A Rewrite too Far?

One of my colleagues has been working on a novel for decades. Yes, decades. Another writer I know has revised a script for at least a decade.

I have piles of unfinished and neglected ideas, some two decades old, but I don’t have completed works that I have rewritten or revised more than once. One revision, excluding any adaptation, is about the limit of my patience. This leads me to the question:

When does a writer go a rewrite too far?

My answer is yet another question:

Are you a professional writer or writing for yourself?

You can be both, a professional writing for yourself, but most people I meet who are in the endless rewrite cycle are not paid professional writers. When you earn a living writing, you have to accept that “good enough” is often the best you can do within the limits of the publishing or production process.

I have writing that is strictly for me. If it sells someday, I suppose that might be good, but the personal writing is for my own pleasure, reflection, development, and even entertainment. No one demands I write X poems by date Y. My essays for myself rest in notebooks no one else has read or might ever read. Writing for me is not about any other audience, and it certainly is not about earning any income.

However, the writing I do with the intention of selling it is treated as a business investment. It is the difference between the work my trusted mechanic does on my car and the work he might do on the classic car in his garage at home. He has to get my car repaired on a schedule, for a reasonable price. The personal project? It can take him as many years as necessary. It is a hobby project. (My mechanic also knows some cars are transportation, while others are more. He “analyzes” my expectations as a customer. That’s what writers have to do, too.)

I can sense my colleagues and friends with decades-old projects glaring at the screen as they read my words. They would likely tell me, “I do plan to sell this project! I only want it to be good enough to sell!”

No. You’re attached to the work. A scriptwriter I know calls this “Falling in love with the pages.” You should be moving on to other projects, one right after another, instead of seeking affirmation that your beloved work has value. I’ve got news for you: if you haven’t sold a manuscript in five or six years, it probably will not sell. Ironically, it might sell if you write something else that does sell. When a writer sells a work, the next question tends to be, “What else do you have?” That’s when you can pitch the beloved manuscript.

I have scripts I love that have not sold. I have scripts I thought were so-so that have progressed much further along the production process. I have written articles I loved that were rejected and ones I disliked that received raves from the editor. That’s part of being a “professional” writer: you never know what will sell (though you can guess what won’t sell).

If you are a novelist, short story writer, or even an investigative reporter, the self-publishing movement means you don’t have to wait five or six years. If you submit a manuscript to 30 or 40 publishers without closing a deal, then take the self-publishing route. Submit the work to Amazon, Apple, or Barnes and Noble. If readers buy it, you can take comfort in knowing you were right and the publishers were wrong. If it doesn’t sell, at least you’ve moved ahead to the next work.

Moving ahead is essential. Dwelling on a single work might produce a single masterpiece, which is fine if that’s your goal. I’m all for literary writers following their dreams. I’m not a literary writer, though. I admit it. Yes, I write about social issues, and want to “change the world” with my works, but I write for general audiences. I have to move ahead because the audience is moving ahead and changing.

Screenwriting is different. Movie scripts can take a decade or more to go from page to screen. The upcoming “Cowboys and Aliens” was written in 1997. The film is being released during the summer of 2011. Movies are collaborative, requiring the efforts of hundred to even thousands of people. But, you still hope to sell the actual script rights (“optioned” to film) within two to three years.

During the two, three, or even more, years that a screenwriter or agent is pitching the idea, the writer has to keep writing. Having one script is insufficient. One screenwriter told me that a “serious” feature film writer should complete two 90-120 page screenplays a year. Don’t keep revising the unsold script — write something else. Again, when you sell a screenplay you will be asked what else you have waiting to be read.

I know this isn’t easy advice for many aspiring writers to read. It isn’t easy to write the next novel, non-fiction book, film, or stage play if you haven’t sold the work you love. Until that first work sells, it is like a gate is closed to future works.

What writers need to remember is that the manuscript you love might not be what the market wants. Publishing and producing are businesses. A great work might not have a large enough market for a publisher or production company to risk the investment. Rejection is not always an insult to your ability as a writer. Sometimes, it really isn’t the right work for the moment.

By writing and writing and writing some more, you increase the odds that one of your works meets the perceived marketplace. This isn’t to say publishers and producers are unfailingly accurate market forecasters, but they are the men and women you need to impress. If you have six or seven “good” manuscripts, that’s better than having one “great” work that doesn’t meet any perceived market opportunities.

Finally, something aspiring writers don’t necessarily realize.

When you do sell a manuscript, you usually end up making revisions or even a major rewrite. You’re really selling the original idea, not a work carved in stone. Most screenwriters I know end up doing one or two complete rewrites. The novelists I know also do major revisions before a book is finally published. “Sold” does not mean “finished.” Writing is unlike other art forms in that respect. A sculpture or painting is sold “as-is” but only the rarest of manuscripts is.