again.

Anonymous said...

What about the Sisyphean Soul....the writer who can't get through a complete draft without throwing out what they have and starting their 'second' draft...(Same, so on and so on till years later when they begin to think they're kidding themselves...)

I like these categories. It's a good reminder that at some point, you just have to stop revising and 'turn the paper in.'