by Tobias S. Buckell
Today, while waiting for my new office chair to be delivered, I asked followers at Twitter to send me some questions. In response, someone tweeted: “When to trunk and when to keep rewriting?” In other words, when do you set work aside and move on?
This is a tricky one to answer. The thing is writers have a variety of approaches and the trick to knowing this is to actually figure out how you work best. I have a pseudo-framework for thinking about this:
I have several writer friends who are what I would call Tinkerers. They write via a method of creating something, then they continue to tinker it into perfection. It’s amazing to watch, and as a result they often have skills for rewriting that are hard to match.
Some, like me, are more Serial Iterators. They do better writing something new, incorporating the lessons of a previous work. They depend on a lifetime of practice and learning. They lean more toward abandoning a project that hasn’t worked to move on.
So to know whether you’re going to abandon a draft, you’ll need to Know Thyself, Writer!
If you’re going to be a Tinkerer, it’s useful to know that about yourself. That means you shouldn’t be frustrated if you sit on manuscripts and keep tinkering. I’d recommend Tinkerers not send stuff in over early until they feel very good about what they have in hand. That’s subjective, but part of an Tinkerer’s genius is that knowing something isn’t working is a huge part of their process. The decision to trunk something isn’t actually something an Tinkerer does, they just park things for different lengths of times.
Serial Iterators are more likely to use the market, or reader feedback, to make this call. They might have a sense something is not quite right, but if they can’t identify it quickly for a fix, will send it out to see if they are possibly wrong or to have something or some one external explain the issue. Serial Iterators will use a workshop (so do Tinkerers) or beta readers or a trusted reader to check their instinct. If that filter deems the story bad, the Serial Iterator will trunk it and move on from the project forever, investing time and effort into something new. If the Serial Iterator thinks the project is not obviously trunk-worthy, they’ll send it in.
Which way is right? I don’t know. There are pros and cons to each.
Let’s say this. Tinkerers will often write a story, tinker until it is amazing, and send it out. A Serial Iterator will write ten stories and the ninth or tenth one might be amazing. Each will sell that amazing story. Who did it right? I couldn’t say.
Cons? Tinkerers can get caught up in Zeno’s Paradox, each draft moving the story 50% closer to perfection like a turtle trying to reach the other side. Serial Iterators can skimp on quality and not learn because they’re iterating too shallowly. I’ve met Tinkerers who stop sending stuff out because they become too critical or obsessed with the perfection of that One Project. I’ve met Serial Iterators who are writing the same basic shit they wrote 10 years ago with just a few tweaks. For iteration to be successful, you do have to learn something each time.
Smart writers of either side steal from the other. I have learned a lot from Tinkerers. But because I really try to not get lose in rewrite hell, I hope I’ve been able to pass on a few tricks about preparation, structure, and swerving flaws into cool things as you go.
When I wrote 150 short stories at the start of my career, I abandoned over 100 of them to the trunk. I did this by knowing I was interested in iteration and not interested in trying to rescue them. I had an intuitive sense of how long it would take for me in hours, manpower, to try and rescue a story, versus how many it would take to make a new one. That came with practice, trusted readers opinions being compared to my own impressions of the writing, and editorial feedback. But I am very aware of the fact that I’m not a Tinkerer.
There are a lot of myths about how to Be a Writer. Sometimes we internalize things. For a long time I hated my approach. I thought I was a shitty writer because I preferred to nail a draft, or hit a story on landing (or within a few drafts thereof, I’m not in any way advocating not rewriting or making drafts better, mind you), rather than go back in and sweat over 7 or more drafts until PERFECTION as I was sort of taught by various lovers of literature in my schooling days.
Once I understood my process, I started becoming a lot more honest. I focused harder on iterating, but while also making sure I learned something so that I didn’t iterate shallowly. I abandoned things rapidly that didn’t work as they gave me no joy. I sent things out as quickly as I could to get feedback and I welcomed rejection as part of the process of iteration (telling me whether I’d done well or not).
It’s harder with novels, the feedback cycle is vastly slower and I’ve had to fold in some Tinkerer practices (can’t toss out a whole novel that doesn’t work), but I’ve learned to iterate chapters and scenes and I’ve learned how I work.
So figuring out when to trunk something is intensely personal, and it depends on your approach and style. Figure out your goals, your working system first, then you can create your own rubric for ‘should I submit this just yet or work on it some more.’
I hope that helps…
Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, which influence much of his work.
His novels and over 50 stories have been translated into 18 different languages. His work has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author.
He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at www.TobiasBuckell.com