Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How Do You Know When Your Novel is Really Finished?

Very quickly in the comment thread from yesterday's post on revisions, Rick Daley raised an interesting revision checklist question: "Can you sit back and read through it without a compulsive need to continue changing it?"

This got me to thinking: when do you know you're finished with revisions?

When a writer is faced with a possibly infinite task, when do you close the computer and say, "I'm done?" And do you have any strategies for resisting a premature declaration of completion?


Scott said...

Good topic, Nathan. I think the best solution is to get professional editing help. After you've made suggested corrections and had a second or third go-through with the editor, I think that would be the time to say you have done all you can do .. it's a wrap!

Sonja said...

I once heard Garrison Keillor say, on the radio, that he was revising Lake Wobegon Days, even though it was already published.

Probably best not to send a novel off if you still *know* it needs changes, but conversely, there have been many writers who compulsively revise and can't seem to stop ...

To me, it's ready when you read it through and imagine an agent reading it without feeling shame.

Of course, with the quorum of shameless people out there, that may not work for everyone.

Anonymous said...

Pro-editing is a waste of money. Get a good beta reader if you want extra eyes.

Many writers will continue to want to tinker with a MS even after publication, because it's in their nature.

"Finished" is when someone else other than the author reads it and doesn't find it wanting. It's not too short so they think something was rushed and it's not so long that they wish something hadn't dragged for pages. They don't see problems in the characterization.

JohnO said...

Okay, two comments on this post, which is a good one.

First, Leonardo da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Second, (in John's less graceful prose): The more you look at your novel, the less you see.

The only way (for me, at least) to make effective revisions after the fourth or fifth pass is to take increasingly long breaks from it, or get story feedback from reliable readers ... because the ability to see the story clearly pretty much vanishes.

freddie said...

For me, it's about listening to my gut feelings. If I don't feel it's done, even though there's technically nothing "wrong," I'll leave the ms alone for a couple of weeks and go back and reread with fresh eyes to make sure I've not missed anything. And beta readers help.

Anonymous said...

When the changes you keep making don't make it any better.

Slinger said...

When you're not ashamed of it anymore? I don't think you ever really know. Sometimes you just have to cut the cord.

Natalie said...

Honestly, I don't have a clue. I think any book can just keep changing forever.

On my not-so-nice days, I think a writer might be done editing when they're on the verge of hating everything about the book they've read it so many times. At that point, I don't think you can do any more without damaging the story.

Margaret Yang said...

Hardest question in the universe! Mine have to go through more than one beta read (by different readers) and also need a cooling off period. Time is the best editor, after all.

All I know for sure is that it's never as done as I think it is. My betas are amazing people who make me smite my own forehead when they point out my errors.

Kimber An said...

Revisions are like dirty laundry- neverending.

It's not finished until it hits the shelves.

As to finished-enough-to-submit, I've developed a methodical way of revising for submission into Queryland whereby I avail myself of all the free help I can get, everything from the Crunchiest Critters on the planet to the best websites for writers, like Sime-Gen by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. Even so, I know as a never-before-published author that there are some things I won't learn until I'm in the process and they're as random as agents' and editors' hairstyles because each have their own ways of doing things and the market is constantly changing. So, I polish, submit, query, forget, and then start the next story.

It's easy to fall into two traps. One, excitedly send out a story on the first draft. Two, never, ever finish revising or editing out of fear of rejection should the story actually be submitted.

Melissa said...

Good question. I'm one of those people who will edit forever. I know I'm done editing when all I'm doing is changing the word arrangement and not actually improving on anything.

worldofhiglet said...


Surely only the writer knows when it is finished? Beta readers, writing groups and even editors may all have an opinion but you have the final say and you make the decision about your work.

Constantly revising and updating *after* you have edited and polished means either your book wasn't finished or you are suffering from "Lucas Syndrome". And we all know that leads to the Dark Side...

Kristi said...

I have to go based on feedback from beta readers and my critique group - I'm one of those that can always find a word to change, etc. and could go on forever in the revision process. There are definitely drawbacks to being a perfectionist.

Mira said...

I get a 'click' inside me when something is finished.

It tells me 'it's done.'

That doesn't mean I couldn't improve it. I certainly hope, for example, that two years from now, I could look at what I'm writing today and improve it.

I might even re-do something later to make it better.

But, on some level, I know when I'm done working on something - it's finished, and it's ready.

But I would never reach that point without consulting my beta-readers (I assume by beta-readers, we mean friends, right?) I can not believe how helpful it is to get honest feedback about my writing. I'm very grateful to my....beta-readers.

Jen P said...

Like Jon O, I think to "make effective revisions after the fourth or fifth pass is to take increasingly long breaks from it".

But - who do you trust as your 'beta readers'? Fellow online writers, friends, writing group? I have yet to dare ask anyone, and would be interested to know what works. The feedback on the youwriteon type websites often seems terse, and not very helpful, designed to just get the crit done so that the reader/writer can earn credits for getting their own work reviewed by others.

My trouble right now is a 40K WIP, got put on hold for two years. Now my writing is so different (better I'd like to think) it needs a whole new approach, not "just" an edit. It would become a different beast altogether, not a revised version.

Do I bother and finish it, or do I start afresh? I've decided to abandon right now, and work on my current (significantly different) WIP.

joelle said...

I don't know how you know because I always "think" I'm done and then, guess what? I thought I was finished. I queried agents. One signed me on and then said, "Oh, by the way, could you add a climax to the end of this book?" I added 75 pages. He sold it to Putnam. My editor said, "Oh, by the way, please cut 75 pages." They came off the front end and throughout the middle. I sent it back to her. She said, "Oh, by the way, could you cut 65 more pages?" I did. I sent it back to her, thinking "now I've got it!" She sent it back to me and said, "Oh, by the way, could you now add in a bunch of stuff it's missing." I did that and mailed it to her yesterday. She's doing hard line edits now...then copyedits. The thing is, I ALWAYS THINK THAT I'VE DONE THE BEST I CAN DO, but apparently...I'm never going to finish this book! Haha. Well, I have a cover now and a pub date, so I guess I will have to finish it at some point...but you know what I mean? I just stop when I think I've done the best I can and don't see anything to fiddle with. Thank goodness I have a great editor who will actually KNOW when it's done, because obviously, I'm missing that gene!

Scott said...

As for editing, I agree with those who have said it's finished when the stuff that needs tweaking finally dwindles to nothing and you're just rearranging out of some compulsion to make it new again.

As for the story itself, I usually have a ballpark resolution in mind, but it's when the calm washes over me silencing the voices that I know I'm at the end.

B. Jason Roer said...

Great topic, Nathan! And fabulous "revisions" list the other day.

It is crucial to take as much time as you can between drafts. The problem is we get so close to our material, that we simply can no longer see the problems. Time allows you to see with fresh eyes.

Once you feel ready (for me it's after draft 2 or 3), you have to get the book to readers you trust. These people will help identify all the editorial issues remaining. And it wouldn't hurt to hand over that "revisions" list!

Then you go in for another round. I've found myself completely changing locations, cutting characters, adding characters, combining characters, changing names for easier reading, and quite a bit more.

Even then, I sent my novel out and received incredible editorial advice from an agent who enjoyed the MS, but felt it needed more strategic trimming before sending it to publishers. She helped me see even further "adventures" that could be cut or combined. This was priceless advice and it never would have happened had I not sent it out in the first round of queries for the MS.

For me, the novel was finished (by which I mean 'ready to go out to agents') when I was able to sit back and just enjoy the heck out of reading the MS, and see the action in front of me.

The fact is, even after the sale, you won't be finished. That's when the work really begins!



Mira said...

Jen P - I want to address the beta-reader issue. It's really important to get the right ones.

You can find them in alot of places - there are on-line writing groups; brick-and-mortar writing groups; writing classes with possible mentors and colleagues; friends and family who have a good ear for writing.

But - I've found that bad 'beta-readers' are dangerous. If you have someone read your work, and you can feel intuitively that they don't 'get' or appreciate your work, drop them. Do NOT ask them to read your writing again.

Try the next person. You'll find someone who 'gets' your work, likes or even loves it, and can tell you the holes and flaws. That's invaluable.

Chuck H. said...

Every time I see the phrase "beta readers" I flash on a bunch of little fish wearing eye glasses. My critique group is very good at saying "Chuck, that thing's done, send it out".

Mara Wolfe said...

I know that I'm done with revisions when I start changing the revisions I've already made. When you start second-guessing changes you've made, it's probably time to put the red pen down.

Kathleen MacIver said...

When you're sick of the story? LOL!

Actually, that's what I've used so far...but I still consider myself a newbie.

I suppose it's good that my writing skills and knowledge is growing at the pace where, by the time I finish a re-write, they've grown enough that I discover even more that can be improved...but I'll be glad when I can read something I've written a year later, and still find it 95% well-written! At this point, I STILL see major things that should be improved, even after eight re-writes. But it's time to move on.

Anonymous said...

My 3rd grade son is reading the Little House on the Prairie series right now. He keeps pausing to point out things he thinks aren't written correctly. Looks like poor Laura Ingalls Wilder could possibly still be working on her books if she hadn't at some point said, "Done."

Anonymous said...

Change is one thing. Improvement is another. If you've reached the point at which all you're doing is the former, maybe it's done. OTOH, if you still have passages you really love but which don't do anything other than make you feel good about your writing, there's still stuff to fix.

What a terrific word verification: traphowl
Great description of where I am with "completed" WIP on which I just wrote THE END last night. Yeah, right, more like THE BEGINNING. 8-)

Ink said...

You know when the pain behind your eyes and your failing peripheral vision signal an oncoming brain aneurysm.

Seriously, though, there is no "done", only "done enough". A story in words is infinitely malleable. There's no definable "end" to these changes. Peter Matthiessen, for example, just rewrote three of his novels into one (substantially different) novel, and earned a National Book Award for the effort. Any book, published or unpublished, could be treated the same (though rarely with such fortuitous results, I'm guessing). So, there's only that "done enough", and that recognition occurs, I think, from a confluence of factors, examples being:

*You're happy with it, on a personal level, and feel it tells the story you want it to tell.

*You're sick of it, so sick of it that the thought of going through another revision results in spontaneous post-concussion syndrome.

*You've exhausted your critiques and analysis... the road forward is dark dark dark.

*You convince someone to represent/publish/buy the story in question.

pjd said...

When is your child old enough to ride his bike to the store alone, across the big scary intersection?

When are you ready to ask that special someone to marry you?

When is a house fully decorated? (All I know is that after 20 years, my wife still thinks ours can use some changes.)

I don't think there is a correct answer to your question, Nathan. It depends on too many variables with each individual project to come up with solid rules or even loose guidelines.

Bill Mabe said...

Wow. Great question. Having taken far too long to write a PhD dissertation, I can attest that it's easy to revise a manuscript endlessly.

I like the indicators that others have suggested: being able to read without feeling compelled to edit, and after a reliable reader--a professional or just someone you trust--has given it a thorough read.

I might add that after you've satisfied the above two criteria and queried a few agents, you might reassess the finishedness of the novel based on agent feedback.

Of course, I wouldn't rely on an agent to decide if a novel is finished since that's not his job, but would be open to revise my assessment (and the novel) based on his comments.

Mike said...

At some point it isn't the manuscript anymore, it's you. Any decision is better than no decision so make a decision and live with the results. If you make a mistake, learn form it.

Neil said...

Hey Nathan, if I recall the advice correctly, you're done with revisions when your agent tells you you're done with revisions. Right?!

Mike said...

That should have said learn from it.

Cat Moleski said...

Don't know, haven't gotten there yet, but I hope to get there soon!

Paul Michael Murphy said...

I send it out when I can't stand to look at the thing again.

I shouldn't have to suffer alone.

Matilda McCloud said...

I agree with Anonymous--it's done when the changes aren't making it better. A beta reader read the most recent version of my novel and felt that I had gone overboard with the changes. He liked the previous version better. After some thought, I agreed with him. I was revising the life out of it. So I spent the last two weeks undoing most of these changes.

Liz Wolfe said...

I'm asking myself that question right now. I'm going through (yet another) edit now. Then I have to rewrite the ending. I'll probably let it rest for a bit, then read through the whole thing again. Hopefully, that read-through will only result in tiny little tweaks and I'll be done.
But sometimes, it's just that I can't stand to look at the manuscript again.

Lunatic said...

When it's sold and in print.


karen wester newton said...

I've often compared having an unsold novel to being perpetually pregnant. But generally, I give a first draft to my critique group and a few other readers, listen to their feedback, make some changes (often radical changes if their suggestions/comments give me good ideas), proof it, and print it on paper to proof again. I also read it out loud. Once I can read it all the way through and not want to change anything, I give it to my agent. Sometimes she makes suggestions, but not always. At that point, I consider it done.

Anna said...

I don't know if I've reached that, or if it's truly possible.

maybe it's a sense of, "Well, I THINK it's there..."

is anything really ever done in this life? or is that a cop-out?

I'm unsure. maybe I need more tea...

Anonymous said...

For me (agented) I went as far as I could on my own, then read writing books, revised, then had beta readers, revised, and then sent it out. Agents liked what they saw enough to offer suggestions--so I used this along with doing the same thing again.

There is a danger in hanging on to it-- you might not ever let go. Of course you have to have the novel in top form when you send it out-- but there will be a point where YOU have done all you can and you must pull the plug. You have to trust that if you have something that is worthwhile and has potential you will be recognized. Had I not taken the plunge and fired it out there I would not be where I am now-- agented and revising a bit again before submission.

And by the way, you need to make very good friends with revision. I'm to the point now where I actually enjoy it.

scott g.f. bailey said...

This is a fine question, to which I don't think there's any set answer. I started querying my novel when it felt "done." I had put everything into it that I thought it needed, and I couldn't find anything wrong with the story elements, and the prose was as good as I could make it. My agent had a suggestion (one sentence) that resulted in my writing an additional 15,000 words and revising every chapter of the book. It's much better now, so he was right to make his suggestion.

The night I was finishing up my line edits before sending the revisions back to my agent, I was still revising scenes. If I looked at it again, I would find stuff to change. So, not "finished" in one sense, but it's time to let it go and move on. When the publisher's editor sends me a revision letter, I'll see that I'm not "finished" at all.

scott g.f. bailey said...

Anon @10:18 said, "And by the way, you need to make very good friends with revision. I'm to the point now where I actually enjoy it."

This is so true. Revisions are where the real writing happens. I see a first draft as a mere gathering of materials, not really writing.

Michelle Sagara said...

I send the book to my editor when I cannot stand the sight of it and I'm moving words around on the page and the results do not seem better in any way to me.

But every writer processes things differently.

ryan field said...

You know when it's finished for querying when you feel good about sending it. You know it's neat and clean and you've followed all the rules.

But it's hard to know when it's finished for publication. This is where a good copyeditor you know and trust becomes important. They always tell you the truth. And even then it's hard to know.

Nathalie said...

I have like an inside thermometer. The rise of the temperature is equivalent to the degree of satisfaction when I revise. I re-read and find improvement to make; I listen to my critique group, and go "Great suggestion! Can't believe I missed that (really a book is a group effort, from the initial writing to finding its place in the hands of the reader, at least for a baby like me). I go to conferences, and gets amazing professional insights from award wining authors (they have such a sharp eye). It takes me few days, but I get excited when I re-write or make corrections.

Then comes a point where the temperature is very high, a point where I can read it and like it like I just fall in love all over again, and a point where I see nothing but its strengths.

I decide its time to let the baby leave the house.

All the while, I'm aware that an agent, or editors might come with amazing ways to make it even stronger.

I love my story, and believes in it like my child goes to college, but I'm also psychologically prepared, and at peace, if asked to make additional revisions.

Melanie Avila said...

I'm two and a half chapters away from what I hope are my final edits so... excellent timing. I plan to have two more readers go through it and I hope that after that it's ready to send out (be on alert Nathan.)

I feel like it's almost ready now, so unless my readers point out something crucial that I've missed in four drafts, I'll release it to the wild.

Casey said...

I think Rick has a good point. There are chapters in my novel that I fly through reading and enjoy every time I do. I don't pause, I don't tweak. They're good. Other chapters take twice as long to read because I'm pausing and thinking about this or that. When I can read through the whole thing like I do those sweet spots, I'll get a second and third opinion and take it from there.

It's not fool proof. I think getting professional feedback is truly the key.

Kristi said...

Chuck H. - that was funny. I use different beta readers depending on what I'm writing. I use my critique group (through SCBWI) and mom for my writing for juveniles (my mom was a reading recovery teacher for years and knows her picture books). My critique group gives me feedback on topics that were on Nathan's revision list yesterday. I use other friends and family for my adult work but that's for more overall impressions than line edit type stuff. A good reader will tell you what's not working but also what IS working.

My critique group has the "tough love" approach which I love, so find a group that fits your style. With my last picture book, they told me they loved my "voice" and the ending, but that I had to cut over 300 words! When you hear the same thing from more than one person, take it to heart and look at it - so I did cut 300 words. On the flip side, hearing great things from more than one person is fun too and tells you what you're doing well!

Ulysses said...

I'm with DaVinci on this: my work is never finished, it's abandoned.

I think it a personal judgement thing. A writer who can read through his/her manuscript without feeling the urge to change a word is, I think, dead. However, each draft of a manuscript requires a considerable effort and there comes a point when either:
1) The changes I'm making are so minor that they don't repay the effort required to note and make them.
2) As mentioned before, the changes aren't making my work better.
At the point where I'm not seeing any value resulting from the effort of revision, I'm done.

As for resisting the urge to announce premature completion... well, that's just not something a man talks about.

Er... I mean, um...
Once I've finished a draft I get a little over-excited, it's true. My prose is flawless when I set it aside. But with the passage of time, I suspect it rots like meat left out of the refrigerator. All kinds of bad stuff creeps in while it ages so that the next time I read over it, I see all kinds of faults. I don't think I experienced that more than a couple of times before I realized that one or two drafts wasn't enough. I have to write things again and again until my sense of diminishing returns tells me it's time to move on.

Alan Orloff said...

Some signs you're done:

Your critique partners no longer answer your emails or return your calls.

You've memorized the first twenty pages, word for word.

Your spouse has memorized the first twenty pages word for word, from hearing you recite them in your sleep.

You've changed the main character's name from Ryan to Bryan to Brian to Brianna to Elvis to ZXVLYT#&GR to King Machinar III to Fluffy and back to Ryan. Twice.

You're debating whether the Chevy Camaro on page 245 should be white or "eggshell."

You had a prologue, then incorporated it into the story, then took it out, then put it in as an epilogue, then removed it and now plan to offer it on your website as "bonus" material.

You've translated the manuscript into Hebrew to see if it works any better going right-to-left. (Strangely, it does.)

You've read the entire manuscript aloud, both frontward and backward, in front of a mirror and then in front of your dog (and the fourth time through, the dog left the room).

Finally, as Kimber Ann said, the book is on the shelves!

KayKayBe said...

This is lame, I know, but I am going to quote my own blog about when I will start querying...

"I will be patient, waiting to query until I can read through the MS without having to stop and change anything. Seeing possibility for change is okay, but seeing something that has to change is not."

editing and persistance blog entry

Bane of Anubis said...

Unfortunately, never... Maybe Microsoft can add that feature to Word 2010 - the paper clip pops up and says "You're done. Congratulations! Would you like me to find you an agent?"

wendy said...

Funny this topic should come up today as I've been fine-tuning a novel for years, but it was only today when I really felt I couldn't take it anymore. I haven't worked on it every day during the afore-mentioned period, just now and again. However, I think every word has been rewritten at least three times. Even though fed up, I'm sure it has been drastically improved.

The story has been difficult to write well partly because it combines two incompatible genres, paranormal romance and inspirational.

Rick Daley said...

Thanks Nathan! I was just hoping to be added to yesterday's list, I didn't even dream of inspiring a whole post.

Melissa had a good point when she wrote:

"I know I'm done editing when all I'm doing is changing the word arrangement and not actually improving on anything."

I don't think there is such a thing as a perfect sentence, especially if you consider it in the context of a 60,000 + word novel. There comes a point where you must realize that every sentence can be worded differently (adverb thrown in just for Mira), but that does not necessarily make it better. In fact, over-editing can make it worse.

For example:
"I ran into a friend at the store."

Hmmm...I wasn't really running, although that is a common figure of speech, but still, I can make it better.

"I bumped into a friend at the store."

But actually, it was her shopping cart, not her. Nope, must improve the wording.

"I met a friend at the store."

Well, I think met implies a pre-arranged event, and this was not planned.

"I encountered a friend at the store."

Yeah, encountered is a big word and technically it fits, but the sentence does not flow...

My strategy for resisting a premature declaration of completion:

1. Go through the excellent checklist Nathan and the rest of the commentors put together on yesterday's post.

2. Find a diverse group of beta readers. Not just friends and family, and not just writers, but a mix of both. Writers and non-writers will provide very different kinds of feedback, but both points of view are valid. If you are getting good feedback from both sides of the aisle, you're probably ready.

Rebecca Knight said...

Alan, that was awesome! I was snickering through the whole comment :D.

Thank you to all of you contributing to this topic. I've been hip-deep in minor revisions, and have been asking myself this question all week.

I only have a few more "real" fixes to make before I'm just shuffling words around.

This post was a breath of fresh air :).

Mercy Loomis said...

I'm with Anon 9:32.

Also, just because you can't stand it anymore does NOT mean it's done. It just means you need to take a break for a little while.

I worked on my first novel for 11 years, on and off. It's done enough - I'm actually happy with it. If I wait five more years, then yes, there will be changes I could make that would probably make it better. But right now, I'm to the point where I'm changing very very minor things. So I'm done. So now I'm sending it out and working on new things.

If I still haven't sold it in a few years, I'll dust it off and give it a go through again. ;)

Central Content Publisher said...

Any reason to claim you're finished is the right one. The second time you're finished is when your agent says you are. The third time you're finished is when you read the reviews. If you're lucky, you'll die before the forth.

D. G. Hudson said...

How would I know when the novel is finished? I would probably go with gut instinct again, as it never seems to fail me.

As an artist has to know when a painting if finished, so a writer has to know when he's done his last revision.

I also run it by my Ideal Reader (a.k.a. best critic). Writing creatively (fiction) to me is like any other creative effort. You know when it's done intuitively. Some days I just follow the 3-day rule, let it sit for that time and then make a judgment. Whatever works.

Anonymous said...

When my publisher's deadline dictates I can no longer work on it.

Anonymous said...

Excellent question. I agree with lots of's never really finished, when critique group is looking for things, when you're sick of it. For me, it's when I've started to fantisize about killing characters off because I AM sick of them. Sometimes enough is good enough. This actually might be one of my strengths as a writer, members of my critique group are still on novel #1 because they can't let go, while I'm on #3 with both manuscripts 1 and 2 being read by agents.

reader said...

When, by revising, you are making things "different" but not "better."

Or, in my case, when the thought of picking up that damn book one more time makes me want to vomit.

Dara said...

I think I'll enlist the help of a beta reader at least after I get my WiP edited well enough for reader consumption.

Otherwise, I have yet to figure this one out. Perhaps when I get closer to the end, I'll have a better answer

Or not. :P

susiej said...

"premature declaration of completion" (snigger)

The story is done when the characters stop talking in my head. I suppose the manuscript is complete when its published.

sylvia said...

I once heard Garrison Keillor say, on the radio, that he was revising Lake Wobegon Days, even though it was already published.

I love this. This is totally me. :/

Usually I know that a piece is completed because I have a deadline and thus very little choice in the matter. I am aware that this does not bode well for my novel. *tweaks a bit more*

Christine said...

I'm with da Vinci and Michelangelo on this one. I'll paraphrase Michelangelo by saying that novels are never finished. They just stop in interesting places. And then, you have to move on to the next one.

Ieva said...

There is one point when I know that the piece (in my case, a story) will benefit more from somebody else (eg my Trusted Reader) than me re-reading it and trying to force it to be "better".

When I have made the revisions according to revelations after TR's comments, I know that I'm done.

Nikki Magennis said...

When the thought of even looking at the ms makes me feel sick to my stomach.

RW said...

When you're standing in the bookstore penciling changes into printed copies on sale and the clerk is threatening to call security.

Jo said...

Great post and great comments. I got nothing to add except that there are still edits I'd like to make on my published book.

Thermocline said...

When I find myself seeing only single words or phrases I can improve rather than elements of the story. That’s when it becomes like playing Boggle – just seeing various iterations of the letters before me.

The issue of Beta Readers has been very much on my mind lately. I wonder how valuable the feedback I’ve been receiving is really going to help me get my WIP published. Is there any more value in feedback from a professional editing service than a writing group? What about from members of my target audience (such as eighth graders) who aren’t writers? It’s too simplistic to say, “Find brutal honesty from someone you trust.” How do you get or know if you’re getting the most useful feedback possible?

Nathan, I think this could be a great topic and discussion for a future post.

Marilyn Peake said...

I feel my novel’s almost finished when all the threads (especially subplots and character arcs) are woven tightly together, when the stories of all the main characters reach a satisfying conclusion, when I’ve edited and reedited to correct grammar and make sure I haven’t repeated specific words too closely together, and when I feel the ending is powerful enough. Then I hand it to a reader who I know is a prolific reader; and if they love the book, I feel my novel is really finished, although I might check through it one more time. At that point, I feel my book is ready to submit to agents or publishers, although I never expect that everyone will like it. As far as I know, all or almost all books receive rejections. And, of course, if the novel is accepted, editors may want additional changes for all kinds of reasons, and that means the final version of the book isn’t quite there yet.

Claire said...

I feel like my novel is completed when the the beginning to the end are connected nicely throughout the middle and flow easily. Also, the story says everything I want it to say. In addition, I agree that the urge to edit won't be there as you read through it.
That's just me, though. What works for me won't necessarily work for someone else.


PurpleClover said...

I think it's a good question. I'm not a tinker fairy by any means. I'm more like a fast winds fairy. (This is lost on anyone that hasn't seen Tinkerbell. LOL)

Anyhow, I can only answer for my picture books since my wip is incomplete (more so now than ever since computer-guy confirmed my last 30k words are gone to neverland). But once my PB was complete I would edit, use alpha/beta readers, and then query. I have been known to change the story after querying a few, but usually when I'm done I'm done.

Although I think it is easier for PB's. I mean how many rewrites can you do before it is a totally different story, you know?

Anonymous said...

I knew it was finished when I got the nagging feeling that I was doing more harm than good.

PurpleClover said...

My mistake...that should be a fast-flying fairy not fast-winds.

LMAO. I will refrain.

CapitalistPoet said...

My day job is on Wall Street, researching (and writing a lot about) stocks. This pressure-cooker environment has taught me:

1) The revision process is a lot easier to manage in the face of deadly deadlines. Our deadlines are typically as bad or worse than those faced by newspaper reporters. Accuracy is utterly crucial -- clients can lose a lot of money if we're wrong, especially if an investment decision is based on faulty numbers.

2) Revisions, in turn, are much simpler if the writing process is highly structured. I adapted the same structured process I built as a Wall Street survival skill for my first four (in-process) novels and a non-fiction title. Before I slid the metaphorical sheet of paper into the metaphorical typewriter to start the first novel, I had a VERY detailed business plan lined up with the story arc for the whole novel series, and completed treatments for 12 different potential stories. Behind each treatment was a detailed storyboard with plot, rationale for structuring the scene that way, needed foreshadowing, etc. And there's a character guide with the biographical, motivational, and other aspects of the character's history, written retrospectively from the end of the story arc, so I don't get written into a corner with conflicting motivations for a character at different parts of the series.

I spent about 5 months of nights and weekends writing the business plan, story arc, treatments for 12 books, character guide, etc., before even starting the actual historical research much less putting pen to paper. The plan is literally a novel in itself, as it is now over 110k words in its current incarnation.

The plan has given me the confidence to be very productive on the actual writing, since (as a new fiction writer) my mortal fear is to write myself into a corner on plot mistakes and have to toss out 50+ pages to repair a major hole. Thus, edits so far have been mostly about tone of dialog, character motivations, other stuff that's relatively easy to fix in a well-plotted framework. My technology toolset is a lot more aware of story architecture than a standard word processor, but that's a story for a different day.

3) I am thinking of the process of getting these works published as a commercial venture, so I'm very conscious of the value of my time, which limits endless worrying about whether something is done. It should be fairly close to done after about three or four major "clean" editing passes if I've followed the writing and planning process OK.

That said, I'm not going to try to bang out commercial trash to fill my bank account (i.e., no "Hardy Boys with guns" here), but remembering "better is the enemy of PAID" is helpful.

I'm not sharing this because I'm trying to brag about being some sort of literary "superman" -- quite the opposite is true, since I have a classic short attention span, am highly disorganized, and fall prone to all sorts of procrastination and obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, especially on the research. Those personality quirks killed my first career, as a software engineer several decades ago. You have to ship a completed product every so often...

So these are survival skills I've had to develop in order to start on an equal footing with people that have more linear thought processes and who are more organized.


Other Lisa said...

These are all so wonderful that I'm just gonna nod vigorously.

morshe said...

Agree: Art is never finished, just abandoned.

Mira said...

Capitalist Poet -


instinctive reader said...

I go through a lot of things as I self edit, refine, etc.
I have to feel I've got the story out to my own satisfaction and I have to please myself first.

And then, as I am now turning, gratefully, to find Beta readers, I will be asking for two reads.
(This is also what I myself do with books I am trying to read as a beta reader.)

First, read it all straight through -no stopping or commenting.
Because first and foremost, I want to have a reaction to the story itself.

If the story is compelling to the beta reader, then, I'd want them to reread it a second time, this time with an eye on fixing its flaws.

However, if I don't have a story first, the second part is not worth the bother for them or me.

I am new at this, but this is how my instincts seems to direct me.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

P.O.W. - Potentially Overlapping Wows


Could you expand on the exact nature of your "wow?" I thought wow too, but not sure if my wow and your wow overlap at all.

Wanda B., sometimes known as AntiCapitalistPoet...fully in favor of tossing 50+ pages when's so liberating to be inefficient and explore deadends and generate false starts...seems to do the trick for me...?? "Success is on the far side of failure." Did Edison say that? Who said that?

Finished novel: When you can read it without making changes...just keep reading 'til you get to the end. Like it was a real novel! That seems to be it...

Chris Bates said...

It finished when you'd rather eat razor blades then write another draft.

instinctive reader said...

For example,
I read all four books in the Twilight Saga straight through.

There is a compelling story here.It totally got me.

Then I read them through again.
The story is still really compelling.
But THIS time, I am seeing certain things repeat that are a simple editing corrections that would help the writing.

But, hey, she is so successful even with these flaws.

I mean she HAS a story!

csmith said...

Hi Nathan,

Unsure if anyone else has said this - but I try keep in mind what Pevsener said about beauty in architecture : to paraphrase

"The point at which nothing can either be added to nor taken away from the whole without diminishing the work."

Of course, living up to this is another thing entirely.


(excuse all spelling mistakes, migraine ahoy)

Mira said...

Wanda - Lol.

I was admiring Capitalist Poet's determination and drive, organizational skills, ability to conceptualize and pursue a goal, and just general downright gumption.

We do things differently, but......Wow.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

A lot of great comments here. RW made me laugh, saying when you are in the bookstore penciling changes in. And guess what? That indeed has happened. An author I know was in a bookstore with another author when he furtively started writing revisions in the books from the shelves! The books that keep on growing...

Jenny said...

Actually, I have a question related to that: can you revise too much? Can you revise the heart/voice/grit out of a story that should have been really interesting, but the writer listened too closely to a critique group or workshop and what made it unique is now gone?

Henriette Power said...

It's done when you can read it aloud without getting snagged on any phrasing, any out of whack emotions on the part of characters, any dialogue that rings false. You can't read too fast, or you'll lull yourself into a false sense that everything's going smoothly. Read it as if it were a script, and if it sounds right, then the book's done.

Johanna said...

I read once that you keep editing and re-editing until you find that it is suddenly getting worse instead of better...then you stop. You're finished!

Tracey said...

I know I'm done when the deadline's up. I've actually squirmed sometimes reading my published work, knowing I could have written certain parts better. But, this is art, not mathematics. There is no "perfect."

Yat-Yee said...

I don't yet. I hope I will develop my gut enough to be able to tell.

Sandra G. said...

You know you're finished revising when all you are doing is tinkering for the sake of tinkering.

Sometimes, tinkering can be akin to a child's security blanket.

"Now I have to actually submit my baby?"

When it's time, stop fiddling with the darn thing, trust that you have written as well as you were able, and submit your baby.

Lorrie T. said...

I'm done revising when I make a change, and then go back and change it back to the original version.

Christine H said...

Dear Capitalist Poet,

The process you describe is one that I have heard touted by many speakers on writing. It usually makes me want to tear my hair and scream with frustration and jealousy. In a good way.

I could never do that type of pre-planning, because I can't think of the plot until I have characters moving around and interacting with each other in a scene. My writing is more organic. I just have to start writing trash and revise, revise, revise.

So I just want to echo Mira's "Wow!" in a good way, and comfort the rest of organic, trashy plotters out there. You're not alone.

Christine H said...

Jenny - yes, you can revise the guts out of a story. I've done it, and bitterly regretted it. It comes from lack of confidence in your idea and your voice.

I sincerely doubt Nathan realized what kind of response he was going to get to his question! Quite a different tone than yesterday.

Christine H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Haste yee back ;-) said...

"Fast winds fairy.!

Hell, I thought you'd invented a new push on Valsalva's Maneuver for the Tinker Bells flitting about us!

Haste yee back ;-)

Christine H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

An outline should help with this. Put the analytical skills to work on creating the outline--make sure that, if executed, that it will encompass all you want to say with the story.

then, when your 1st draft is complete, go back to your outline and check off the points--are they in there? Are there new elements in the story that render any of the outline points moot?

DG said...

I've often wondered when editing if I'm really improving what I've written, or simply changing what I've written so I'll be less bored.

Brian Crawford said...

Hi Nathan. I'm still not sure if my novel is finished, but I have a question for you: I queried an editor I met at a writer’s conference. After reading the first few chapters of my novel, the editor requested my complete manuscript. I sent it via email, and I haven’t heard anything from her. When, if ever, is it appropriate to send a follow-up email to confirm she received the manuscript? Thanks.

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't really mind when people ask to confirm that an attachment arrived, but honestly, since these things work 99% of the time I usually just recommend following up once a month politely by e-mail.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, Nathan, how can you know they work 99% of the time. I've sent stuff from my house to work and vice versa, and not had it show up at least 20% of the time. I often wondered if it was due to the size. Same happens when I send to friends. I have also had it come out jumbled.

Nathan Bransford said...


Sounds like you need to switch e-mail programs.

Sarah M. Isaacson said...

I'm done when I'm ready to share a piece with the world, whether it hates it or loves it.

CoreyBlake said...

I follow two guideposts:

1. When 80% or more of my focus groups say that they like or love the book.

2. When 80% or more say that they were immediately hooked.

Ruth said...

This is where I get worried... I don't think I'll ever think I'm done! I might get sick of rewriting it though and just give it to my beta readers, rewrite it to death again and then once I'm finally sick of the whole bloody novel I'll probably query it to some poor unwary agent.


annielaural said...

NEVER..I will never be able to give up tweaking..even when the joy of reading the manuscript in hard cover! There's always another way to write Garrison Kellor, as if! :)

Genevieve said...

I love editing. I love changing stuff and making it better, but it's gotta go out, right? When I THINK I'm done, I pass out 5 copies to friends who can really contribute. But the final for me is when I can read the entire thing out loud without stopping to mark up the page.

Memoirs of a Bulimic Black Boy said...

"I know I'm done editing when all I'm doing is changing the word arrangement and not actually improving on anything."

I agree with the above and would add when the more changes I make the less the work looks and sounds like something I birthed. I do think another set of eyes is highly beneficial as long as they are trained eyes and are looking for what they are trained to look for. Excellent topic.

Angie said...

I get great satisfaction from being done with a piece, probably because I've been writing short fiction for so long. I decided the novel was done when I got the critique from my most valuable and trusted critiquer, took her awesome advice, and did one last proofreading. Now I won't revise it again unless an editor or agent requests it. One big thing that really keeps me from endless tinkering is to dive right in to the next project.

Tim Bosworth said...

You have to make a contract with yourself. Such as, "This is the last run through. I will stay with each scene until I think I'm done, and once I'm finished, I will not go back even though I really want to. Then give it to someone else to read, professional or not, and make another deal with yourself, just to change what they say, and nothing more. Otherwise, when does it end. You have to realize you're never going to be satisfied. You have to give it your best shot and then go on.

AstonWest said...

There are authors who stop feeling the need to compulsively change their manuscript? Who are these crazy people?


Laura Martone said...

Ugh - what a terrific and yet painful question - a perfect follow-up to yesterday's revision checklist, Nathan.

As I am currently in the midst of revising (again) my first novel, I'd say that, when it comes to fiction, I'm never quite done.

While I'd like to agree with Fred, who earlier said, "When it's sold and in print," I'm afraid that I probably won't even be done then (not in my head/heart anyway). As I pondered this question all day long, I recalled an interview with Alice Sebold, whose THE LOVELY BONES was obviously a huge success. Despite such success, however, she said that she would occasionally reread parts of her published novel and cringe, wishing she could still change something here or there.

Ah, the perpetual pain of a perfectionist! Believe me, I know that feeling.


Anonymous said...

Good question. I'll answer it when I finish editing my third draft.

Shell said...

Considering that I am going to a writing conference this week (I got home about fifteen minutes ago) and my group said they thought my first chapter isn't really my first chapter and I've revised that sucker A MILLION TIMES, I'm thinking the darn thing is never going to be finished.

Sorry. The frustration has not yet completely dissipated.

Gilbert J. Avila said...

Once Pat Murphy was talking about editing and writing for a women's anthology of erotica/porn called "Herotica," and she posed the question---"How do you know when you've finished writing a porno story?" I told her---"Pat, Pat--it's easy. You know you've finished writing a porno story when you find yourself typing with both hands."

Minnette Meador said...

I edit while I write, but once the project is done, I read through it six times. Don't ask me where I got that number. I run it by my critique partners as many times as they can stand; have several beta readers go through it; then a dozen times through myself at the end before submissions. Off it goes to my editor. It's a long process, but worth it. Of course, there is the three or four times my editor and I go through it, but hey, who's counting? :)

mjcwrites said...

For me, it'll be finished when working on it further is meaningless. Once it's headed for the bookstore shelves and any further editing would be complete self-indulgence, I'll stop. Until then--I'll fix every typo I find.

Minnette Meador said...

Oh, and one more thing; I also stop when I start changing things back to where I had them to begin with. That's a sure sign. :)

Kristi said...

Purple - I'm so sorry that 30K is gone for good. Also, I loved the reference to Tinkerbell - I'm such a tinker fairy who wishes she were a fast-flying fairy!

Author Guy said...

I sent my latest MS to my publisher completely aware that a) it was complete, the story was done, and b) that it needed something else. I didn't want to just start 'adding' stuff, but I didn't see any part where I could further develop what I had.

Anonymous said...

I thought my ms. was polished & finished but then an agent questioned the MC, the pace, even the dead it's back to the drawing board?

Joann Mannix said...

John Q-Your comments hit to the heart of writing. I'm the perfectionist type, not willing to let go because it is never perfect. What is perfect? Nathan, your latest post had me going, check, check, check....Everything's in line, it's the jumping off that's the difficult part.

Meg said...

When I get to the point of hating the story simply because I have done nothing but revisions on it. I call it done. Enough. Until an early reader tells me point A doesn't make sense and this sentence is totally pointless...

So. Never?

superwench83 said...

There are so many good answers in here! Alan, you ought to post your list to your I can then link to it on mine! And I really like what scott g.f. bailey said about revision being where the real writing happens. That's so true for me.

I think when it comes down to it, you have to listen to your gut. Sometimes you can find nothing wrong with the story and your beta readers think it's brilliant, but something still doesn't feel right. You still want to tinker. (Yes, I am a tinker fairy. You know, that was actually a really good movie!) When that happens, I set the work aside for a while and try not to think about it. And one day, I go back, or one day I can't help thinking about it, and I realize what's not working in the story. When I read over a story with my most critical eyes and I only have the desire to change a word here or there, or some other petty thing, then I know the story is ready.

- Eadyn's Calling said...

I've never felt "finished" with a novel. I finally had to set a limit of edits. 3 or 4, then I'm done toying with it.

mkcbunny said...

Great question, and a really engaging thread. I wish I could read this blog during business hours, but coming in late does mean that I have a lot of interesting comments to read.

I'm an anal, checklist-loving person. I build lists of things to check and correct with each editing pass. It's a combination of general "to-do" items much like Nathan's list and my own notes made as I do each read-through.

The "list" is actually a stack of papers, both typed and handwritten, plus a sea of Post-Its. As each sheet of paper's items are addressed, that paper is tossed away. So I know that all of the detailed stuff is done when there's no more paper left.

But the final sign-off is flow. Some parts of the book flowed well right from the start. Others had serious plot changes and restructuring that made them feel choppy, so they needed multiple passes to smooth them out.

mkcbunny said...

You know, the easy way to answer the question would have been to say, "When the damn thing stops nagging me, and I can read it without making notes." But that's not very informative as to HOW one might get to that point.

The Writing Muse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Writing Muse said...

a)A novel is really finished when you are happy/content enough to send it out to agents/publishers.

b) A novel is never finished...2 years after you've 'finished' it, you'll find something that you want to add/delete/change.

Brian Crawford said...

Thanks for the response, Nathan. It's been about a month since I sent the manuscript, so I'll send her a follow up email. And who knows... maybe the reminder will kick my submission to the top of her pile.

Lisa Dez said...

I asked this same question on my very underutilized blog in December. I'm an obsessive reviser and editor and I can't make myself stop. But the truth is that my manuscripts are somewhere around a thousand times better after I'm been picking at them for four or five months after I thought they were done. Sometimes a whole subplot that adds depth and improves the through-line will occur to me weeks after I've typed "the end". Whole new characters will take shape and start having conversations in my head. (I'm aware that I need professional help, thank you.)

The biggest mistake I've made was querying when I thought I was done, only to find I wasn't. (Nathan saw one of those sad partials.) So I've learned that this is one place it pays to be obsessive and I let myself pick--forever.

And yes, Alan. My dog can recite my manuscript to me--backward.

Ruth said...

Hi Nathan,

I was wondering if you'd mind answering a very basic question: What are foreign rights? I can't find a good definition anywhere. I have a vague idea that it means publishers paying authors for the right to sell their work in different countries.

Case: As I live in New Zealand, I can't buy a lot of books that have been released only in the States, as our bookstores don't stock them (presumably because foreign rights haven't been sold). However, I've recently discovered an online New Zealand store which does sell these books, and ships them from the US. If this online store can sell them, why can't the physical stores do so?

What does the concept of foreign rights MEAN - that physical bookstores may now stock the books? If online bookstores can already do so, it seems a bit superfluous. On the other hand, even if this online NZ store didn't offer to sell books released only in the States, I'd still be able to buy them from Amazon or places like that.

I'm just completely confused by the whole concept, as you can probably tell, and was wondering if you'd mind clarifying it? I apologise if you've already covered this issue, but I couldn't find it in your FAQs or in a search of your blog.



Jen C said...


I used to be exactly the same! My last project (RIP) was researched and outlined and plotted and characterised for months before I ever wrote a word. I think it's an excellent way to learn about the process of writing.

With my current WIP I'm a lot more relaxed and confident that I know what I'm doing and that everything will turn out the way it's meant to. Now I just put some dot points right onto the page with what I want to happen, and delete them as I go.

As far as revisions go, I have no idea. I have 8500 words to go before I finish my first draft, so I can let you know when I get stuck into it!

Whirlochre said...

I believe things can always be improved. I'm guessing there are loads of published writers who look back on their first novels and wonder why they wrote some of it the way they did.

But this is different to infinite tinkering, and I suppose once the editorial ball is rolling, the days of your WIPly mutation are numbered. And so they should be.

Laura Martone said...

Jen P -

It's probably too late to respond to you, but I, too, am looking for beta readers right now... fellow writers with whom I can trade manuscripts (you know, you critique mine; I critique yours).

If you're ready for that possibility, let me know! I'm looking to get as many perspectives as possible - and help others along the way...


Laura Martone said...

Three cheers to Alan Orloff and Bane of Anubis - you some funny dudes!

Alan, I especially loved your "prologue" sign - I'm going through that EXACT crisis right now! Where to put the info in the prologue - or whether to get rid of it entirely? Ah, decisions, decisions!

Mary Hoffman said...

When the copy editor tells you it's been "signed off" - about three months before publication.

Thereafter best not to re-read them.

Joseph L. Selby said...

I agree with anonymous from way back at the beginning. Once my revisions are making it worse, not better, then it's finished.

Lisa Iriarte said...

For me, the novel is never finished. I make it as good as I can. I send it through my critique group. I let my author friends rip it to shreds. I make changes based on their recommendations. Then I begin sending it out, but all the while it's circulating, I am still getting feedback and looking for new sets of eyes to give it a read through. It's amazing to me that a new reader can pick up a time glitch in chapter two after over a year from the completion of the novel, even though dozens of other readers missed it, but that happened to me.

Melanie Avila said...

[This has nothing to do with the post.

Nathan, have you seen or heard about this?

Apparently there's a bird in SF's financial district attacking passerbys. Just thought I'd give you a heads-up.]

Melanie Avila said...

Oh, and there's a video:

Stephen Duncan said...

Simple answer, Nathan. You call George Lucas and ask. If no special editions are required, it's done.

Mira said...

Melanie - that blog is hilarious. I can't believe that someone created a whole blog about that bird.

I have got to see this. I'm taking my whole staff down there at lunch to look at the attack bird. Oh! I'll use it as motivational tool. Get your work in on time, or the bird'll get you. Ha ha.

Rick, I just realized - you put in an adverb just for me??? Awwww. That was so sweetly done. And I'll put in an adverb just for you: I heartily congratulate you on the by-line.

Mira said...

Christine - in terms of MS being rushed to agents too quickly, I'm going to disagree with you. I think it happens all the time.

This may not apply to everyone, and I could be wrong, of course, but even when I played the agent-for-a-day game, I saw that happening. People attached pages that had lots of potential, but, imho, weren't ready yet. The pages needed editing.

I've seen it with my friends alot. They finish it, get all excited and rush it out.

But that's a real mistake. I think it's important to remember, that once an agent says 'no', that's it. You can't query the agent again on that piece.

So, it make sense to not only have several beta-readers look at our work, but a professional editor as well before submitting it to query. The query process is not a time to get feedback. Get that before you query.

Nathan Bransford said...


I talk about that in the Basics of Publishing Contracts post in the FAQ.

Nathan Bransford said...


Wow, that's hilarious! I'm ducking when I go through the FiDi.

BarbS. said...

The other evening I heard Danielle Steele tell a New York Times interviewer that she can look at one of her published books and find 15 things to change.

Anonymous said...


That was several email programs involved. My companie's, yahoo, a major DSL server, Gmail. You name it I have had lost emails with several email programs. The larger the size the more likely it will not make it. And in rural areas there is not a lot to choose from.

Anonymous said...

To me it seems like the best option is to make sure your MS actually got there. Agents need to think about the fact not all of their clients live in areas where technology is fool proof. A good writer does not equal computer whiz.

wendy said...

This is a hard question for me to answer as it's the thing I find hardest about writing. I fine-tune over a very long period, and while I fine-tune the story grows and develops along with my understanding of the characters and the story's meaning. I don't start with any plan, perhaps I should, I just write until the denouement.

Perhaps the novel is finished when the author can read it through and feel satisfaction that the characters have said everything they need to say and that the theme and meaning have been clearly explained.

The sticky point, however, is the syntax. Maybe every writer finds this element the most challenging, I'm not sure. I certainly do. And this is the reason I find it difficult to finish a story. On the last read I'm feeling confident all is well; but the next day, shoddy expression seems to dominate the prose.

I've read where one (published) writer claimed he could do a novel in one draft and said that anything more would only be needed because of a lazy, careless attitude. He must have had incredible concentration, a detailed outline, and a rare ability to write the perfect sentence.

Ali Katz said...

When you can't stand the sight of it anymore.

Give it a couple of weeks. Read through again. Fix the hiccups and accept the fact you're done.

Anonymous said...

My solution to this is to walk away from the project for a minimum of a month, work on other projects and then come back to the piece. Then, with fresh eyes, my editing is more that of a reader than the creator. When I have done this three times (I have to stop somewhere) I do not allow myself to tweak it anymore. Having a background in art (of the pencil and paint variety) helps me to realize that the artist can continue to retool a piece forever, often covering up the masterpiece that they were originally moved to create. You have to hit the breaks and move on to the next piece or else the muse won't be given new blank slates to inspire.

Anonymous said...

This is a great question. I think the short answer is, usually you don't know, you decide. Usually from some combination of your gut (listening to, trusting in) and feedback. (Except for the first decision, which is "this is ready to show another human being for the first time" -- total gut.) And then, through some combination of exposure-to-world and exposure-to-an-older-you, you figure out how right your decision was, and if you want to revisit the manuscript.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, "finished" is often a moving target. A mix of having the story emotionally solid and well-crafted on the page, and being ready to let it go at that point. Aligning one of those windows with publication (traditional or self) is what makes "finished" stick for me.

Bonnie said...

Revision is my favorite part of the process. It's where the vague idea in my mind, the one I've rambled around and through for far too many words, finally starts to take shape as a real entity, with interest and focus. I start to understand what the story is about. I start to get rid of junk. Then I can see where I have extra characters, where subplots can be eliminated or combined, where I've left out critical scenes.

And then I can start to work on whether I've said it well.

And then -- well, I guess I'll be one of those writers trying to make changes to the galleys as they're being taken to the printer, though I think I'll be able to resist the temptation to write corrections in the bookstore copies :D

Madison said...

I work on something till I shout, "I've had all I can stands and I can't stands no more!" Then I write a query letter and send it off. :)

MARIAN said...

Since I just mailed out a full manuscript this is a timely topic for me. You can edit a manuscript to death until you suck all the life from it.

I think there's a point where YOU KNOW you've done the BEST you can -- the finished point. So you take a leap and send it out. Otherwise nothing would ever reach the outside world, right? (I always have another set of eyes on the ms before shipping out.)


Cloudscudding said...

I have a set critiquing procedure, which helps it to be a more objective process for me.

0. (This step is optional, but I do it if I have time and feel like being nice to critiquers.) Skim read it. Remove the most glaring chunks of bad writing and fix inconsistencies.

1. After setting the story aside for at least a month (barring deadlines) and collecting critiques, do a detailed and vicious line-by-line edit. I usually cut 30% of what I've written at this stage.

2. Let it rest a little while and then read it aloud, fixing flow and phrasing and transition problems as you go. Reading aloud tends to shift my mental gears enough to notice things I might have skipped over when reading it quietly. (I have also heard a suggestion to change the font to help this step, and I might try that next time.)

3. Submit. If you are blessed enough to get feedback, reread story and decide if suggested changes are right for the story.

4. Pick a number. After the story's been rejected that many times, repeat steps 2-4.

That's my general submission procedure. Step 1 has become slightly more complicated this time around, as I revise my steampunk novel, Vicesteed. People keep reading chapters and then volunteering to critique the whole thing because they want to read it, but I'm already 3/4 of the way through the heavy revisions, which are where I like to use outside feedback.

I guess it's a good problem to have. Promising.

The answer is that the revisions never really end, but they do trail off significantly!

(And, hmm, I just made a post.)

Victoria Blake said...

I know I'm finished with my manuscript when new revisions suck the life out of my story. There is a point when one must say they have made the story as best as it can be.

LCS249 said...

I've always said, "if Hemingway were alive today he'd still be editing."

Anne said...

I work as a tutor to student and professional writers in a university setting, and I often see writers struggle with this issue.

Obviously, all professional writers should review their work carefully for unintentional surface errors, inconsistencies of language, and the like. Though it may seem tedious, at least this aspect of revision is fairly straightforward, as there is a standard system of rules.

However, revising for content is much different. Because each content revision is subjective, the writer is brought into constant conflict with his or her own judgment. I see writers react to this conflict in two main ways--they either back away after typing the last line or become trapped in a process of perpetual editing.

Those who under-revise or can't start editing seem to fear that it will open a Pandora's box or create some sort of butterfly effect that will require ever more revisions. Those who can't stop editing seem to fear that their work won't represent them well enough unless they make still another change.

I tell writers who don't know where to begin editing that, if their ideas are worth sharing, they are worth revisiting and will withstand a thorough editing process. They need to break their work into parts, like taking apart a machine to see how it works, and have confidence in their ability to put it back together again.

I tell writers who can't stop editing that, if the ideas are worth expressing, readers will connect with and follow them despite the minor flaws which seem magnified to their writer. No written words will ever perfectly represent their author's mind--that's what keeps us writing. Sometimes perfectionistic writers just need to pick up another project to see that they will have other chances to express themselves.

This might seem like a psychology-heavy approach, but I think that people turn to writing because they want to enter that mental territory, and one of the great rewards of writing is that it forces us to confront our own tendencies.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

When it gets sent to print. And even then, I'll probably be mad that I didn't add that new bit of conflict I thought of, or that great line of dialogue that came to me yesterday, or took out that sentence to two "was"s and an adverb that I missed.

I'm not sure it will ever be finished. There is always room for improvement.

CapitalistPoet said...

Hello, all. I'm glad to see that my comment sparked some other thoughtful discussion. Replies to a couple others' comments on my first post:

1) Mira, thanks! As I hinted in my original post, the focused process is essential for me because I'd never get far enough along in the project to have something to revise if I weren't fanatically organized. A short attention span is a huge liability when you're writing anything longer than text messages. So it's a defensive reaction to deal with the downside of the way my mind works.

2) Wanda B. Ontheshelves, I agree completely with your comment about the need to be willing to fail and to experiment. In my process, the experimentation is mostly pushed up to the front -- before I sit down to write the plan for a document, I do a lot of stream-of-consciousness scribbling, either in a small Moleskine that's always in my hip pocket (handy on subways, buses, taxis) or on colored index cards (blue for scene/plot, yellow for scene/setting, red for character detail, etc.) then I rearrange, toss, shred, etc. with gay abandon.

I try to front-load experimentation as much as possible, without squashing creativity at any point. It's a software engineering mindset--it costs 10x as much to fix a design flaw in programming as it does in the design phase.

My life has had so many great ideas that I've jumped into with passion and energy but haven't finished that I try to stay focused on the ultimate satisfaction -- sharing the end product (whether that be with friends, paying customers, readers, etc).

Edison also said, BTW, "Success is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration."

3) Christine H: Agree that experimentation is important, and it's really a lot of fun to come up with the sparkling little snatches of scene, dialog, plot that you want to build the rest of the story around. All I'm trying to do in my process is to be able to find those later on in the process, and to remember how the heck I thought at the time of that inspiration that I was going to hitch a given fragment up to the rest of the story. My big problem is not being able to remember what I was thinking sometimes even 5 minutes ago. I type fast. So if I get more stuff down at the outset, I have a higher "hit rate" of using cool stuff that I brainstorm.


cheryl said...

I revise it until I can reread it with a smile. If you get all crazy and keep cutting at it, it just becomes different, not better. You have to know that at some point enough is enough and lose the neuroses.

Anonymous said...

What if your novel needs work you cant do? is there a place you can find a co-writer, or something. i have the story all figured out, and a hundred percent finished, but it has a lot of grammar mistakes, and its not the greatest piece of work out there, but the story is amazing, and i want to find soemone to re-write the whole thing, are there people that do that?
if you know email me@

Anonymous said...

When it's published and adored by millions of readers and you know you will forever have sucess in the publishing industry. It's not THAT hard to get there you know. =P

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