Monday, July 6, 2009

When are you done with your novel?

You come up with an idea, you plan your story (or not), you write your chapters, and at some point you have a first draft.

That version likely won't be ready to publish, so how many iterations does it take to say it's done?

I'd like to say there is a magic number, but there isn't. When you are a beginning writer, it might take 10 iterations to be publication ready. When you have been writing for a long time, it will probably take less, but it might not. If you are really lucky the first draft may good enough, but I highly doubt it.

It takes a lot of iterations because the novel will evolve as you write. There may be scenes at the beginning of the novel, that no longer make sense as the story changes. During editing and revision, those scenes have to be ripped out, or modified.

Some writers iterate on the first chapter until it's good enough to publish, then move onto chapter 2. Once they finish chapter 2, they move onto chapter 3.

I couldn't write this way. I would never finish.I'd be so busy going back and making changes to the beginning all the time, that I'd never reach the end.

I think you're much better off to write a rough version of the complete story, and revise it until it works. Throw out the parts that don't make sense anymore. Revise the parts of the story that suck. Make the language as tight as you possibly can. In between iterations, set the book on the shelf for a while.

So back to my question, when do you know that you're done?

I wait until the book has been left on the shelf for a few weeks, and start reading it through. If I smile when I read it, and I don't immediately make changes to every line, I'm done.


  1. I know when I'm done when the editing boils down to changing a word here or there, but nothing of substance. I also normally try to set a goal of (insert number of choice) drafts. My normal goal is five drafts. By that point, I should have honed the novel to a publishable point . . . at least in my opinion.

    Sometimes, we have to push the baby bird (i.e., our manuscripts) out of the nest, whether we think we're ready or not. This pushing out point is different for every writer.

    Also, I always leave space between writing and editing. Finish Rough draft, wait 3 weeks, do first read through. Finish First draft, wait 2 - 3 weeks, do another read through, and on and on, until I get to the point where I'm happy enough with what I wrote (I'll never be totally happy, it's just me) to begin the query process.


  2. I've just come to the point where I believe the ms for the first book in my series is ready to be sent off. It's been through a dozen drafts, but the last read through I did, I changed only a word or two here or there, to alter a mood, or better describe a particular feature on someone.

    Now I'm transcribing the ms for the second book into the computer, overhauling as I go. That's how I roll. Write the entire ms, put it in the computer, giving it the first hack and saw, then go back as many times as I need to. In the meantime, I leave it lying, work on other books in the series, or something totally unrelated.

    It's like painting. You get a good tight sketch of what you want. Then you throw all this paint on it, you can't see the sketch anymore and it looks rather like a train wreck. Lastly, you pull out the details of you original sketch from within that paint. It looks a little different from what you drew the first time, but it captures what was in your head just the same.

  3. Thank you for this one. As a beginning writer I often get discouraged when a draft has problems. It can feel like a never ending process. It helps to know that those who are published work through many drafts. I don't know why I thought they got it right the first time. Thanks, again.

  4. I know I'm done when people stop reading it and saying "What about.....?"

  5. Just so you all know. The image I used was meant to be a subtle poke at Microsoft, since I am such a Mac bigot. I wasn't trying to compare us writers to Baboons, though some days it sure feels like that.

  6. I'm honestly not sure when that point comes. I know while writing the story will tell me when its done, but I don't think that I've gotten to that perfectly publishable point. I know I've jumped the gun with it my first time around (sending queries out for a novel I just finished writing), and I got exactly what you would expect (a pile of rejection slips). I hope that while working on the draft process it will be just like the story. I hope that it will tel me when its done.

  7. I don't know the answer to this question yet. I hope to by the end of the year, though :)

  8. I think it is impossible to go through my manuscript without making changes. Therefore, I tell myself it's finished when my changes are all minor and don't affect the story in any way, like changing a red sweater to blue.

  9. I never thought it would happen to me, because I spend so much time beforehand thinking about the plot, the characters, the technology, but on this last one I got stuck.

    When Steven King got stuck in The Stand, he put a bomb in the closet.

    Yeah, I'm not doing that. Or maybe....

    No, I worked it out another way.

  10. I was having this discussion with a writing friend recently. It is very difficult to let go & stop fiddling. I like your simple guide (leaving it on the shelf & then if you smile when you read it & are not immediately making changes)- I shall try this when editing the novel I've just completed.
    Kat :-)


Join the conversation, add insight, or disagree with us! We welcome your thoughts.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.