Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Knowing When to Stop

I just received a nice e-mail from a fellow blogger who describes herself as someone who has spent nearly four years working obsessively on a single screenplay, writing and re-writing it in various genres. Without knowing very much about her or the screenplay it’s hard to judge if all this re-working is necessary—it very well could be. But her situation did get me thinking about a question that all artists are forced to answer at some point: When is it done?

While I’m a firm believer in meticulous and sometimes drastic revisions, there comes a point in the creative process where re-writing produces nothing but diminishing returns. Perhaps you dwell too long on your choices, changing a word here and there, over and over again but not adding any real meaning or quality to the work. Maybe you hack the piece to death repeatedly every time you’ve found yourself stuck, hoping a new approach will help you find what’s missing. Or maybe you’re like Grady Tripp, in Michael Chabon’s WONDER BOYS, who just keeps writing and writing until he has a 2,600 page manuscript with no end in sight. No matter what the problem is, there comes a time when you have to think about letting go.

Unfortunately, writing is so subjective that there’s no definitive way of knowing when a piece is finished. There is no such thing as perfection, so one could argue that there is always room from improvement. That said, if the story is solid and the voice is clear and you’ve re-read the piece for mistakes, it’s fair to say it’s ready to send out. Don’t fret about a word here and there. If you use that as an excuse, you’re doing nothing but procrastinating.

If your story runs on and on with no end in sight, it’s time to take stock. Three things could be happening: 1) You love your story so much you can’t bear to see it end 2) Your self-worth is so tied-up in this project that you’ll be devastated when it’s over, or 3) You took a wrong turn somewhere and kept going when you should have ended it.

The third reason is easy enough to remedy; just find the point in the story where it should have naturally ended. The other two reasons are a little more complicated. I would suggest a trial separation. Put the piece away for at least three months. Give yourself a chance to fall in love with a new story. If you invest your energy in something else, you’ll have more clarity when you return.

Finally, if you’ve tried every which way to make a piece work and it’s still not happening, it might be time to call it quits. Perhaps, somewhere down the road, you can return to it again and you’ll have no trouble seeing the problem. Or, better still, there are probably a few parts that are worth salvaging, pieces you can take away from the story to create something new. It’s painful to give up when you’ve invested so much emotion, time and energy, but even with the best of intentions, but the truth is that sometimes stories just don’t work. Sometimes you’re better off just letting go.

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