Merry Jones: When is the Story Ready?

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Merry Jones will be on the “genre trends” panel at the Push to Publish conference. Below, she shares her thoughts on determining when a story or poem is finished (read more of her work on her blog.)

Merry JonesRoundtable: How You know when the story’s ready?

For me, it’s not complicated. For every project, I have a deadline. The story is ready when the deadline comes. Sometimes the deadline is set by a publisher; sometimes it’s self-imposed. Either way, it’s an endpoint that I prepare for, and when I reach it, the story is done. Finished. Over. Time to move on.

My training was broadcast television. With television, the show went on when it was scheduled, whether or not the director/cast/crew liked it. The opportunity for rehearsing and being creative was finite. When the clock ticked down 3-2-1, it was show time, ready or not.

It’s been a couple of decades since I’ve worked in television, but I’ve kept that deadline philosophy with my writing.

Whenever I start a project—a story or full-length book, I estimate time for research, outline/synopsis, first draft and revision. I total it all up, add some slack, and set a reasonable deadline. Rarely have I ever tinkered beyond that date. The secret, I believe, is in seeking not to create something perfect, but simply to complete a smoothly polished product.

From the onset, I create reachable goals. I am satisfied with imperfection. For my work, perfection is not only unattainable; it’s also unnecessary. I want to write page-turners that entertain. There will always be a better phrase here, a more precise word there. The deadline gives me a chance to stop nit-picking and declare a work finished.

But let’s get more specific about the story itself. The main goal in telling a story is to tell the story. In a simple classic plot, the main character starts out with the motivation to achieve/attain some goal and confronts obstacles. The obstacles cause conflicts. The conflicts mount until they climax and ultimately get resolved.

The resolution can take many forms. Our character might succeed and overcome the obstacles and achieve her goal, or the obstacles might prevail so that our character fails. More possibilities: The character thinks she’s succeeded, but actually failed. She thinks she’s failed but actually succeeded. Or she’s partially succeeded and shares both success and failure with her obstacles. Or maybe they both walk away with the conflict unresolved.

No matter what form the resolution takes, once it’s been reached and the character’s main goal achieved or lost, the story arc is completed. It’s done. The basic story has been told. Even so, the story isn’t ready: it needs polishing and revising.

These processes are essential But they can also be pitfalls—traps that suck writers in like quicksand. As I’ve said above, there will always be room for improvement–a more nuanced phrase, a crisper detail, a superfluous clumsy adverb. Accepting that fact is, I believe, key to completing the piece. As long as the writing flows, lacks grammatical errors, is concise and gripping and well paced—As long as the character is sympathetic and believable and the voice is consistent, the work is done. Issues of structure, sequence, vocabulary and style can be examined, altered, reexamined, re-altered ad infinitum. The manuscript will never be perfect—not that there is a way to measure perfection in writing. And the process of trying to perfect it can be the obstacle to any writer’s goal of completing a work.

Hence: the deadline. It’s the best way, at least for me, to know that the manuscript is ready. Because, when it comes, the story is ready; for better or worse, it’s show time.

Meet Merry and many more agents, editors, and authors at Push to Publish on October 10, 2015.

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