15: When Is Your Story Finished?
This is the last episode for 2021; please join us again on Wednesday, January 5th for the first episode of 2022.
How do you know when your story is finished? The answer to that question is a judgment call with artistic and practical factors to consider. Are you wasting time on endless revisions? What do your readers want? What do agents and publishers want? Is the story long enough or is it too long? How do you know when you’re done writing a book?
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How do you know when your story is finished? The answer to that question is a judgment call with artistic and practical factors to consider. Are you wasting time on endless revisions? What do your readers want? What do agents and publishers want? Is the story long enough or is it too long? How do you know when you’re done writing a book? Answers to these questions in Episode 15 of Writing Pursuits.
Welcome to the Writing Pursuits podcast, where authors like you discuss writing craft, author, life, and book marketing strategies. I'm your host, Kathrese McKee. I own Writing Pursuits, and write and produce the weekly newsletter, Writing Pursuits Tips for Authors. In addition, I am a speculative fiction author.
Writing Pursuits is for authors who drink too much coffee, endure judgmental looks from their furry writing companions, and struggle for words. If you are a writer seeking encouragement, information, and inspiration, this podcast is for you. Let's get to it.
Hey, Writing Pursuits Authors. Welcome back to the podcast. To those of you who are new, I want to extend a special welcome. My name is Kathrese McKee, and I'm glad you're here. Please leave a comment, a star rating, and follow the show to help others find Writing Pursuits.w this is the last episode of:
We plan to reunite with family in a cautious way, while keeping the pandemic in mind. I have been putting off several projects around the house while I got this podcast off the ground, so I hope to get a couple of these completed. And there are the normal holiday preparations to make.ow the last episode [sic] for:th to ring in:
Okay, let’s get to the question of the day.
How do you know when your story is finished?
The answer to the question of whether your story is finished is a judgment call based on artistic and practical factors. Is your story long enough or is it too short? That depends. The old saw is still true: Make it long enough to cover the subject and short enough to stay interesting.
Artistically, you want to deliver a satisfying experience to your readers. You want to meet high standards of craft you aren’t afraid to share with your author peers. You want to garner critical praise. Or maybe you don’t care about that. Even if you don’t care about critical praise, you definitely care very much if readers want more of your work.
Practically, there are expectations about book length which differ according to genre. If you are seeking to be traditionally published, the publisher wants you to stay within certain word counts and meet other standards.
If you are an indie, then you need to meet readers’ expectations, but they are not as rigid as those of traditional publishers.
Experienced indies understand that the length of print books does affect price and the cost of production, so educate yourself about that. In future episodes, we will discover novel word counts by genre.
What do readers want? If you don’t know, then you have some homework to do.
What do agents and publishers want? The good part about this question is that you can easily find out this information with a few internet searches.
But those considerations don’t actually answer the question, do they? How do you know when your story is finished? And how do you know when to stop writing?
Let’s answer some related questions to figure out if you are done writing.
Have you finished your first draft? Subconsciously, you will probably know when you reach this point. You will have developed a satisfying central conflict and an equally satisfying conclusion. You will know your characters and their motivations. Your first draft can be a skeletal, bare bones manuscript or a fledgling novel covered in pin feathers. This is a good time to evaluate overall structure and use the Story Rubric to see what needs more development. There’s a link to the rubric in the show notes.
Have you finished revisions? We will circle back to this question in a minute.
Is the manuscript the best you can deliver? There comes a point when you have done all you know to do. Revisions are complete, as far as you know. And you know what I am going to say next; this is the time to get help. Don’t enlist your family and non-writer friends; instead, get input from more experienced authors and/or professional help from a qualified editor to advise what needs to happen next.
Is your novel’s theme fully developed? If not, don’t despair. Theme is somewhat reader dependent. If you have a few trusted beta readers or critique partners, they can help you identify your theme because they have an outsider’s perspective on the story. Often, themes can be strengthened by a few, judicious tweaks without changing the plot.
For non-fiction, have you delivered what you promised? Have you provided full value? For non-fiction, there is an implied bargain between the author and the reader. In exchange for the purchase price of your book, you are going to deliver the information the reader is seeking in a convenient package. If you haven’t over delivered on the implied bargain, then you’re not finished writing. Under promise and over deliver.
Are you caught up in endless revisions? How do you break the cycle? We will discuss these important questions after a word from our sponsor.
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And now, back to the podcast.
So, how do you know when you're done writing a book?
You know you are nearing completion of your book when:
You have finished your rough draft.
And you have finished your revisions.
And you have identified the theme.
And the manuscript is the best you can do.
And for non-fiction, you have over delivered on your promise to the reader and fully covered the topic.
But what if you are stuck in a vicious revision cycle?
Personally, I need an umpire to stand beside my desk and look over my shoulder. When I am past the third revision of a scene, he would yell, "You're OUT!"
Write it, read it through, change this and that, read it through again, change this and that, read it through, fix the stupid stuff.
"You can't throw me out."
"Why're you still here?"
"This is my book! I wasn’t making a REAL change; I was just fixing one word."
"Get off the field!"
Sometimes, I get caught in a writing/revision cycle in which I "read through my scenes" too many times while I'm writing the first draft. If you've ever had a hamster, rat, mouse, or gerbil and watched your pet churn that exercise wheel, you can imagine how little progress I make when I get caught in the loop of tweeking and fixing, refining, perfecting, and polishing.
It’s like that movie, *Groundhog Day,* the one with Bill Murray. He plays Phil, a smug and jaded weatherman, who must relive Groundhog Day many times until he finally gets everything right.
In this revision-style writing mode, I'm doomed to relive each scene until I finally get everything just right. If I had an umpire to yell me off the plate, I would move on to the next scene much sooner.
I’ve got a story to tell. Back in my Electronic Data Systems—EDS to some people—back in those days, in my former life in a galaxy far, far away, decades ago when I still wore skirts, hose, and pumps every day to work—Can you imagine?—I went through this training program called "Phase II," an intensive boot camp for programmers.
Sounds like Starfleet Academy, doesn’t it? My class of 22 candidates graduated 11. For each project in Phase II, a candidate had three times to compile their program. If the program failed to run perfectly by the third compile *insert the sound of decapitation by sword here*, you were gone. Forever. No longer employed. I'm not kidding.
You'll be pleased to learn I retired from EDS after a decade of service aboard several Federation ships. We successfully defeated many incursions by Romulan forces during my tours of duty, and I lived to tell the tale.
EDS Phase II had the right idea if you apply their policy to writing the first draft. Three times through and that's it. I said all of that to share this suggestion:
- Write your scene as fast as you can.
- Read it through in print, tweaking this and that. Strike One!
- Read it aloud. Make changes as desired. Strike Two!
- Let the machine "read" it aloud so you can fix the stupid stuff you missed the first two times. Strike Three!
- "You're OUT!" Go to the next scene.
This isn’t to say you won’t revise your manuscript again, but for those of us who are perfectionists, this strategy serves to get us through the first draft. I don’t know why I feel compelled to go back and rewrite scenes before I reach the end. Maybe it’s fear the story isn’t good enough and readers won’t like it. Or maybe, probably, my inner editor is a strong-willed wench who won’t take a break. I said wench. Wench!
There is a time to stop writing and call an end to the effort.
James Baldwin said this once in an interview: “I do a lot of rewriting. It’s very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it.”
If the greats struggle with rewriting and finally letting their work go out into the world, then we shouldn’t be surprised by how hard it is to stop and call the work done.
Quit while you are ahead. Stop before you reach the tipping point. This is a tough call for every creative person to make. Painters must decide when to stop fussing with a project, step away from the canvas, and put the brushes down. Cooks must learn when to stop kneading the dough or when to stop adding more seasoning. Musicians must learn the delicate art of dynamics and expression, self-editing their performance for maximum effect.
Writers, too, need to realize when they have reached the point of diminishing value. You can revise a manuscript until it becomes all one note, one flavor. Your voice gets obscured, and the dynamics go missing. There is a point where you should stop asking for input from critique partners or beta readers or even your editor. You can overwork a novel, especially when there are too many cooks in the kitchen or when you keep revising for too long.
When it is time to let go, then commit to letting go. Shift gears to marketing mode for that book. This is the time to get serious about your next writing project, your next book. Give yourself permission to move on. If you are self-publishing, you can always remove the book. Treat it as a learning experience.
If you get halfway through a story and know it’s going to bomb, go ahead and finish the project. That’s my advice because I believe there is value in practicing the process of getting to The End even if you know the book is trash and will never see the light of day. Don’t overthink it. Let logic have a holiday and get reckless. Throw all the silly stuff in and manufacture an ending. Then store the project on Dropbox. Many lost causes have been resurrected after a long time in cold storage.
So my question for this week is: How do you know when you’re finished writing the story?
Thank you for joining me today. If you have questions about writing or need a story diagnostic, please go to WritingPursuits.com. I’ll see you in the new year.. That’s all I have for today. Until next time ...
Thank you for joining us today. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a comment and follow the podcast. If you're new around here, I hope you will sign up for the weekly newsletter, Writing Pursuits Tips for Authors. That link and all the links mentioned in today's episode are in the show notes at WritingPursuits.com. Please join us on Wednesdays for new episodes and keep writing, my friends. Keep writing.