Thursday, October 29, 2015

When to Ship It

Zestful Blog Post #130

Recently I talked to a group of university students about writing. One of the students asked the best question I’ve heard in a long time: “How do you know when it’s finished?” She was expressing the classic artist’s dilemma, which stretches all the way back to the auroch-painting paleos.

If you’re a craftsman, you have a pretty clear idea of when your project is done: The chair is plumb and square, the finish is smooth, a person will buy it and sit in it. Yes, you could decide to add some decoration, and you could argue that furniture making is art as well as craft. OK, fine, but my point still stands up pretty well when you consider that a piece of craftsmanship must, by any definition, have a function.

A painter, sculptor, or writer dwells in a different world. You create something which, unlike furniture, has no measurable function. You trade in emotional currency. Your standards of quality and effectiveness are entirely your own. Therefore there’s no empirical way to measure when a piece of art is finished. But there is a way to know when it’s finished.

Here’s the progression: You get to a point where you have some semblance of a whole. You see flaws, and you fix them. You revise and buff. You breathe on it and rub it with your sleeve and see your reflection. OK, good. But still you wonder, and you start to feel anxious. Could it be better? If so, how? Maybe I should try this. Or that. But what if I ruin it? Every novice art student has ruined a drawing by overworking it. Writers have done the same, though we rarely realize it.

So, the secret: When you’re unsure of whether or how it could be better, when you feel that nasty sense of anxiety building—that’s when it’s done.

And you ship it. You send it to your professional editor, or you begin querying agents and publishers, or you put it into the world yourself with confidence that your product is solid. You might get expert feedback that makes sense to you, especially once you’ve been away from the project for a while. Then you can revise with purpose and steady nerve.

Either way, you’re good. At some more or less comfortable point (yeah, nothing’s ever perfect), 
you’ll declare victory and move on.

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  1. Been there, no wait... am there.

  2. I agree about that feeling. I also know when my most trusted beta reader says I should give it up, it's time. That's when it's ready.


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