Writing Over vs. Overwrought

I recently had accepted for publication a story I’ve been sending out for 4 years and have been working on for far longer. So first and foremost, hooray for that.

I won’t say where until the publisher confirms that they received my contract and my W-9 and sets a publication date, because frankly it all feels too good to be true. Plus, it’s a paying venue, which is a step up from what I’ve been doing lately (when you pay to submit, and then let the publisher have your work for free, so people can read it for free). This is, moreover, a dream come true for a piece I first started writing almost 20 years ago.

Can that be true? The characters first came to me when Madwriters was still a small writing group meeting in Madison, Wisconsin (thus the name) and I was taking evening creative writing classes while working by day as a management consultant. So yes, that’s nearly 20 years ago.

It wasn’t 20 years of solid work, granted. In fact I wrote the first draft and put it aside. For approximately 15 years.

Then, for some reason—possibly when I was putting together A LESSON IN MANNERS, and hauling out everything I had written, ever, to see if it qualified for the collection—I found this work again, and what had been a simple and rather overwritten story about a young woman trying to deal with the combined griefs of losing her sister and encountering an old lover who doesn’t want her anymore became something else.

I was back living in the Midwest, I had a new baby, and I was far away from every cultural comfort I’d taken for granted in the last 15 years: art exhibits, concerts and plays, writing communities, coffee shops, available child care. All of this fed unconsciously, I suspect, into the urge to reset the story as the problem of a young woman with lost loves, deep grief, and a daughter she didn’t know what to do with in a culture that was home and yet alien, vaguely hostile at the same time.

So I made the choice—or say I made the choice—to risk something I’d never tried before, and write a POV character of a different ethnicity than my own. In fact Melanie and Sandy are mixed race, something I have no personal experience with, and can probably be called out on for doing: appropriating other cultures, oppressing #ownvoices, not being properly sensitive, etc.

Yet the work of literature, to me, in both reading and writing, is to explore experiences and worlds, preferably those that are different. I wanted to explore the additional pressures this young woman would encounter in the town she lived in when she wasn’t of the prevailing color. The additional fears she would have for her daughter when her father’s identity is in question.

At the same time, as one does, I felt like I finally understood the story and the character. I finished “The Day of the Beheaded Barbie” and felt like it worked. It hit the right emotional notes, it moved me, it raised the questions I wanted to ask, and the ending tore a little hole in my heart every time I read it.

I shared the story with my writing groups and then sent it out to journals to the usual range of responses: the dead silence rejection, the polite “no thanks” rejection, and the encouraging “we really liked it but it didn’t quite make the cut, please send us more of your work” rejection.

And then, a wonderful surprise: acceptance, of the “we loved it and want to publish it right away” variety.

The lesson here? Time, revision, and re-envisioning can finally get you to where the story is RIGHT.

This matters particularly because I have just finished one more round of revisions to my historical novel, THE LIGHTED HEART, the story of Thomasine Brentleigh, the squire’s daughter, solving Fermat’s Last Conjecture in 1832 England. The story of a mathematical woman out of place in her own time, bucking prevailing notions of propriety and femininity to pursue her passion and her dream.

I worried the entire time—because this was revision 13, y’all—that I was killing the story, writing every bit of life and spirit and air out of it.

When I told a writing colleague over lunch I was revising the novel again (he read version 5), he cautioned me against over-writing. I admitted my fear.

“Work” is such an interesting verb. It comes from the Old English wyrcan: to act, perform, bring about, create. Its past tense, wrought, was once common in Middle English, less so in early modern English, and now has almost totally vanished save for the adjective overwrought, which we use to describe a manner excessively excited or agitated, but it also retains some of its older meaning: excessively elaborated, complicated, or ornate.

Over-worked. Created, but so much worked upon thereafter that something essential is lost or overwritten, throttled out of existence.

Or merely, over-written, in the sense of my usage above: too much there that doesn’t belong, and could use a good pruning.

I’m happy to say that I finished the revision to Thomasine’s story this week and sent it off at once to my beta readers (fresh ones this time) to see what they think. My own sense is that I finally got it where I want it to be.

It took six years of writing and research and revision, half a dozen books on plotting and structure, two agent workshops, a manuscript eval from a bestselling author, three novel workshops on top of my MFA, two failed rounds of submission (some even with full requests—so close!), all to result, finally, in one manuscript that I feel is finally in its best form.

I really do feel that: it’s as good as I can make it right now. It’s a book I’m happy with. It’s a book I enjoy reading. It’s a book I want to share.

It’s a book I don’t want to ever, ever have to revise again unless they are simple requests made by an agent and editor to get the book published.

When is the writing too much? When is enough enough? When are we done? This is one reason writing groups are so valuable; another perceptive and generous reader can perhaps point out when that invisible limit has been crossed. A good writing coach and mentor may be able to sense when it’s time to take a break and put the MS in a drawer for a while rather than hack away at it out of determination and agony and guilt.

But here as in most decisions we make as writers, I think we simply have to learn, by trial and error and by deep quiet repose, when to hear and trust our own intuition that it is TIME. Time to set it aside, take the story out again 15 years later and be able only then to identify what it needs. Knowing when it’s time to put the novel in the drawer and turn to something else. (I have several novels sitting in various drawers right now, and they all need to be there.)

But we and only we know when it’s time to take up the pen or the brush or the chisel, whatever your favorite metaphor for revision is, and go back to the work one last time to scrape away all the over-written and get down to the bare beautiful angel beneath.

And only we know when it’s finished, and it’s time to send the work out again. And keep sending until, rejection after rejection, it floats into the one place where it belongs.

A valuable lesson, crucial for our survival and utterly impossible to teach, only to learn. Trust. Your. Process.

May you always hear your intuition loud and clear, and may your work never be overwrought or overwritten.


Writing Over vs. Overwrought

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