Everyone knows nothing’s perfect after the first draft.
But how many drafts are you supposed to write? Where is that fine line between honing a work and polishing a turd? When do you accept something as a failure–nay, a learning experience?
I think the answer is when it is holding you back.
Perhaps you’re too focused on that one piece that you’re neglecting to think of others. What you imagined was your opus is now your albatross. Something a colleague once said to me in the editing room, “You just have to let it go, man.”
Let it go.*
Sounds easy, sure. But, wow. It’s not.
It’s a little like getting over a break up. You need time and distance. And, if you decide to get back together again with that opus of yours, start from scratch. Don’t pick up where you left off. Date it for a while before moving in.
I’ve done this with a couple works that I had hanging around my neck for a long time. One of them where a series of short stories that I wrote in university as something of an in-joke with a group of friends. But they were so well-received by them that I kept thinking I could rewrite them and do something with them but take it seriously this time.
It never worked.
I ended up running in circles so much that I felt like Douglas Adams with the umpteenth iteration of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Each circuit around was a little further removed from the magic at the source, to say the least.
Eventually, I just uploaded whatever I had to a website and put it out to pasture. They’ve lingered there for almost eight years. No one ever reads them.
I tried to do this again with my increasingly weighty albatross, the project I keep calling Pirates in Space. I’ve lost track of how many drafts of this I’d worked over, but at least five in as many years (if not more).
Finally, I decided to let it go.
And, rather than like the Savannah Stories, which became a shiny, happy memory, Pirates in Space stuck in there like a series that I was obsessed with ages ago and couldn’t get out of my mind. It ceased to feel like mine.
This sounds awful, but it was great! I’d finally gotten over the break up, so to speak. Pirates in Space and I were finally in a place where we could be friends again.
What happened was – surprising – I discovered that I finally really knew the story. I knew it inside and out, but completely divorced from the actual text I had written. This enabled me to approach the story from a completely different perspective.
I rewrote it without any consultation of my earlier drafts (except for a few choice paragraphs that had survived since the very first draft and I had all but committed to memory) and I wrote it as if I was just telling myself the story again.
I could focus now on marrying the story to the proper style and voice and structure.
I hope we shall live happily ever after.
*Apologies if that’s in your head now. It’s definitely in mine.