Works in progress – or how do you know when a poem is finished? #prose4t #whatimwriting #amwriting

Last year I did an exercise for my experimental writing class that turned into a poem. I posted each stage of the work on the blog, and there were probably seven iterations just at that time. Since then I’ve revised it, read it to my writing group, submitted it to a competition, revised it, read it out loud, and done a very different version inspired by a call out that wanted poems of 14 lines or less. I think I thought I’d finished it last year, but I obviously hadn’t.

I wrote a novel a few years back, finished it and everything. I printed out a few copies, got people to read it, made amendments, sent it to agents and even had a request for the whole thing. But that all took time, and during that time something was niggling at me. The story wasn’t finished. What I’d thought was the whole story wasn’t at all – the interesting stuff kicked off where I’d wrapped it all up. How do I know that? I gave myself permission to just keep writing, and writing, and writing. The characters I created developed a life of their own. What I thought was a nice, neat finished novel is now a messy splurge. What was fluffy chick lit with a happy ever after ending is now darker. The story is now more compelling, but the whole thing is unfinished, a sprawling mass of words, with some repetition where I’ve tried more than one approach to the same storyline. (And I feel a sense of relief that the agent said no!)

The longer I write the more I have these messy, unfinished projects, the greater the number of poems that could become something else. And they take up a tiny part of my brain all the time. I’m working on a different novel now, but at some point I want to revisit the first one and wrangle with it once more until the story starts and ends in a place that compels others to read it all through. I’m just not sure how to find time to do that, or whether I have to let it go and say it was a learning experience – which it was – and it’s a novel that’s not going to be published, and just move on.

What do you do – how do you know when something is done? Do you have projects that you can discard? And do you find it easy to find an end for your work?

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11 thoughts on “Works in progress – or how do you know when a poem is finished? #prose4t #whatimwriting #amwriting

  1. The problem with saying a piece of writing is finished is that we, as people, are unfinished. I write something, feel (maybe) that it is complete, then revisit it some time later, and want to change it. I want to change it because I have changed and have new perceptions. I can only cope with this by saying that a piece of writing is finished for that moment in time.

  2. My first novel is like that. I keep moving the beginning forward, and I’ve recently changed massive things, but had the same characters, and the same events, and it is a sprawling mass, but I feel like of course it is, they’re actual people with actual lives. I’ve made them up but they’re real nonetheless.

    I’m supposed to be sending my second book out to agents and the like now. I’ve got it all tarted up, I’ve got one little thing to put right, and the synopsis to write, and then it can go out into the world. I am really supposed to be doing this.

    And up until now I was doing just fine, but now I have so many other important things that need done. Like reading your blog. Like writing lots of poetry (which is writing practice so it’s needed, right?). Heck, I’ve even cleaned the bathrooms. It’s making me think that either I’m scared of not failing, or there’s something wrong that I haven’t thought of yet. Perhaps it’s just because there was so much wrong with my first book? Who knows. I should probably just pull my finger out. After all, if people say no, then I get to poke at it again.

    BTW I also have a folder of all my poems which I go through on a regular basis, changing things. There are very few that get to stay as they are. Some have had so many versions they’ve split into separate poems.

    I love writing, but I think I need an agent to tell me to finish things.

    Wishing you all the best.

  3. I’m fine when it comes to short things but when it comes to a larger project – such as a book – I have a fear of knowing how or when to finish it, which is probably why I keep stalling with book writing and have not yet ventured there on my blog. Poems though, happy to write, post and move on! All the best it – and keep going, I am certain you will get there. Thank you for linking to Prose for Thought 🙂 x

    • I think I’m the opposite – I’ve finished plenty of books but keep working on the poems! i think that it is easier for me to keep reviewing something short!

  4. I find that even when something is totally finished, if I leave it and go back I feel like there’s more that could be done or changes that could be made. I’m not sure how much of this feeling to trust though as I think perhaps nothing is ever really finished but if we ever want our work to see the light of day we have to consider it ‘finished enough’. Also, with poetry there’s so much meaning wrapped up in it that things can always shift can’t they? There are always new subtleties that could be expressed! As for finding the time… it’s an ongoing battle isn’t it? And I struggle with knowing what to prioritise because there’s so much I want to write (and draw!) . Anyway, this post feels very familiar so I can at least say ‘you’re not alone’ even if my thoughts aren’t very helpful otherwise! Thanks for linking to #WhatImWriting

  5. This is really interesting, I enjoyed reading about the process you went through writing that first novel. With a bit of distance (maybe after you finish the next one) you can go back to it, and the book you *really* want to write will be clearer…? I had a very similar experience with my first novel and it took me a lot of drafts to finally decide what the thing was… Well done with the request from the agent – there must be something interesting there. You might enjoy the discussions on the Story Grid podcast about how you find your theme out of the mess of a first (or second) draft.

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