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Sep 27

Stick a Fork In It

Good for me! As of last Friday, I am officially finished with the script for Uncharted Zones. That was the deadline we set for ourselves, and we met it. As is to be expected, I met it by going crazy for the better part of a week and sneaking everything in just under the wire – but it’s finished, and that’s what matters.

And it reminded me of something I wanted to write about in here: how do you decide when a play (or novel, etc.) is done? This time, I had no choice – but most of the time, it’s something you have to decide for yourself. How do you know?

Or maybe not by yourself – because my main answer to that question would be, you don’t have to make that decision alone. As much as you’re responsible in the end for saying, “That was the final draft,” and starting to send a piece out into the world (not that you can’t keep revising even after you’ve sent it, and I sometimes do) – it’s an easier decision if you’ve bounced it off some sort of a test audience near the end of the process. If you’ve got a writing group, or know someone with dramaturgical leanings, or have a partner or friend who knows enough about the craft and doesn’t mind you sitting there bouncing on the edge of your seat while they try to read, take full advantage of that. (And if you don’t, try to find someone. A good way is to offer to do likewise for some of your writer friends.) I’m lucky enough to have a good network of people – most particularly the members of my company – who are willing to read my drafts and offer feedback.

None of this means you always have to agree with them. An important part of this process is learning when your own instincts should triumph. But if you’ve chosen a person to provide their opinion on your work, there’s a reason for that. Even when what they’re saying hurts, maybe especially when it hurts, you need to take a hard look at what you’ve created and decide whether or not they might have a point. And if you’re hearing the same criticism from multiple people, or on multiple pieces from someone you know and trust, it’s possible that you’ve got a bit of a blind spot to work on.

With a major piece of work, chances are you’re going to go back to that person several times as you progress through drafts – or to others, so you’re not exhausting your poor readers’ patience. You’ll work through issues and show them the fix you’ve come up with and other issues will come up, or it’ll turn out that you’ve changed too much and you need to take a half-step back. Unfortunately, this can be a never-ending process. There’s always going to be something that can be poked at, or tweaked, or painted up and tarted out. After a while, you might get to the point where you’re not even *sure* anymore if you’re making things better or worse with each change – even with the careful and considered opinion of others.

(Oh, and by the way – if you’re getting to that point, TAKE A BREAK. If you start to lose perspective, you’re working too hard and you’re not going to be at your best. If it takes an hour, a day, a week or more – switch projects if you feel lazy, but don’t keep pushing at something if you feel like you’re losing touch with it.)

So how do you know when enough is enough? My general rule is one of diminishing returns – when the notes you’re getting back, and/or the ones you’re giving yourself, seem to be getting to the point where they’re not offering improvements worth the time you’re taking, it’s probably ready. When you’re making changes, and when you look back you can’t tell in the flow of the play what you’ve changed – it’s probably time to call it a day. There will always be a few rough edges (and if you get to production / publication, you’re going to have another chance and another voice telling you what needs to be fixed anyway), but if you keep sanding away for too long you’ll just wear yourself down – and possibly start eating away at the good stuff.

You’ll get a sense for when you’ve hit that mark with a piece. Don’t count on how you feel about it – there’ve been plays that were absolutely ready but I was absolutely sick of them by the final draft. Just give it the best work that you can, take it through revisions until it seems like you’re not making any more useful changes, and start sending it out. Eventually, you might do well enough that you start having deadlines forced upon you, and then you can really start worrying.

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