Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Getting Some Distance

You have just finished your brilliant work—a piece that combines the wit of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman with the social commentary of Midnight’s Children and the style of Finnegan’s Wake—and you are soaring in the clouds. Your long-awaited goal as finally arrived and you are ready to pack your baby off to the nearest publisher and wait for the money and Pulitzers to roll in. But, before you do, there are some things you need to consider that, if they catch you unawares, could cause you to stumble and fall from your great heights in angsty, writerly frustration (Be honest, you’re a writer and thus have a slight tendency towards the melodramatic).


The first thing you need to do before packing off your fresh-off-the-printer piece is take a break. Let your sense of accomplishment sink in. Take some time away from the computer, notepad, or parchment (whatever your creative and chronologic inclination) and get some distance. Do something intellectually stimulating or mind-numbingly entertaining. The purpose is to get your thoughts off your manuscript because you need to be able to look at it with as little bias as possible.

Think of this point as similar to your first month in college when your family wouldn’t let you go home so you’d be forced to make friends. You need to be able to look at your work (whether it’s a poem, a play, an article, a novel, or a short piece of nonfiction) with the eyes of an outsider and not the eyes of someone high on their own success. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to be pleased with yourself: you just wrote a [insert type of work here]! You should be proud of yourself! However, know that whatever publisher/agent your send your work out to will not share the same glow of excitement you and your friends and family share at your accomplishment. The publisher/agent you send your piece to will be reading multiple works a day/week/month/year and will be comparing it to every other work they’ve ever read to see if it matches up to their exacting requirements.

This is why you’re gaining distance. You’re turning your back on your literary baby for a while so you can return to it fresh and detached. You need to read back through your piece and mark out problem points that either need to be smoothed over or cut out completely. “But, I already know some problem points that need fixing! Why do I need to wait before getting down to it?” I can almost hear you asking. The reason is because you may know one or two places that need to fixing, and are willing to do that. But, are you willing to cut that twenty-page long love letter the absent lover sent his amore, the letter you spent a month on, giving it that perfect balance of unspoken fears and unbridled passions? Are you willing to cut that five-paragraph description of your main character’s archnemesis as he hangs suspended from the cliff by just three fingers during a hurricane?

It’s places like these—some obvious, some subtle, and almost all are painful to part with—that require you to gain distance from your work. You are cutting into your piece like a surgeon, removing the weaker page and replacing it with a stronger paragraph or expanding a necessary section, transforming your fresh-from-the-printer recruit into a hardened work capable of withstanding the difficult publishing gauntlet where it will be rejected multiple times before being accepted. While this rejection process may be difficult, it will be all the easier knowing that you have done everything you could to help your work and make it the strongest piece you could possibly imagine.

-Zach U.

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