Friday, October 28, 2016

TURN HERE! (How to Know When Your Work is Ready to Go Out) by Shutta Crum

Recently, I was on a road trip to Maine with family. There were four of us, plus two google-navigating cell phones, one road atlas and a GPS device to “bind them all.” Needless to say, whoever was driving was besieged by three or four opinions about where to turn and which was the best route. (After the GPS led us on a few merry dead-ends, we could only partially count on her expertise.) 

The driver was in the unenviable position of glancing at the GPS map, listening to our arguments about where to turn, and our mutterings about how the way was lost in the gutter—this by the one who kept peering at the printed road atlas. And, of course, there was the voice of unembodied reason who calmly directed us to “turn here,” into a cranberry bog. (We did not. But we sat there for a good while scratching our heads.)

I won’t argue that one should never listen to a wide range of opinions on many things, but sometimes we need to remember that the driver has control of the wheel. Ultimately, the driver will make the decisions. This holds true for creatives who will at some point say, have I turned a corner? Is my work ready to go out into the world? But what a scary point along the trip that can be!

You worry, is my work polished enough? Have I done everything I wanted to? Have I put as much heart into the piece as I am capable of? What if it’s too rough? Or God forbid, what if it’s amateurish?

I have a writer friend who’s been tinkering with his novel for many years. When he reads, critique partners tell him “do this.” “Go this way.” “Back-up.” “Head back the way you were going.” Poor driver, bewildered writer.

Not long ago I got an email saying, he was sending it out. He wasn’t “getting any younger.”  Yes! I was so glad to hear this, for there simply comes a point at which you must trust your gut and go for it. Then it is better to tune out the multiple voices—often conflicting ones, of turn here, no there! And you may need to overrule the calm voice of rote intelligence. After all, you can spend years traveling in circles, following written or online instructions to make your work a pièce de résistance and still end up facing a cranberry bog and scratching your head.

Shutta's new middle grade novel
Having said all this, now it’s time for me to give you my own bit of back-seat advice. However, you’re the driver; you may heed it, or not. Perhaps you need time to ponder the cranberry bog and shut out all the voices. A good rest at a peaceful spot can do wonders. But when you’re ready to carry on and get your creative work out I think there are only a few questions you need to answer for yourself.
  1. Have I spent time “re-envisioning” my work so that it feels complete to me? (Not just noodled with the sentences. That’s editing, not revising.)
  2. Have I spent time re-envisioning my work so that it feels smooth to me?
  3. Have I spent time re-envisioning my work so that it feels alive to me?
  4. Can I tell someone, in one or two sentences, what it’s about? 
These are not easy questions to answer. But answer, you must.
  1. Complete: have I given my audience as much as is needed to arrive at the heart of my work? 
  2. Smooth: Have I paved the way to the heart of my work so my audience won’t get lost traveling there? 
  3. Alive: Have I breathed into my work the emotion necessary so that my audience will be eager to travel there? 
  4. (Question #4 is self-evident.)
Even after many books, I don’t always feel confident answering these questions for myself. But I do. I must. I can’t sit here, lost in front of a bog forever... no matter how beautiful it is. I grip the wheel and make my turn...

Shutta is a long time member of SCBWI, primarily published by Knopf and Clarion. Her latest middle-grade novel is WILLIAM AND THE WITCH’S RIDDLE (2016, Knopf) which came out to glowing reviews “A fast-paced story excellent for adventure lovers.” (Booklist). She’ll have a new picture book out in 2017, MOUSELING’S WORDS (Clarion). Visit:

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Learn more about SCBWI-MI Shop Talks, Capital City Writers Association, and an SCBWI Magazine Merit Award Winner, but first, it's time for another Writer's Spotlight. Who will it be? 

See you next Friday!
Kristin Lenz


  1. Great post, Shutta! It's a keeper. Sending out a mockup this week! My gut says it's ready.

  2. Great advice, Shutta. I'm like your friend who has tinker forever and needs to learn when to say that's enough editing.

  3. Such important questions to ask! Thank you, Shutta!

    1. You're welcome, Dana. I always dance around with these questions, myself.


  4. Great advice, Shutta! Thank you for the post!

  5. This is terrific, Shutta. We always hear the advice to get out of our own way, finish the work and quit dithering over it, send it out because we aren't getting any younger. You go deeper, though. You give suggestions for analyzing where we're at and whether we're ready. Thank you -- I'll be passing this blog post to other writers who need to read it. It's really nicely done.

    1. Thanks, Ruth. Sometimes I think it's just a matter of not wanting "your baby" to go out into the world and grow-up. But it has to...