How do you know a story is done? Or if not a “story,” a piece of writing—your flash fiction, your novella, your book… how do you know when it’s a ready, submission-worthy, finished piece?
When I was introduced to the classics in high school, and even in college, I always had this kind of underlying assumption that each poem, each novel, was complete. That it was “perfect.” At some point, the author must’ve lifted the quill off the page, their fingers off the keyboard, and known… it was finished. The author must’ve felt the universe click into place around that concluded masterpiece. And even if it took time for the population to recognize its genius, that work was all it was ever meant to be.
Over the past 2 years, I’ve learned better.
Part of learning has been applying my adult grasp of history’s malleability to writing. History is defined by the victors… and art and literature are part of history. A lot of the writing bobbing at the surface of past eras enjoyed the buoyancy of its author’s privilege. A lot of gorgeous writing has been attacked for daring to swim upwards. What we identify as “profound” writing—as “perfect” writing—is ever shifting, dependent on viewer and moment.
Part of learning has also been writing and submitting my own short stories.
This January, I emailed a publisher to confirm the status of “The Blue Wall,” a past submission. I’d submitted this short story about an eldritch entity residing in an accent wall to this publisher over a year ago. Surely the story had been rejected—I just wanted confirmation before updating my records.
Turns out… they wanted the story! I’d beat them to the acceptance email.
Halfway through my traditional table-top celebratory pelvic thrusting, however, I panicked. See, since I’d submitted to this publisher, I’d edited that story. I’ve caved (caved hard) after four or five rejections. And I’d gone back into the “finished” story. I started polling friends: “Should I ask the publisher if they’d like to see the new version, the ‘more finished’ draft?” And I went to assess the damage.
One “Compare Documents” merge on Word, and I faced a sea of red changes.
RED. Walls of red. I hadn’t just tweaked “The Blue Wall.” This wasn’t editing. I’d re-written it. And as I looked as the two copies… I was floored to find that the first one was better. Shit, so much of the first one was just… objectively better.
Why hadn’t I known that the previous draft was “done?” Or was it done, really? Is that draft done now that it’s going to be published? Some of the later-draft changes might’ve been improvements, but which ones? My brain is still crackling and sizzling with the strain of trying to figure this out.
When you fry eggs, the yolks are best left a little runny, right?
Maybe writing is like that? Never really “done.” Just cooked enough that it’s still a little fluid, a little fresh. Maybe “done” is a bad thing, because with writing, “done” is overdone, a rubbery disk atop your lovely toast.
If anybody has any answers, or just commiserations and empathy, share away. I’ll be over here wringing my hands before I click “submit” on what may or may not be finished.