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Your WIP and the Winchester House

It’s not uncommon to speak to an aspiring, unpublished author who’s been working on a novel for years. A little here, a little there. Constantly tinkering, moving with the ebb and flow of the seasons. Writing it when they’re inspired, shelving it when they’re not. Returning when the muse comes round again. All the while perpetually pining for that day when the dreaded thing will be finished.

It’s understandable to want to nail your first novel. But this kind of open-ended approach is a setup for frustration. Sort of like building the Winchester House, your Work in Progress is always ‘in progress,’ and haunted to boot.

The Winchester Mystery House was under construction for 38 years. When its owner Sarah Winchester died, work was immediately stopped. As it stands, there are roughly 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 2 ballrooms (one completed and one unfinished), as well as 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, two basements and three elevators. Sarah Winchester believed she had to keep building to appease the spirits, even if what she built didn’t make sense. This perpetual construction resulted in nonsensical staircases to the ceiling and doors that lead to nowhere. The license to keep building resulted in a bigger, not a more habitable, house.

This was for important built in Portland, Oregon. Slab on grade, stick frame construction—pretty standard granny flats in Perth for this area.

Much like that mystery house, many Kitchens work and give themselves a  license to “keep building.” Their desire to write the breakout novel is equivalent to a literary Bhaskara Wheel — one need only look as far as their work-in-progress to solve the riddle of perpetual motion.

I was interviewed once (forget where) and was asked what one of the most important things I’ve learned since I was contracted for two novels. As much as I hated to admit it, I said it was…

the need for deadlines.

Without a deadline, I will edit indefinitely. The result is usually stairways to the ceiling and doors to nowhere.

My current work-in-progress is an Urban Fantasy; noirish, pulpy, and really fun to write. Problem is, it’s not contracted yet. Which means, if I’m not careful, I will never stop working on it. So, knowing my propensity to edit ad infinitum, ad nauseam,  I set myself a deadline. Yes, it’s an artificial deadline. It’s a self-imposed deadline. But it’s a deadline. For the purpose of accountability, I spoke to my agent several months ago and announced my rather optimistic goal to finish the manuscript for shopping in mid-September. Well, the closer that day’s gotten, the more unreachable that goal became. Until finally, last week, after much hand-wringing, I phoned my agent and confessed, “I’m not gonna make my deadline.” She consoled me, saying, “Don’t worry about a timeline. Just write your best possible story.”  I countered, “You don’t understand. I need to set myself a deadline. If not, I’ll just keep adding rooms.”

So now I have another deadline.

Yes, deadlines can cause you to miss things. Rushing a product out just to satisfy your publisher and/or capitalize on a trend (often the same thing) is not always conducive to quality. Skyscrapers take decades to build; outhouses, a couple days. But even skyscrapers can suffer design flaws. As can outhouses. Likewise, there’s things about my first two novels I would change. But spending more time on your novel is NO guarantee you can make it right. So as much as I #amwriting, there’s a time when I #amFINISHEDwriting. Appreciating both exorcises many a ghost.

Sure, there’s always another room to add, another fireplace, ballroom, or staircase. But like poor Sarah Winchester, don’t allow death to be the thing that finalizes your work in progress.

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Jennifer Major @Jjumping August 24, 2012, 6:27 AM

    I gave myself a deadlne of mid-September to have queries written. AND sent.

    The WIP in and of itself stands done and mostly polished, yet I still poke around in the corners ,tweaking this and that. Last night, I added two kinds of 1880’s barbed wire and the discussion of their suitability. Cuz THAT alone means the difference between a contract and a round file. Uh huh.

    I hae the sequal mapped and another 3 stand alones waiting in the wings, but it’s hard to let go of the baby.

  • Kessie August 24, 2012, 7:47 AM

    Hm. You’re right. Once draft 5 is finished, out it goes and it’s on to something new.

  • Katherine Coble August 24, 2012, 9:16 AM

    I’m NOT pining for the day it will be finished.

    I’m dreading it.

  • Brian August 24, 2012, 9:26 AM

    Just one more room to go…

  • Jill August 24, 2012, 9:33 AM

    I’m a deadline junkie. I love deadlines. They give me thrills. But I could also edit endlessly until death did part me and whatever.

  • Jessica Thomas August 24, 2012, 9:35 AM

    I think it depends on what the writer’s goal is. If they’re striving for literary fiction I think they have to be patient and let the muse do its work. If it’s not right, it’s not right, and it can’t be pushed. Every word has to be carefully considered at least once, if not multiple times.

    Genre fiction is more conducive to deadlines. With genre fiction, as long as the story is told, it’s all good. Never mind some weak prose here, or some stereotypical characterization there.

    I’ve struggled with “who” I want to be as a writer, and I think I’ve settled on genre fiction with a little extra flair. I plan to shop the second draft of my current WIP. The lesson I learned in writing this last one is: plan, outline, plot, and get to know your characters first! Otherwise I’d wind up spending a decade on the thing just trying to fix the terrible parts, which is what I did with my first one. (Okay, so it’s been more than a decade.)

  • Julie Presley August 24, 2012, 1:26 PM

    Funny, my husband and I were just talking about this last night. My book is in E-book conversion right now, and I should be receiving the print proof, any minute (literally). I told him that next time I don’t want to have such a strict deadline and he said, “Then you’ll never finish it.” I think my problem was that we didn’t leave enough time between editing and the official “I must be done by” date ( and the fact that my editor was of the thousands evacuated from the fire in Colorado Springs in the middle of our process didn’t help either). I am so weary of this book and the whole process! Self publishing is NOT my favorite right now!

  • Becky Doughty August 24, 2012, 3:19 PM

    But those stairs that lead to a 4th floor exit (translate – sheer drop to the ground 30 feet below) are a GREAT way to get rid of bothersome characters….

    Thanks for the challenge, Mike. You’re spot on – I will edit eternally if I don’t cut myself off. I work best under pressure anyway – bring on the deadlines, baby!


  • Lyn Perry August 24, 2012, 8:09 PM

    It’s also rumored she invented the soap dish. So there’s that.

  • Marion August 28, 2012, 6:34 AM


    Thanks for this post and the reminder.

    I just started working on my third draft of my WIP and having a deadline helps. Usually, I would tend to agree with Jessica. However, you can keep working a novel and working on it and never be satisfied.

    Sometimes you have to finish a work and let it go before you can write something better.


  • Jenny Carlisle August 28, 2012, 7:03 PM

    This is so me. I must have a deadline. I recently received a suggestion from an agent to add 30-50,000 words to a completed manuscript. So, let’s see. How about by the end of 2012. Sounds like a long time, but it’s really not. If I get it done before then, so much the better.
    I am also in total agreement that we need to get our story to a place where we stop messing with it, unless someone pays us to do it!
    Thanks for a kick in the pants post!

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