My first thought when I hear these stories is that maybe, just maybe, it's time to, you know, move on?
I can't imagine what would happen if I had finished my first novel and then spent years of my life revising that one poor, tired, miserable thing. How would I ever learn? How would I grow?
Now I'm sure that there are success stories out there about authors who have picked away at that novel for ten years and finally gotten it published, etc. But think about how much more could they have accomplished if they just. Moved. On.
My take on the situation is this- I write a novel, I do my personal best to make sure it's in good shape. I see if there is interest. While I'm waiting for responses from query letters, I work on my next piece. If the response isn't what I'd hoped for, I move on to trying to sell my next project, which- theoretically- is in better shape than the previous one, because I've had more practice. I figure that eventually, I will have enough experience under my belt to write a salable novel.
Maybe once I reach that point, I will go back and fix what is wrong with my previous work- because I will then know what is wrong and have the skill to fix it in a reasonable time frame. I would also have someone on my side to give me knowledgeable feedback regarding where things went wrong (ie: agent or editor), so that I'm not wasting time making revisions of my revisions of my revisions...
I think that for an unpublished author to spend so much time on something is counter productive. We are still learning what works, still finding our groove. It's entirely possible at this point that what I think is a mega, awesome, stellar story idea is actually...not. How terrible would it be to spend three, or five, or ten years of my life re-writing a story that sucked? And realistically speaking, it's hard for new writers to be objective about their work. So would you ever know?
Scary, isn't it?
I'll be the first to admit, I probably under-revise. I feel like if something isn't working, it's out and the new stuff is in (so ruthless!). I'll come back to it later. I just want to keep moving forward and never lose my momentum.
If you are in the mood to laugh at yourself and this thing called writing, I suggest the Terrible Minds blog. Every time I visit the blog, I laugh until I cry. In one post, they outline the 25 Things You Should Know About Writing.
"But You Also Have to Know When to Leave Well Enough Alone
Seriously, you have to stop sometime. You whip mashed potatoes too long they get gluey. Comes a time when you need to stop fucking with a novel the same way you stop tonguing a chipped tooth. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Write till it’s good, not till it’s perfect. Because you don’t know shit about perfect. Aim squarely for a B+, and then it’s time to let others have a shot in getting the novel to that A/A+ range."
So, how do you know when to put a book on the shelf (for now) and stop revising? Do you have a set number of revisions? Do you set time frames? Does it just depend on how much hair you have left after you finish the current draft?