I've been working on one particular novel for 5 years. (Wow, has it really been that long?) I would wear it like a badge of honor, but the truth is this thing should've been finished a while ago. I couldn't tell you what draft number I'm on now, because at this point every time I sit down to work on it, I'm immediately bored and discouraged. And yet the drafts keep piling up as I'm not ready to give up on it quite yet.
If you're an obsessive drafter like myself, and have problems letting a story go, you're in good company. But we can't stay like this forever. When is it okay to call it quits or send it out as is? This is something I'm still figuring out. But for now, here is my feeble attempt to understand the need to keep drafting and how to stop the cycle.
First of all, there's the mindset. What makes an obsessive drafter?
1. The Perfectionist: For me, everything I do has to be perfect. I've been a perfectionist for most of my life and my writing is no exception. The only problem is, writing is far from perfect. It will never be done, editing is messy, you can always make it better, and you'll probably always be able to find errors. Thus, the endless string of drafts.
2. The "I'm a bad writer." voice: You know those times when you sit down to write and that little voice keeps telling you that you're not good enough? You think about all the authors you love and admire and feel you can't possibly compare. So what do you do? You keep editing and making more drafts of that same story, putting off sending it out.
3. The "This story stinks." voice: Most often, this little bugger accompanies, or even precedes, the "I'm not a good writer" voice. For some reason, your story just isn't right in your eyes. So you keep trying and trying to fix it. Eventually, you're so deep in drafts that you don't even feel like it's getting better, it's getting worse!
4. The Procrastinator: When a story is done, the hard part starts. Now it's time to send it out and open yourself up to possible rejection and criticism. That doesn't sound pleasant at all and before you do that, you really should fix this, this, and this in your story. So you keep on drafting.
The sad truth of obsessive drafting is this: obsessive drafters will never be published. Our stories will forever be "in the works" rather than in the readers' hands. So how do we combat this need to keep holding onto our stories when it's really time to let them go?
Breaking the obsessive drafter mindset:
1. The Perfectionist: I've learned to deal with my tendency to be a perfectionist in other areas of my life. Now it's time to do that with my writing. After getting my kitty, Byron, I eventually gave up on having the bathroom floor 100% free of little bits of cat litter. Because after a week of constant sweeping, I came to the conclusion that it was just part of the deal of having such a fun, lovable cat around. I'm trying the same approach with my novel. There will be places that don't quite sit right and scenes that could be better, but it shouldn't stop me from sending it out. I know it can always improve, but it has to stop somewhere. That's just part of the deal of being a writer. I don't want to miss out on being published because I was too knee deep in drafts. Besides, editors are there to help make your story the best it can be, so let them do their job and help you. But in order for that to happen, you've got to send it out first.
2. The "I'm a bad writer." voice: I draft and draft because I feel insecure about my own writing abilities. Everyone does at some point. That's when I step back from my story for a bit and look at all the things that I have gotten published, won scholarships with, or had good feedback about in writing group. Encourage yourself and don't forget about your past successes. Something that can always pull me out of this slump is a comment that my college creative writing professor wrote on a paper of mine: "You are a writer." Plain and simple. I have that written on a note card above my desk to remind me to be confident, keep learning, and to not be afraid to send things out for others to read.
3. The "This story stinks." voice: If you're an obsessive drafter, then you've been staring at your story for a long time. Much too long. If you've never taken a break from it, then do that right now! If you come back a couple months later and it still doesn't feel right, here are some things you can do instead of starting yet another draft:
- Send it out to beta readers. You've tried to fix it and haven't gotten anywhere. Their fresh insights and reactions may just give you the direction you need so you're not spinning your wheels.
- Hire an editor. It may be a friend or you can actually go hire a freelance editor. The point is to have someone else looking at your story critically. Focus on big content edits, not little sentence or grammar proofing.
- Be honest and ask yourself what isn't working. If it's fixable, then great! Go fix it then let that be that. If not, then it might be time to set the story aside for a while. You may have new ideas on it someday or might be able to combine it with another story idea.
4. The Procrastinator: First of all, ask yourself why you write. Is your story for your eyes only? I'm guessing if you're an obsessive drafter you've put a lot of time and energy into this thing, so the answer is most likely no. The reality is, you want readers. That means you have to send it out. Edit for grammar, spelling, and then even if it's not perfect, pull the band-aide off and send it out. Rejection and criticism are part of the deal. It's just the reality of being a writer. Besides, it may get accepted! You'll never know until you try.
I'm not saying I have it all figured out, but writing should be fun and it should be shared. So let's stop drafting and get those stories out in the world where they are supposed to be.