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When is a Book Done?

Question of the day: I hear you on needing to revise the manuscript a bunch of times, but how do you know when the book is done and ready for submission?

This is one of the hardest questions that a writer can face, particularly a new or novice writer. Unfortunately, there is not magic answer: like, you can't follow a recipe, stick it in the oven at 350 degrees and pull it out and voila, it's done. (I've been watching a lot of The Great British Baking Show, in case you're wondering.)

I have a few thoughts, and then, because this is such a tricky question, I asked a few writer friends to weigh in as well. To begin with, I think you need to assume, when you are just getting your feet wet, that whenever you believe your ms is done - IT'S NOT. Too often, aspiring writers take the optimistic view of their draft (and I don't mean that we don't all think our writing is terrible at some point - I'm strictly talking about when a book is ready to go out into the world). I really encourage you to instead, take the pessimistic view. I don't mean this to be a downer; rather I mean it as a way to step back and take the ms apart and see all the ways that it is going wrong. Revising is the most important part of writing, and to be honest, your second and third drafts should be very, very, very heavy with revisions. This means that you have to be very critical, as well as objective. You are going to have to cut plot lines, you are going to have to rewrite or delete characters, it may mean, in the case of my debut, that you cut the first 100 pages entirely. 

From there, and this like the above, is easier said than done, I think it is super-important that you find someone you trust (not just like) who can give you objective feedback. This is not your best friend, this is not your mom, and it's probably not your spouse/partner either. This person needs to be comfortable saying: this didn't work for me; try this; this needs to be changed, etc. And you need to be ok hearing it. I don't have great counsel on finding the right match - maybe it's in a class, maybe it's in a book group, maybe it's an online friend who writes like you do - but eyes that aren't your own really matter.

So back to your original question: when is it done? A few author friends weigh in below with very good advice that I agree with. I think some of this just comes down to experience, which isn't helpful, I know. But at a certain point for me, usually after about 5-7 drafts, I can feel and see the book humming along in ways that earlier drafts weren't. But the only way I know that is to write the revisions until everything clicks into place. I guess my point here is that if you do the work, eventually, the work takes on a different shape than the earlier drafts and you can see that shape is the correct one. So keep going!

Here are some other insights: 

-"I always say that I'm done when I can no longer tell if the changes I'm making are helping or hurting. (After, of course, my critique partners have gotten a hold of it and I've already revised a few times over.) At some point, you're rearranging deck chairs and it's time to send it out into the world and hope for the best. It's going to be an arbitrary decision on some level. If I still had my debut novel in manuscript form, I'm sure I'd find something to edit." - Kristina Riggle, author of Vivian in Red, out in paperback on August 15th

-"I have to admit I am not always good at knowing when my books are done. Having trusted readers is absolutely essential to my process. Not the same for everyone, but I rely on fresh eyes that aren't my own to help me see whether a particular draft has accomplished the goals I set for it." - Greer McCallister, author of Girl in Disguise

-"I once read — I think it was in A Writer's Time — that exhaustion is the sign. Once you've reached that stage, you're done. Also, I notice that the changes I make on successive drafts begin to get more and more sparse, and of the comma-in-comma-out variety. 
Another sign: your publisher's insistence. I appear only to be really and truly done when my publisher pushes my book out the door and into the world. Another quote from somewhere, 'Publication puts a forcible end to the writing process.' I could revise forever, however, and DO. As soon as the newly published book arrives, I put one on the shelf marked "changes." Another sign of ending: you're ready to move on to another book. This is of the "a book is not so much as finished, as abandoned" school of thought." - Sandra Gulland, author of The Shadow Queen

-"This was definitely something I needed to learn along the way. When I was in my early 20s, I wrote a novel. I literally typed the last sentence of the first draft and thought..."I'm done! Now I'm going to be famous!" Like an idiot, I sent it to some agents. One wrote back and very nicely explained to me that it was clearly an early draft and I had a long way to go. This was further solidified in grad school when I more officially learned that "writing" is really "rewriting,"...over and over and over, like a crazy person." - Matt Norman, author of We're All Damaged

And then, perhaps the most honest: 

-"I think it's done when I can't bear to look at it one more time." - Cathy Buchanan, author of The Painted Girls

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