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When is a novel truly done?

by | Mar 5, 2024 | Writing Process | 0 comments

How do you know when you’ve finished your novel?  I’m not talking about a first draft, or a second, or even a fifth. I’m referring to ‘never changing another word’ finished. Ever.

Answering this question can be tough, especially if you’re a perfectionist like me. There have been times when I’ve been sure that my manuscript is ready to be self-published or sent to an agent. I put it aside for a couple of weeks (because that’s what books about writing tell us to do). I reread it and still love it. But to be sure that I haven’t overlooked something, I give my novel to a beta reader or my critique group for one final once-over. When they suggest I make changes, out comes my red pen. I revise my manuscript, and my novel goes back to my beta readers/writing group, and the pattern repeats again and again.

 I know writers, myself included, who have been tweaking writing projects for years. Initially, my characters had landline phones, then Blackberries and flip phones, and now iPhones and Apple Watches. You get the picture. I do believe that the time and effort I pour into my projects has made me a better writer, but I’m not always sure that it’s massively improved my stories. In many instances, it’s just made them different. One novel that centered on grief is the exception. After experiencing a personal loss, I was able to convey the protagonist’s sadness, guilt, and anger more vividly because I waited to publish. But as I prepare to edit yet another novel, the question remains…when is it time to stop rewriting and put our stories out into the world?

  1. I had a writing group leader who regularly self-published detective and Western novels. He wrote and published them quickly, within six months. He ran them through our critique group, made the changes he deemed necessary, passed the project onto his proofreader, and uploaded the revised file onto Amazon. He was a very prolific, polished, and confident writer, and he had a quick and efficient process that worked for him.  I’m not saying that everyone should pump out novels like my group leader. But the importance of developing a process that works for you is something I learned from him.

Establishing and following a writing/editing process can help you to feel confident about your book and its readiness.  My writing group leader’s process had checks and balances. Objective fresh eyes read his work. His process also forced him to meet deadlines, and it kept him from getting bogged down in personal doubt. If you’ve followed the steps in your process and you’ve completed the last step, this is a sign that you are truly done with your novel.

  • Another way to gauge the readiness of your manuscript pertains to the response you receive from beta readers, critique group members, and agents and editors you’ve queried. (part of my group leader’s process) If their response to your piece is generally positive (they are not confused. They tell you that your story is believable and that they want to read on.) This tells you that your work is “finished.”
  • That said, one thing that’s tricky about relying on others’ impressions of your work pertains to the subjectivity of critiques. Because readers’ preferences vary, consider writing a list of goals and objectives for your novel. This is my daughter’s idea. I am a pantser, not someone who outlines and plots. So, when my marketing and media manager daughter told me I’d know when my novel was done when I’d met a specific set of criteria that I’d set for my novel, I was thrown at first. But after thinking, I’ve decided that her strategy has merit.  If you want to know if your novel is done, consider making a list of specific objects. It could be that you strive to write an entertaining, believable thriller about a Mommy blogger turned spy. Maybe it’s also important that you move your readers emotionally to the brink of tears. Perhaps you want to educate them about your Polish culture or the benefits of a vegan lifestyle. Whatever your goals are, list them. Meeting them is a sign that you’ve finished your novel.
  • Back to my writing group leader and the concept of deadlines and time. One thing that told me that my most recent novel was done was the passing of time. One afternoon, my husband asked me how long I’d been working on a particular novel. I did the math and realized that it had been nine years, not consistently, but off and on. After this revelation, I decided to stop rewriting it. PhDs are obtained in four to six years. White grapes are prime in five years and red grapes in ten years. The government limits the number of years the President can serve consecutively to eight years. Yet, I was still tweaking my novel after nine years. If you are rewriting your novel longer than the President is allowed to be in the White House, this is usually a good indicator that you need to stop.
  • Another sign that your novel is finished relates to your writing group’s response when you announce that you are going to ask them to read it yet again. If group members start to complain because they’ve read twelve different drafts or they refuse to read it all together, this is a sign that you need to decide your novel’s future. Either put it in a drawer and consider it a learning novel, send it to an agent, or self-publish.
  • When I believe my novel could be “finished,” I read it five or ten times from start to finish. If nothing pulls me out of the story—no spelling errors, no weak dialogue, no factual inconsistencies, no clumsy prose, no believability issues—then I know I am done rewriting.
  • Using an editing checklist when you revise your novel is another great tool that can help you determine when your novel is finished. The agent I worked with gave me a checklist to prepare my novel for editors. The Author’s Checklist by Elizabeth Kracht and Revision and Self-editing for Publication by James Scott Bell can both be used in a similar manner. Once you’ve gone through the checklist, you can be confident that you are done rewriting your novel.

The bottom line is that only you, the writer, knows when you’ve finished your novel. Sometimes, it’s a gut feeling, like the ending you’ve only just dreamed up feels perfect and right. Other times, the knowing comes from the sense that you’ve simply told the story you set out to tell. On occasion, if you’re truly lucky and you pay attention, the characters will tell you that you’re finished by speaking your truth and coming alive on the page.

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