How Do You Know When Your Novel Is Finished?

by Carla Douglas

Image by m kasahara (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Is this the curse of digital publishing – that you can tweak your book to death?

What are the signals that tell you your book is done? Perhaps you are a faithful and detailed outliner, and according to your map, you’ve reached your destination. All the plot points are covered. The story arcs beautifully, the sub-plots are wrapped up nicely and you’ve guided the narrative to a smooth, satisfying dénouement. Congratulations. Hit publish.

Slowly the reviews appear – some are glowing, some are critical, maybe overly so. You bask in the positive, take the hyper-critical with a grain of salt, and perhaps even come to agree with some of the criticism, which you will keep in mind when you write your next book.

Or maybe you are more like this: You also hit publish and wait for reviews. But then you fret over the negative comments, doubting anew your decisions about everything from the names you’ve chosen to how the story ends to character and motivation. You take reviewers’ opinions to heart, and before you know it, you’re going back into your file and making changes. You begin with barely perceptible adjustments, changing punctuation, rearranging sentences. Adding a paragraph here, deleting one there. You may even alter the plot. You upload the book again, and then again.

Why? Maybe you had doubts from the beginning; maybe a review has pointed out an obvious weakness that you simply must address. Maybe. But the real reason you keep going back in there and tweaking that novel is because you can.

What’s wrong with this?

By all means, go in and correct obvious errors like typos and formatting glitches. Your readers will thank you. But if you are unduly influenced by reviewers’ words and you can’t resist the urge to adjust and tweak, stop and ask yourself this: Whose book am I writing?

I asked novelist Melanie Dugan how she knows when a piece of writing is finished. Here is her thoughtful response:

I agree that it can be tempting to keep tweaking a book or story too much. It’s like drawing; anyone who has studied drawing knows there’s a moment, if you work and work and work on a piece, when you can push it too far, and a drawing that was perhaps imperfect, but had life and movement in it, loses that sense of life and movement and dies, pure and simple. Something goes out of it, some kind of energy, and it becomes static and less interesting. Same thing with a story or novel. I believe nothing is perfect, and you have to make peace with that and sometimes settle for imperfection. Part of learning the craft of writing is learning when to stop.

And knowing when to stop goes hand in hand with confidence – the confidence to just let your book be out there, like a bird, instead of trying to wind it back in and control its path, like a kite.

Do read the reviews, if you like, and where criticism is constructive, learn from it and apply it to your next book. But continuing to meddle with a book you’ve already published is like trying to change the past – into one, perhaps, in which the parents stay together and the dog doesn’t die. By heeding too closely the opinions of others, you risk trying to please everyone, and we all know how that story ends.

*Of course you’ve also undergone a rigorous editing process, right? You have a smashing cover at the ready, and your novel has been proofed and formatted inside and out.

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2 thoughts on “How Do You Know When Your Novel Is Finished?

  1. Good post, Carla! Excellent points. I am a tweaker. I find it hard to stop going back and messing with my writing, even if it’s just a blog post. This got me thinking: leave well enough alone! (Wonder where that expression came from?)

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