Wednesday, 8 July 2009

When to sub?

A lot of pubs ask, quite reasonably in my view, that writers only submit their best work, their most polished pieces, the top drawer stuff. Which is fine, but provokes the next question: how do I know what's best? - and the one after that - how do I know when it's finished?

Let's dispense with the first question quickly, because it is impossible to answer. Experience has taught me that I am the last one to ask when it comes to the question of what pieces work or don't. My opinion counts for little. I've had pieces lauded that I never gave much consideration too. I've touted faves for years with little success. There's stuff on my hard drive that I hug every morning, because that's the only home it has and will probably ever have.

How do I know when a piece is done? Well, this is how it usually goes for me:

I start with a prompt or an idea. Then I wait. I ponder it for a while, dispensing with obvious solutions, looking for a break. Sometimes that can take weeks, sometimes hours and - on rare occasions - minutes. But when the break comes, it's like a key unlocking a door. It grips me like a fever. I have to get it down. Out it all comes in a rush, unstoppable. I get the piece done within minutes - basically as fast as I can type. And, because of the way this happens, when I punch in the last full stop I can lean back, euphoric that it happened again.

Now is the danger time. First of all, I have to force myself to sit on the piece for at least a day. It's easier now, in the light of experience, than it used to be. No matter how big the rush of the initial write, I know that there's going to be at least one tweak. This is where a site like comes in handy. I use it as a kind of holding bay. The pieces aggregate comments and I get a handle on what works and what stumps.

Even with that, though, there's all these judgement calls. When do I stick to my guns and go with what I feel is good, even if ten other people are calling me out on it (mental note: 'calling out' is a construction forever ruined by Palin et al.)? When am I over tweaking? Under tweaking? Am I tinkering away with this because I am afraid to send it out into the big bad world? Am I blinded by my own enthusiasm? So many questions.

So I wind up doing what I suspect everyone else does: muddling through. Pushing some pieces out, holding on to others - testing the waters. Seeing what works. And I get predictable results. I have one piece pubbed from the early days that was accepted long after I had revised the draft to something much better. I've had pubs tell me something is rushed or point out flaws that I should have seen. I've revised and revised drafts, only to return to the first one and realise it was the best after all. There is no end to it - no grand design. And that, as they say, is just that.

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