How to Free Yourself from Endless Revision

Image: an egg-shaped kitchen timer, set to four minutes, sits on a table.
Photo by barbourians

Today’s post is by author Audrey Kalman (@audreykalman).

Participants in November’s National Novel Writing Month challenge are cautioned not to rush their work out the door. Indeed, it’s wise not to send the draft completed on November 30 off to agents or editors on December 1, like an overeager chef serving a partially baked cake. Typing “THE END” is just the first of many steps in getting a manuscript ready for the prime-time glare of the submission spotlight.

Plenty of writers fall to the other end of the spectrum, though. They finish a draft, then a round of self editing, a round of critique group input, another round of self-editing, a round of professional editing, a round of rewrites, a round of beta reading … and round and round and round for years. These are the chefs who tinker endlessly with the recipe, leaving the dinner guests to expire from hunger or search for another meal.

The writers who get their books into the world are those who find a middle ground. The scenarios, diagnoses, and solutions here can help if you tend toward the tinkering end of the spectrum.

Situation: A dead engine

Diagnosis: The story driver isn’t clear.

You start with a fascinating premise, interesting characters, and a vivid setting. You dive in excitedly. Then you stall, often 50 to 75 pages into a book-length work, or halfway through a shorter piece. You set the work aside for a little while, only to hit the same wall when you return to it. What’s going on?

You haven’t grasped—using whatever method works for you—the impetus that drives the story. Different methods call this driver different things: the story engine, the story spark, the story problem. What drives the story is synonymous with neither plot nor character motivation but rather represents a skillful braiding of the two. Whatever the name, it’s the story’s underlying logic, the question that keeps readers turning pages. It’s the key not only to your reader’s experience but to your experience as a writer. Will you write forward with confidence or hesitate at every junction?

Many contributors to this site have written excellent pieces on story drivers, including Tiffany Yates Martin, Angela Ackerman, Susan DeFreitas, and Heather Davis.

Solution #1: Set the work aside. Your initial inclination that you simply need time and distance for the way forward to become clear may be the necessary prescription. Sometimes returning with fresh eyes is enough, although if you find yourself writing, rewriting, and polishing Chapter One while remaining unclear about where the rest of the book is going, it’s time to try something different.

Solution #2: Shake up your brain by leaving your comfort zone. Sometimes you need an outside force to reawaken or reconnect with your creativity. The shake-up method worked for me. After five or six attempts to finish a short story whose theme, characters, and setting I felt deeply connected to, I simply couldn’t figure out where I wanted the story to land. So I used Rytr, an artificial intelligence story generator, to come up with several endings. Some were hilarious; others were absurd. But one idea sparked an inspiration that turned out to be the key to bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion.

The shake-up possibilities are limited only by your imagination. A few ideas:

  • Change writing locations. Write in another room in your house, in your car, or at a coffee shop.
  • Ask a trusted writing buddy to outline the rest of the story for you (and offer to return the favor sometime).
  • Meditate on the story.
  • Engage in a dialogue with the story and interrogate it about what it wants to be.
  • Rewrite the story as a poem.
  • Write each plot point on an index card, throw the cards in the air, pick them up randomly, and reassemble them in the new order.

Situation: There’s always more—or different/better

Diagnosis: Psychology is holding you hostage.

As you review the first draft of your memoir, you have a flash of insight about your relationship with your father. Realizing you’ve minimized a pivotal life event, you incorporate more of your father into the next draft. Then you remember the reverberating shame of the incident in which Mrs. Smith ridiculed you in front of your third-grade class. The next edit includes Mrs. Smith. Then you begin to wonder if the structure is right. Maybe it would be better to organize the book around themes rather than images or to narrow the slice of time you cover. Back to the drawing board you go … and next thing you know, years have passed.

You will learn things during the course of writing and revising a first draft that absolutely need to be changed and incorporated into subsequent drafts. There are legitimate questions to be asked about a book’s content and structure that come to light only during the writing. Going through this cycle a few times is perfectly normal and approaching the writing itself as a journey of discovery can be enormously fruitful and emotionally satisfying. But those whose aim is to get their work into the world don’t want to remain in the loop forever.

If you find yourself going over the same ground with your book for years—and find yourself distressed by the process—the problem may not be the book but the deeper concerns you are trying to work out through the book.

Solution #1. Examine your motivations. Ask yourself why you are writing the book. Go beyond surface-level answers like “to share my story” or “get it published.” Maybe it’s “to understand why my mother abandoned me” or “to heal the relationship with my father.” For fiction writers, the answer may have to do with your themes. Then recognize the book’s role in this process. Writing the book can contribute to your understanding or healing and in some cases can do much of the work in this department. But if you find yourself stuck, you may be relying on the book to do a job better suited to a professional.

Solution #2: Call in the professionals. Consider working with a mental health professional, especially if your story is personal or deals with a subject like abuse or trauma. Revisiting life events with the help of a therapist may free you from cycles of revision that can happen when you’re using your book to work through past pain. You could also find a skilled book coach who can help you gain perspective on how life events may be influencing your writing process. Whatever the route, an outsider’s eyes and ears can reflect and echo your challenges in a way that leads to clarity—and being able to finish your project.

Situation: FOFU (fear of finishing up)

Diagnosis: Your book is more than a book.

Book-length projects take time. During the months or years you work on a manuscript, it becomes central to your creative life. You tend to it, nurture it, and get frustrated with it as if it were a child.

When your book-child is ready to leave the nest and go out into the world, it’s natural to feel the impending loss and attendant grief. But if your thirty-year-old book is still living in the basement because you haven’t let it go, you need some tools to loosen the strings.

Solution #1: Work to decouple the book from your identity. Unless we’re saints or Buddhas, even the humblest of us have some part of our identity entwined with our books. That’s a lot of pressure to put on 85,000 words. Process writing—writing about your writing—can be extremely helpful for meta-level writing challenges like this. Schedule some time to reflect. Who will you be without the project that has consumed you for so long? How do you imagine feeling when you finish? What can you do to embrace those feelings?

Solution #2: Accept the good-enough book. Your book will never match the Platonic ideal of your imagination, just as a child will not grow into exactly who their parents think they will become. Nor will it satisfy all readers. The book will be flawed and lumpy and beautiful. And that’s okay. Let go of the need for unachievable perfectionism and for appealing to everyone.

Solution #3: Get excited about your next project. If you don’t have your next writing project in mind already, begin to dream about it. Take a creativity recharge weekend or journal about your ideas. Maybe you plan a sequel, or maybe you’re headed in a completely different direction. An enticing new project waiting in the wings can motivate you to finish.

Solution #4: Find your support system. Writers need champions and cheerleaders to get us through those dark nights of the soul when the inner critics howl. Find fellow writers who can remind you of why you’re writing and help subdue the internal voices insisting that your book won’t be worthy unless you work on it for another five years.

Parting thoughts

There are as many reasons for having trouble finishing a book as there are writers in the world; these are just a few. If you can stick with writing your book for exactly long enough—but not too long—your book will reward you with the satisfaction of becoming what it was meant to be.

Finally, recognize that unless you are suffering, there is no reason to “fix” the problem of revising and re-revising and revisiting your work. Books take time. Time to gestate, develop, grow, and be refined. Plenty of famous works took years or decades and countless drafts to come to life. There is no timeline but your own.

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