My husband and I have a phrase we use to describe the work that you didn’t anticipate on a creative project, the changes you could probably ignore and still have a story that’s “good enough” and you’re so tired of working on it that you’re sorely tempted to just call it done, but it’s not done, so you keep pushing. We call it Last Mile Stuff. (Sometimes “stuff” is replaced with a different “s” word, depending on how frustrated we find ourselves.)
Poetic, I know. I don’t even remember when we started using that phrase. I just googled it to see if it popped up somewhere we might have stolen it from, but I think maybe we invented it (feel free to contradict me in the comments).
In my mind it conjures the image of a long race, maybe even an ultra marathon, and you’ve come so far, and you just want to be done, but there’s one more mile to go. You can’t quit now.
In The Thick Of It
I am deep in the Last Mile Stuff these days. After finishing the last draft in August I was sure I was done, then my husband had an idea for the middle chapter that I loved, so I took some time to figure it out and rewrite. Then I noticed other things that needed changing, and so on. What I’ve realized through the process is that this chapter is a critical turning point for the story. It has to deal with the immediate challenges of the narrative, but it also has to set up everything that’s to come.
So I keep rewriting it, and rewriting it. And once I get this chapter how I want it, I’ll have to go through the rest of the manuscript to polish up some details that will have to change (ripple effects of changing the middle chapter). It’s exhausting. All I want is to be done. I thought I WAS done, months ago, and yet I’m still sitting here working.
Worth The Work
The main thing I try to keep in mind is that this Last Mile Stuff is when a project goes from “fine” to “good.” Maybe even great. If I had stopped in August, I’m guessing my agent could have probably sold it. It was fine. But it keeps getting better in subtle, resonant ways. Themes are emerging that I didn’t even know were there.
Another thing I try to remind myself is that any deadlines I had in my head were just that: in my head. I had really hoped to have it to my agent before the end of the year, but there’s no way that’s happening. January, maybe. It’s not like I’m that far off, but there are several steps I still want to take:
- I like to use Scrivener’s word frequency function to look for weird words I use way too often. Example: in my last book, I noticed I used the word “cock” dozens of times (which might have been okay if I was writing a steamy romance, but in this case, I used it OVER and OVER to describe head movement). I mean, seriously, the amount of times my characters cocked their heads was ridiculous.
- Then I like to search for weak verbs (looked, sat, walked) and boring descriptions (why use red, when I can use crimson or scarlet or berry?).
- After that I read it out loud to myself and record it. Nothing fancy, but when I did this with my last book (even after I was sure it was done) I found SO many things that didn’t sound right.
- Then, ideally, I would stick it in a drawer for a month and then read it again one more time.
Will I have the patience for all this Last Mile Stuff? The way I see it, I have no choice. I’ve come too far with this project to half-ass the final details. All I can do is dig in, keep trudging forward, and do the work.
Carol Cronin says
Thanks for this. I just went through a similar “resolution” to ignore my self-imposed “I need to finish this by” deadline. Even after my agent told me to take as much time as I needed, it’s hard to do! And you’re totally right: the last mile is where stuff goes from good to great or not-fine to fine or even unputdownable. All those little details have to align with the beam of the story, and that takes time and effort. (It’s also the fun part.)
Good luck with your LMS and thanks again for the reminder that I’m not alone.
Thank Carol, those self-imposed deadlines are tricky, aren’t they? Glad to hear your agent is encouraging you to take your time (and that you’re listening). Good luck with the LMS! We’re in it together!