Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When is it too late...

to send Christmas cards? I'm only half-kidding.

For various reasons (including freak holiday ice storms in Toronto), we celebrated Christmas twice--once around December 25, and another time around January 15. I had to gear up for 2014 all over again in late January. (But it was great to see people during the holidays--totally worth it.)

In any case, we never got the cards sent. Even though "sending cards" now means "insert link in Facebook status to holiday letter in Dropbox; send link in email about 20 others; send a dozen actual cards to aunts, uncles, and cousins (some in foreign countries)."

While I have dithered quietly about whether to do something about the cards, I've been thinking a little about that feeling of "too late!" and its present-tense version, "time's running out!"

Now that I'm approaching middle age (or have passed my quarter-life crisis, assuming I live to be, like, 200), my peers often say some version of this: "I want to get my work out there. I don't have time to wait around on the traditional publishing process." And I do understand that urge. Lots of people are indie-publishing their work and finding satisfaction in immediately reaching readers. More power to you guys! Yay!

I understand the urgency, but I personally don't feel urgency around publishing. Instead, I feel urgent about my ability, or lack therof, to revise drafts well. To craft the stories, both fiction and nonfiction, I feel capable of telling.

So here's a math formula: for a completed story draft D, there exists an unknown time T after the completion of D during which R (revision) approaches maximum values of E-squared (efficiency and effectiveness).

In non-math words, there's an optimal amount of time to wait after you write a first draft of a story before you even attempt to revise it. During this time period, your ability to revise that story--to tell it in the way it deserves to be told--increases. Assuming you're still developing writing skill, that is. Eventually at the end of this unknown time T, you can revise the story effectively and do it with a minimum amount of faffing about. (I should add the faffing about variable F to the equation.)

(Note that in various work settings, this time is short. You can't let an annual report ripen for six months--for one thing, it doesn't need it. For another, if it's going to be at all useful to you, it has to be timely. It's this lack of time for revision in work settings that created in me a false sense of "I don't need to revise." Which is true for some tasks, but not so much for the kinds of stories I really want to tell. Hey, wait a sec: aren't Christmas Cards sort of like annual reports? Sigh.)

Anyway. I've been solving for T, this unknown variable, for several years in my creative writing life. I like to think that my value for T is decreasing, that I'm getting better at estimating this "put it away and let the story ripen," "put it away and develop your skills," "put it away and let your unconscious work on it" time and then revising effectively when I start.

Of course I know the whole writing/revision process is imprecise, and I'm kind of kidding about the formula, especially the "maximum efficiency and effective" part. Kind of, because this is where I do feel urgency: I want to produce the best work I can, so that when it appears (note: "when" because I want that, too) I can be proud of it. Setting a novel aside for 10 years, coming back to spend 5 more years on it...yeah, that kind of time I'm not sure I have.

When it comes to Christmas cards, I'm not kidding at all. It may be "too late" according to someone else's value of T, but we'll send them. They'll be March 1 cards. Even though it's been a quiet year. Because keeping connected to friends and relatives is a Good Thing.

But for the urge to publish--no urgency there, not yet. I want to revise until I'm sure that I've done right by the story, and I want to learn to revise better. So, off I go.