Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Art is Never Finished

"Art is never finished, only abandoned."
Leonardo da Vinci

During my senior year in undergraduate school, I enrolled in an Art History class. This was a fun class. Basic premise was that through art, we could learn about the history of the people, the region, the era.

The professor (I can't recall her name) told us that during the renaissance, the only reason the artist in question stopped the work of art (painting, sculpture, murals, whatever) was because the sponsor of the piece "wanted the damn thing already." They were tired of waiting.

The artists generally had a hard time parting with it, because in their view, the work was not ready.

For an unpublished author, this is an interesting dilemma. We want to be published, yet each time we look at our manuscript, we find maybe "one more thing" to touch up. Speaking for myself, each time I read my manuscript, I want to modify something--again.

If you're doing it right, you're always learning about the craft, you're always reading more novels, and you're always writing. These three things have one significant impact -- they make you a better writer.

So it's only natural that what you know today, makes you slightly better, than what you were say, a month ago.

This isn't a dilemma in and of it self. But it's a problem if you don't hit send. I spoke to a few agents recently and they said something that nearly dropped me on my arse (I was going to say ass, but the way the British say it so much more refined.)

They each said that more than half the people that are asked to send in pages, don't. Don't! In other words, the agent is showing interest. They ask you to send them the manuscript (partial or full) and yet, the writer in question never follows through.

There are a variety of reasons, I'm sure. One is probably fear. What if they hate it? What if they love it? And when you start asking these questions, it is a natural step to think, "It's not ready yet." I need one more review, one more beta reader, one more proof reader, one more scene, one more adverb. That last one was a joke... you never need more adverbs, he said, passionately.

The reality is that you have no deadline. When you have no "sponsor" (agent, editor, etc) the only gate is you and your own inner-voice that doubts you and reminds you that you're not good enough, smart enough, or just enough. Please do not misinterpret this. You should NEVER send out material that is not ready. You need to slave over every word, and clean it up with a toothbrush, and have trusted people read and critique it. You must do these things and these things will take time -- a lot of time.

If you are signed, you don't have a choice. You throw caution into the winds and you let fate take its course.

Here's my recommendation. Set a deadline. Create goals that will challenge you. Declare it to others in your writing world. Then be committed to that timeline. Have integrity in your own words. Amazing things happen when you put yourself out there.

Then test it. Test the quality of your work. Be ready to share it with some people that you trust. Get their feedback, and be brutally honest with yourself. Be ready to internalize and understand the criticisms you get. It's not personal, it's opinions that may make your manuscript better.

I have a small, but badass set of first readers who want to see me succeed. So they will not let me make a mistake. I also have a mentor who is a NYT bestselling author who will call me out on the deck. He doesn't let me get away with anything. I also turned my work in to agents and editors at a conference (20 page critiques) to get their feedback. Was I nervous? Yes. But not knowing was worse. And once I had all the arrows pointing north, that's when I knew I was ready for a final proof read. Once you're there, the only next step is to jump in with both feet.

If you don't, then you take the risk of falling into Leonardo da Vinci's astute observation. Your art will never be finished, and one day you may decide to abandon it.

How do you know if you're ready? What criteria do you use?

Fight the good fight.


  1. Love this post, Ara--and it's so insanely true! It doesn't matter what sort of art it is, we creative types are our biggest critics and looking back at what we've created is hard--what felt like finished two months ago looks like more work today.

    I'm shocked that so many people don't send in requested material...but I suppose I understand the fear. It's not only what if they hate it--what if they love it is a scary thought, too. Suddenly your writing isn't something you do on your own terms--it becomes a cooperative effort of building your career. Exciting, but scary.

    Finally, I loved this: "I need one more review, one more beta reader, one more proof reader, one more scene, one more adverb. That last one was a joke... you never need more adverbs, he said, passionately." You make your point and you made me laugh. :)

  2. That thing about the agents saying so many writers don't send in pages really surprised me. I had to read it twice. Was not expecting that!

    My most recent critique partnering experience was a shift for me. I realized, when I hit send, that my work wasn't perfect, but it was at a point where I couldn't go any further with it until I got some feedback about where I was. This was a huge shift from the WIP before that, where I declared it was "as perfect as I could get it." It WASN'T perfect, because art is not perfect. There's something freeing in that realization.


  3. Thanks, Ava :) I'm glad you get my off-beat humor. You are so right about the cooperative nature. The game changes when it's out there. An editor will tell you to change something. Something that you were so sure was perfect. Some may look at this as "It's no longer the book I wrote." That's a tough pill to swallow for some.

    Kathryn, I know exactly where you're coming from. My last wip I pushed out there sooner than I probably would have in the past. I am very excited about next week. I hate the drive, but love the destination!

    Ava and Kathryn, both of you commented on "lack of response." Believe me, I was just as shocked. So I asked again, at the risk of sounding stupid. Then when I was talking to another agent, I asked her the same question and the same response. Then a third. This is not a scientific study, but I bet it is common.

  4. To be honest, it's kind of reassuring to hear that. I mean, it's kind of awful to say, but it cuts down on the competition. *shrugs*

  5. Great post. My publisher once told me that she's never met an author who's completely satisfied with their manuscript when it is printed...hard to believe, but we want it perfect, don't we?

  6. Amazingly appropriate and right on target for where my head (and writing) is at right now. It seems like every time I read something, I feel the compulsive need to deconstruct it. It's never "good enough." I'm never satisfied completely; yes, some phrases are perfect, but there's always something that needs tweaking. I also have a massive case of shooting myself in the foot. I have a fantastic idea (or ten), and then get frozen because I am stuck trying to figure out where to begin. Multitasking sucks. It doesn't help that I'm a freelance writer/ghostwriter by trade...I'm always writing for others, to make a buck, but my own personal muse goes unfulfilled, because I'm never able to find enough time to nurture it. It's a vicious circle. Now it's time to make some hard choices...sigh. Thanks again for a great post, I always look forward to the new ones in my inbox!

  7. Thanks for taking the time to put out such a pertinent feature. I enjoyed reading it greatly muchly and adverbally. All I can add is that as the old reaper closes in there is a certain increasing compulsion to forget the countdown hitch and go for lift-off wwithowt that fimal proof reed.

  8. Hi Jessica, James Scott Bell wrote a post about the part he hates most about writing. He said it's when he gets the final proofs. Because once it's done, it's done. I can only imagine the feeling. You will experience it full on very soon :) Congrats!

    Jessie, thank you. I appreciate it. I must tell you, for a few seconds I got into your world and I now feel exhausted. How do you do that? I thought a day-time career and a writing life at night was bad. But you are writing all the time. I'm not sure that my frail heart would not be able to manage that. Kudos to you. But like I said, magic happens when you declare powerful choices. Best of luck. I look forward to hearing of your breakthroughs real soon! :)

    Emma, you almost made me spit my morning coffee out with your last sentence. :D About that reaper... I may be wrong, but I'd rather have a deadline than no deadline... even if it means speelleng ehrors :)

  9. Aloha Ara,
    well said and I recently added a deadline right on my homepage which is definitely making me more focused but also making me use more adverbs

  10. Hi Mark. Nothing like a deadline to sharpen the focus. Them dreaded adverbs will try to bring you down, you just zap em when you see em :) And congrats to Ireland against Estonia!

  11. I am an avid reviser and have found myself in this situation a few times where I THINK a piece is done and submit it to a potential agent. Then a bit later, I've revised and think it is SO MUCH BETTER now. Recently I contacted the agents with my full and told them I have a revised copy for their review. So far the response has been very positive and they are still considering ... great topic. I found your blog from a James Scott Bell tweet. Will continue to read you. xoxo K

  12. Kristi, thank you for coming over. And I can never thank JSB enough for all his support. I've always been concerned about "one more change" after it's gone to the agent. But from your experience, as long as it's done professionally, we could get a chance to "slip" it under the door. Congrats on the full requests. Crossing my fingers for you. We all could use positive thoughts to get us over that hump. I look forward to hearing about your breakthrough very very soon! :D

  13. I too found you with a JSB tweet, Ara, and I'll be back. :-)

    Great stuff here. I'm gonna go poke around.

  14. Thank you, Jenny. You can stay here for as long as you want :) I just went over to your blog and nearly died of laughter when I saw the picture of the little girl asleep while still standing. Classic!

  15. LOL...thanks Ara. I've been fighting a wicked case of pleurisy. Did you go back one day and see the Bayard/Lamb 2012 post? Those ladies will have you in stitches.

  16. I just did, Jenny. Are you kidding me? That's a hilarious post. So many to quote but this one made me cringe "To me, golf is like playing fetch with yourself." I don't think I'll play the game without that visual etched into my brain :)


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