How do you know when you’re finished? How do you know when it’s time to let go of your manuscript and send it out, either to beta readers or to your agent or to querying agents? Because let’s face it: every time you look at it you will find something you want to change, sometimes even after the novel is published.
There isn’t a simple answer to that question. It’s something I’m asking myself right now, with my manuscript out to beta readers and my agent. Fortunately, this isn’t a final final draft ready to hit the presses. I’ll have more editing to do before it’s even ready to pitch to publishers, I’m sure. But my hope is that I’ve nailed it enough so that there will be no more rewrites. I’ve fleshed out the story, created my characters (I hope successfully), and ideally, all that’s left is for new eyes to spot moments of weakness I can easily fix.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Every writer has a different process, and takes a different amount of time to write a first draft. Heck, every book by a single author can have a different process and take a shorter or longer amount of time to be able to say, “At least I know I have a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
I’m capable of beating myself up in both directions. I hear someone cranks out two publishable manuscripts a year and I think, “Man! It’s taken me 1, 2, 3 years to finish one!” And then I hear about someone else whose novel took them ten years to complete, and I think, “I’m a hack. I should have taken more time with it.”
This manuscript was a fast one, on the surface of it. Three drafts plus a final edit in 13 weeks, give or take. The only one I’ve written faster was under deadline, when I found I had to start all over again writing Liszt’s Kiss six weeks before it was due to my editor, and I finished on time. If I’m honest, I think my average is 6 months for something I’m ready for people to read, a year until it’s ready for prime time.
For what it’s worth, my checklist
One of my worst habits is jumping the gun, just wanting to get it out there to see if it has a hope. That’s really not fair to beta readers or my agent, so I’ve developed a process that works for me. It gets me to a draft that is at least respectable, and ready for substantive comments. This assumes you’ve got a first draft, and that you haven’t done anything as crazy as saved each chapter in a separate file…
1. Check your timeline
I work in Scrivener, which is a great program. One of its best features is that it makes your structure visible (especially if you color code sections and points of view). It also makes it easy to move things around. And if you’re writing a historical novel, therein lies danger. You might have one character referring to another he hasn’t met yet, or discussing an event that is yet to take place.
Also handy for this step is a program called Aeon Timeline. It syncs with Scrivener, so if you’ve put a date in your metadata, the scene will automatically show up in the right place on the timeline, and you can see your whoopsie.
Of course, you can search key dates and use the sidebar in a word processing program, but it’s a little more difficult.
2. Read it through AGAIN
Listen, if you can’t do that, don’t expect anyone else to. At this point I’m still on the electronic copy in Scrivener, and probably editing like mad and going, “Gah! How did I ever write this garbage!” This is sometimes the point at which I discover that I need to start in a completely different place, or I missed some key aspect of the story, or I realize that I need another point of view to make it work. Thus leading to draft 2.
3. Copy and paste the whole thing into a different format
Some writers at this point would print out a hard copy, but I hate to waste paper. And I have a slow printer where I have to catch the pages one at a time. If you’re working in Scrivener, you can compile your manuscript to Word. If you’re already in Word, you can copy and paste into plain text, or even an email. Do it by sections if it’s overwhelming. It never ceases to surprise me what I see when the text looks different on the page.
4. Go through and edit again
Take the problems you found in your differently formatted manuscript and incorporate them into your working file. In doing that, you’ll probably find more things you want to change, maybe quite substantive and fundamental. That’s OK. You could call this Draft 3.
5. Put it through an editing program
Some writers swear on AutoCrit, but I find the monthly fee prohibitive, even if it’s the best. Right now I’m using Pro Writing Aid because (you guessed it) it integrates with Scrivener. Now, a word about these programs: You have to be selective about incorporating the corrections they zero in on. Not all passive voice is unnecessary, not all backstory needs to be eliminated, not all sentences need to be short, and dialog sometimes needs dialog tags. Also, adverbs are occasionally necessary. As I just demonstrated. But the programs can point out words you overuse, unconscious repetitions, lumpy sentences, and mistakes in grammar. It’s just another way of looking at your text.
6. Print it out
For the first time. Read it start to finish, mark it up with a red pen or highlighters or whatever your preferred method. Check for things like accidentally changing a character’s name or age. See how it feels to read it through. Are there places you start looking at your watch? Mark them. Then go back to your electronic manuscript and do those edits.
7. Print it out again—and see if you’re finished
This time, make it look better. Send it to be printed out and spiral bound with covers. Anything to make it look a little different.
If you still think it works, if you still like it and can read it through from beginning to end, it’s time to get some feedback from outside.