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Becoming a Writer: How Do I Know When I’m Finished?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Becoming a WriterWhen he revamped the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas said, “Movies are never finished, they’re only ever abandoned.” (Adapting a quote by da Vinci: “Art is never finished, just abandoned.”)

I’m not quite sure I agree with that sentiment, but I know there are plenty of authors who do.

I’ve written before about contest addicts who spend all of their writing energy revising their first three chapters and never moving on to new story ideas, or finishing their manuscript. And, as I shared last time, my favorite advice is: Finish Your Manuscript.

But other than the idea that finishing a manuscript means you’re moving forward in your writing, I hadn’t really thought through all the reasons why it’s important. Until I met fellow writer Julie Dearyan for coffee and dessert the other night and we talked about our experiences with finishing manuscripts. And I realized: there is a certain euphoria, a certain feeling of accomplishment, of fulfillment, that comes from finishing a manuscript.

But once you’ve written “The End,” does that mean you’re “finished” with that manuscript?

For the first three manuscripts I completed, I was finished with them as soon as I wrote the last line. Why? Because I was already thinking about the next project, and I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to do anything with them. They were learning exercises. What was I learning? How to finish a manuscript. How to take what I learned about crafting a complete story—beginning, middle, climax, ending, character arcs, plotting, etc.—and apply it to new characters and ideas. Learning to finish a manuscript also leads to another very important lesson: learning to start a new story idea.

For Stand-In Groom, I had a “finish by” date I was working toward: the date it was due to be submitted in its “final” version for my master’s degree. When I finished the first draft, it definitely wasn’t “done” because I’d introduced a major plot point (George keeping his identity secret and pretending to be the groom) about halfway through writing the first draft. So I was mentally rewriting the first twelve or so chapters even as I was writing the end of the novel. Once I completed the second draft, I went through two additional revisions based on feedback from my grad school mentor; but even after I submitted it—for my master’s and for the contest I entered it into that year—I realized the opening still needed some tweaking. But by the time I did that, I was ready to move on, to be finished with it. And that’s when I knew it was “done.” After that, the few changes that I made to it were “edits,” based on feedback from my editor at Barbour.

With Ransome’s Honor, I thought it was finished when I submitted it to Chip to start shopping around back at the end of 2007. When the feedback came from Harvest House, the only publisher that showed any interest in it, that they thought it started too slowly and that the heroine was in too negative of a headspace in the first chapter, so they thought a prologue might be helpful, I actually ended up adding a completely new dimension to the backstory of the two main characters, which necessitated quite a few revisions when they did ask for the full manuscript. When I did my final revision of the manuscript for my contracted deadline, I tweaked even a few more things—some based on the editor’s feedback, some because it’s something I hadn’t noticed on previous revisions. So is it “done” now? Yes, until I get my final edits back from my editor there.

Over dessert the other night, Julie brought up another interesting point: if you have an old, worn-out piece of furniture in your living room, you probably walk right past it every day without really thinking much about it; or, if you do, it’s just a passing thought that you eventually need to do something about it. But until you get a new replacement, you don’t realize just how old and worn-out the old one was. It’s the same way with our manuscripts. If we just keep “sitting” on the old one—constantly going over it and revising, editing, revising, rewriting, editing, etc.—we’ll never realize just how wonderful and important to our writing journeys starting something new is.

Until you move on—even if you feel like you’re abandoning that manuscript—you’ll never know what you might be capable of as a writer. The revision process is not a creative process. It’s analytical. It’s critical. It’s math versus painting. It’s science versus poetry. While you may enjoy both, it uses a completely different part of your brain. When you spend all your writing time revising something that’s already completed, you aren’t priming the creative pump, you aren’t exercising your imagination, you aren’t feeding the muse. You aren’t writing.

So when is your novel finished?

That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself, but you do have to ask yourself: are the tweaks you’re making to it actually improving the story or are you just tweaking it because you don’t want to let the story go and you’ll find any excuse necessary to keep working on it? A novel is kind of like a marble sculpture. You want to chisel away anything that doesn’t belong, but one strike of the chisel too many and it’s damaged, if not ruined.

If you aren’t sure, set it aside and start working on something new. And if you don’t already have an idea for something new, take the time to try to find something new to start developing.

  1. Wednesday, February 11, 2009 9:02 am

    My biggest problem with letting go is that I’m constantly learning and therefore there is always something that needs fixing. Know what I mean?

    So excited to see you’ve opened up your editing services. What a great deal for the Genesis Contest submissions. If I get through this “just another” tweak session, I may be calling on your services!


  2. Wednesday, February 11, 2009 10:52 am

    Sooo true. I decided to set aside my manuscript for a few weeks while I started on the sequel. Not only was it actually “nice” to get away from it, 😉 but I was able to see it through fresh new eyes.


  3. Wednesday, February 11, 2009 11:50 am

    Hi Kaye!
    What fun to meet for dessert and coffee though I have to admit the sugar free cheesecake had nothng on the very real, very rich creme brulee. Sad.

    And I think you are right about finishing! I’m only a few pages away from finishing my novel and I can’t wait. And I feel ready to edit as well, something I don’t often feel after I finish a project.

    God bless you in all of your writing endeavors.


  4. Wednesday, February 11, 2009 6:00 pm

    Having a semi-solid structure before I start (from the original folktale) I find myself working with an image like stepping stones across the [body of water].

    I have elements that need to be covered, providing the path. Sometimes (twice in the last week) I have to introduce scenes I hadn’t foreseen, and that pushes the ending further out, but it’s still approaching.

    It will still need revising (I’ve been making plot notes like “foreshadow here” and “repetition there” to add on my next pass thought), but I expect to feel a huge weight of *done* once I finally have a clear beginning-to-end.

    I will admit, though, and be open to any advice/encouragement from someone more experienced, that I’ve gotten more and more nervous as I’m reaching the end. Like I’m afraid I won’t be able to wrap it up right, even though I’ve got everything– mathematically– lined up to end properly.


  5. Thursday, February 12, 2009 7:20 am

    This has become a pattern with me on the last 3 novels of mine – I usually do about 4 major revisions after the first draft. Then I think yes I’m done. I get ready to move on and then someone points out something and that “small” something leads to me revamping a good portion of the novel (which has always up to this point been for the better).

    That big revision though leaves me with about another 2-3 revisions after that (to catch all the inconsistencies and smooth things over.)

    I love the revision process. I really do. Some might think that odd, but that’s where my story comes to life, gels and really becomes what I imaged of it when I first had that inkling of any idea for the story.


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