How do you know when your book is finished?

 

You could edit a book for ever – so how do you know when to stop?

First of all, apologies for this post being so late. We’ve had massive internet blackout chez Morris and no joy from the online help people. This post is being brought to you from a thin-walled internet cafe under a gurgly bathroom in which a gentleman appears to be having a very productive cough. But, like him, I feel so good to get it out at last.

Anyway, on with the post. I’ve had a great question from Tara Benwell: How do you know when to stop editing your novel, especially when you hear different advice from different editors and readers?

Novel-writing must be the ultimate artform for editors and perfectionists. Unlike painting, where too much tinkering might turn a strong piece to mush, most books – fiction or non-fiction – only get better with repeated attention.

Indeed, getting a novel right is such a complex job you could edit for ever and some writers would if the writing universe would let them. So how do we tell when it’s safe to stop tweaking?

Is it your first?

If it’s your first novel, it’s particularly hard to know when to stop. Your first novel is the book that teaches you to write. Baby steps turn to giant leaps and by the time you have a polished draft you’re eager to see if it’s a contender. But many first-time writers query before the manuscript is really ready.

If you have edited until you can’t think of anything more to do, and you feel the story is sharp and sparkling, don’t send it to an agent or publisher. Give it to a trusted reader. It doesn’t have to be an industry professional, but it does have to be someone whose literary judgement you trust and who will give you an honest opinion. Then digest their commentary, be surprised at their insights and your blind spots, dust yourself off and edit again.

 

Time to stop being solitary

Writing is primarily a solitary activity – at least while we’re doing it. But all the writers I know reach a point where they need feedback from their trusted readers. Finishing is something we all have trouble with and no writer I know can do it without help.

Different advice?

Tara’s obviously gone through these stages and has discovered a new joy in critical feedback – conflicting suggestions. Make it a thriller, no, make it a romantic suspense. Make chapter seven the prologue; no, get rid of all that material in chapter 7. Put the parrot centre stage; no, get rid of the infernal parrot. There’s clearly something wrong in the manuscript, but which advice do you follow?

To make sense of conflicting advice, you have to delve a little deeper into your critics’ expectations. What kind of book did they think they were reading? Is it what they usually like to read? Were they comparing it to one that is already on the market? If you know that, you can see why they made their suggestions – and can decide if that is the way you want your book to go.

Conflicting advice from agents and publishers

Sometimes this kind of feedback comes from agents or publishers. As above, this might indicate there is a flaw that needs fixing – in which case, work out which advice fits best with the kind of book you want to write. But wildly conflicting advice might also be an indication that the publisher wants to slot it into a spot in the market that it doesn’t yet fit. Your book may be perfectly good as it is, but these days a quality book doesn’t automatically earn a deal.

So should you make those changes? It’s worth considering if there is a guarantee that they will publish – but there isn’t always and you could do all that work for nothing. Should you carry on looking for a home where your book fits better? After all, fashions change. Every case is different and it’s a tough call.

Great novels aren’t finished, they’re pushed out of the nest

I’m going to let you in on a secret. None of us published writers ever think we’ve finished our novels. Allow any of us to pick up our work again six months after finishing and we’ll find things to change, think of better ways to skin the cat or save it. We’ll read favourite passages and suck our teeth. Editing is kind of anxiety habit for not doing it all perfectly the first time. We all have a feeling that we could do this novel just a teensy bit better with one more pass.

But at some stage the sand runs out of the hourglass, the imperfections we notice get smaller and smaller, our inner circle of readers are happy and we push it nervously out of the nest.

Finished is a relative term

And then there are degrees of finished. When the manuscript reaches an agent or publishing house, it comes back with queries and notes. Just like your beta readers, your agent or editor will raise questions you’d never dreamed could be asked about your plot, make inferences about your characters that you hadn’t a clue were possible – and you’ll feel like you’re back to square one.

In reality, a book is finished when everybody is reasonably happy.

If you don’t have a deadline, how do you know when to stop?

There are people who refine the same book for ever, but maybe they’re not doing any good. Perhaps they’re polishing so far it’s down to the bare metal. Or they’re constantly reinventing their style by redoing the same story when they should start a new one.

As writers we’re learning and changing all the time. If I’d started my current WIP five years ago I wouldn’t do it the way I’m doing it now. We write our books according to the writer we are at the moment. Some tricks and devices I thought were smart five years ago I wouldn’t use now. To me they’re obvious, although readers may not mind them at all. They only matter to me as I develop my art. I’m not interested in the same themes, problems and types of character as I was half a decade ago. So I do the book as well as I can at the moment, make sure it works on its own terms and for the people who will read it, and move onto a new phase of my writing life.

Is the book finished?

In the end, all we can do is build our trust in the book and let it go.

Thank you, Pinkmoose on Flickr, for the photo.

How do you know when your book is finished? Share in the comments – I may not get to them immediately, but I love a good discussion and I’ll reply as quickly as possible

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  1. #1 by Pippa Jay on December 14, 2010 - 10:19 am

    This time last year, I said my book was finished. Yet it’s currently undergoing yet another edit. Will it be finished then? Not unless someone decides to publish it and takes it away from me!
    To be fair, the edit this time is to convert it to US spelling as I didn’t find an agent in the UK to take it, so I’m moving it state-side at a friend’s suggestion. She’s also volunteered to critique it – she’s a published author, so I trust her judgement. I’ve taken on board comments by other readers across a broad spectrum who, surprisingly, agreed on a few small points that needed tweaking.
    I’m never going to see this book as ‘finished’. As you say, there’s always something I feel could be written better a year down the line.

    • #2 by rozmorris on December 14, 2010 - 8:12 pm

      Pippa, I know that feeling so well – I think the book cannot possibly be more finished than it is, but a few months later it’s as though weeds have grown between all the perfect bits. Best of luck with your American venture.

  2. #4 by deescribewriting on December 14, 2010 - 11:01 am

    Great post,

    I really loved the bit about novels being pushed out of the nest:)

    Thanks for sharing.

    • #5 by rozmorris on December 14, 2010 - 8:17 pm

      … With the angst-ridden writer wringing her hands!

  3. #6 by M. McGriff on December 14, 2010 - 3:38 pm

    This is a wonderful post! As a writer who is working on her first book, I know my perfectionist tendencies can get the best of me (translates editing forever!). What helps me with that is finding a group of people who read the genre I’m writing in that can give me great feedback on my work as I go along the editing process.

    And, like you said, you have to reach a point where you take your novel, close your eyes, and let it go!

    • #7 by rozmorris on December 14, 2010 - 8:22 pm

      It’s not easy, is it? I wonder how they ever finished the Never-Ending Story…

  4. #8 by Tara Benwell on December 14, 2010 - 3:40 pm

    Roz,
    I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write this. I just adore your writing style and am eagerly waiting for Nail your Novel to arrive in my mailbox. I especially love this part: “We write our books according to the writer we are at the moment. ” This may have a lot to do with why I want to give my #1 wings whether or not everyone is reasonably pleased with it or not. I did most of the writing before I became a mother and while my babies were young and now, well, I’m a different writer and a totally different person-busy in different ways and ready to shift my focus to #2. What you described about agents and editors is exactly what I seem to be going through. And, I totally believe that #1 was meant to teach me how to write. Still, you can’t help wanting to give it life after so much time and effort, which is why I’m considering self-publishing. Thanks again for this amazing post. Time to bookmark, share, reflect, and get back to #2.

    • #9 by rozmorris on December 14, 2010 - 8:32 pm

      Thanks, Tara! And sometimes first novels don’t have the legs to compete in the outside world – but the subsequent ones do because of all that was gone through with the first. Good luck with #2 but keep #1 in a handy place – because you never know when you might find just the right way to work it.

  5. #10 by tahliaN on December 14, 2010 - 11:53 pm

    I thought mine (#1) was finished about four times. The first time was after I’d had feedback from 4 trusted readers. Agents rejected it so I looked at it again. Sent it out and got an agent, she asked for 19000 words less. I did it. I had another 6 readers give feedback – they loved it. My agent sent it out.

    4 months later she asked me to look at it again in line with some publishers feedback. I took one look and said – I can do better and I am. I’m going to leave it another couple of months after this edit before sending it back to my agent. My learnig from this process is – don’t rush.

    • #11 by rozmorris on December 15, 2010 - 9:09 am

      Tahlia, that’s so true – it’s vital not to rush. And like you I had some feedback from my agent which led me to make far deeper revisions than the ones originally suggested. And I’m pleased I was led to make them.

  6. #12 by Paul Greci on December 15, 2010 - 12:03 am

    Great post, Roz. Especially love the last paragraph and this quote: “We write our books according to the writer we are at the moment.” It’s so important to keep moving forward to the next moment and the next one in our journey as writers. And that’s a lot of the fun of writing, too. Thanks!

    • #13 by rozmorris on December 15, 2010 - 9:02 am

      Thanks, Paul! I always think that although fiction books aren’t autobiographical in a literal sense, they are extremely autobiographical on a deeper level – changing as we change.

  7. #14 by erikamarks on December 15, 2010 - 12:31 am

    Hi Roz–sorry to hear about the internet hiccups but so glad you’re back on line! Don’t we all angst over this one? For me, I was so thrilled to hand over my novel to my editor knowing it was going to production because I knew that I would NEVER feel truly finished unless someone actually took it from me and said, Guess what? You’re done!

    I think it is so much harder when the novel is your first, or if it’s out on submission, round after round, and then I think it takes, not surprisingly, the agent to say, We’ve run this out to the end and now it’s time to move on to another book–otherwise, the urge to tweak “one more time” is so strong.

    I’ve always sort of equated putting away a novel and starting on a new one with the hopes of going back to the old one eventually, like taking a break from a beau and seeing someone new…the fact is, you usually DON’T go back to the old beau, and there’s a reason for that–moving forward is good–in love AND writing!

    Thanks again for a great post, Roz!

    • #15 by rozmorris on December 15, 2010 - 9:04 am

      Thanks Erika – like the comparison! Sometimes it’s much better to move on!

  8. #16 by Amanda Hoving on December 16, 2010 - 1:52 pm

    “If you don’t have a deadline, how do you know when to stop?” Boy, this hits home with me, since I am the queen of procrastination. I’m actually writing a post about this — about making New Year’s deadlines instead of resolutions. That’s the only way I get things done ;)

    Though a work is never “finished,” I know I’m ready to send it out when I can read the piece out loud without pause (as in WTH is going on here?) or stutter (over the language).

    • #17 by rozmorris on December 16, 2010 - 2:35 pm

      Amanda, that’s a good test – a lot of people read their work out loud. I was going to put they swear by it, but that’s probably a Freudian slip.
      I like the sound of your holiday post – just hopping over to your blog to check I’m subscribed…

  9. #18 by Steve on December 16, 2010 - 6:07 pm

    Roz – Fist time poster, new novelist. Your blog and writing style is delightful and refreshing. So direct, so “on point”. I find your advice different than most of the other writer’s blogs that I’ve happened upon over the past years. Yours is more practical. And answers some unique questions that writers ask themselves during their writing process, but never get answered in any books or blogs, an example being your Call me Ishmael blog from the past month.

    I certainly couldn’t delay in ordering your book from Lulu, which will undoubtedly have more “punch” in its taut pages than weeks of my scouring website and blog posts. It’s on order to my mailbox. Thank you, Roz.

    • #19 by rozmorris on December 19, 2010 - 12:03 am

      Wow, Steve – welcome to Nail Your Novel and thank you very much! I try to write about the issues I’m wrestling with myself, or whatever clarifies something about our ongoing thirst to make sense of the world.

  10. #20 by Ollin on December 16, 2010 - 11:43 pm

    Great advice DirtyWhiteCandy! {Interesting name btw, I paused a bit when I wrote it. hehe}

    I’ll have to keep that in mind as start the next phase of the novel process: editing and getting feedback. Oh boy. By the way, I want to thank you so much for sharing me with your readers by retweeting my article. I appreciate it! :)

    • #21 by rozmorris on December 19, 2010 - 12:05 am

      Ollin – my pleasure, I enjoyed your article. Your blog has a lot of devoted fans, and rightly so. Good luck with the feedback – it’s nerve-wracking for all of us, first-timers or old-timers.

  11. #22 by Laura Pauling on January 17, 2011 - 2:17 pm

    It’s hard to know. I go through the macro, micro and word level and let it sit for a bit even thought it’s hard. I try and do most of my structural rewriting during the plotting phase. I know that sounds crazy and things always change during the writing process. But I really look at my concept and overall direction before I write to make sure it’s worth it. Great post!

  12. #23 by victoriacollins1 on August 9, 2011 - 11:59 pm

    Thanks so much for this, it’s so helpful – I linked out from my blog on same topic: http://victoria-collins.com/2011/08/10/how-do-you-know-when-the-book-is-finished/

    I thought I knew when my book was done. I’ve learned now (I think..) that the way to know you’re NOT done is what your heart says. I was proud of my book and convinced myself I’d taken it as far as I could – but I realised I was hoping an editor might help me take it further. Which says, I thought it could go further. It wasn’t really singing. It wasn’t as big and exciting as I wished. Off now, to rewrite the rewrite of the rewrite!

    • #24 by rozmorris on August 10, 2011 - 8:00 am

      Good luck with the rewrite of the rewrite, Victoria! As time goes on, your radar does get more reliable, and you’re able to solve more of the problems on your own. Keep at it! BTW, I like what you’ve done with your blog design – like mine but with typography twiddles. Very nice.

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