How Do You Know When You’re Finished?


How Do You Know When You’re Finished?

Might seem like a dumb question. You’re finished when you write the last scene. But no, then there’s the editing, rewriting, even reimagining. Okay, so then you’re finished, right?  Well…

Are you really finished?

The problem is, there’s always more to do. One more copy edit would undoubtedly cut out more words which, as I have discussed before, George Orwell thought well of. And maybe I should add more suspense before the climax. Have I really portrayed the hero as fully as is needed?

It can be exhausting and frustrating. To the point that you just want to get it over with.

I get it. Winston Churchill put it well:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a joy and an amusement and then it becomes a mistress and then it becomes a tyrant and that last phase is, that just as  you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster.

It’s not uncommon to vacillate between urges to kill the monster and pursuing perfection like an actress addicted to plastic surgery.

Limits of technique and imagination

I’m not sure that this answer fits everyone but it is a rule of thumb that I have found works for me.

I decide I have finished when I reach the limit of my technique and imagination. Which sometimes feel like the same thing.

Let me give you an example.

I was writing a story of a mother (okay, mine) and a daughter (yes) and their fractious relationship. I was trying to present both characters as striving at cross purposes in order to create a situation of fictional conflict rather than just a series of running battles of the no-you-can’t-yes-I-can variety. To do that, I wanted to make both characters, if not sympathetic, then as nuanced as I could.

I tried and tried with the mother and every once in a while, I thought I had her captured. Then she would slip away. To the point that I didn’t actually know if I had achieved my objective. And moreover, I couldn’t think of any more ways to tackle the problem. Perhaps because I hadn’t mastered the craft enough to make it happen. Perhaps because my imagination had been exhausted.

At that point, I decided I had to let it go because I had reached the limit of what I was capable at that time. Even if I wasn’t satisfied and didn’t know if I had achieved what I had hoped for.

Do I have to go to these lengths?

No, of course you don’t have to. It’s your writing after all. But I have found that if I know I have gone to the limit of my abilities in everything I finish, then I can look back on this work from the Olympian heights of The Future and give myself a pass for the clumsy word, the plot hole, or the feeble technique revealed on a later pass. If I haven’t, the rereading is more likely to prompt regret or even embarrassment.  I knew I could have done better and I didn’t.

You may have your own way to know if you’ve finished, but this is how I recognize when to kill the monster.