How Do You Know When You’re Done?

guysanddolls            I’ve been working Ellen, a novel, for well over two years, and the drafts are now coming thick and fast. I just finished another, one that’s finally finished enough for my first reader – who wept at the opening, it’s that good. But it’s still not finished.

This first reader has marked what really works, has asked questions where he’s lost the thread, and has pointed out places where he needs and/or wants more, and other places that simply told too much. (I’ll follow Elmore Leonard’s advice here and try to leave out the places readers skip.)

While my first reader’s been reading the book, I’ve been doing other things: I took a short vacation, fulfilled some civic obligations as an elected official, went snow shoeing with my puppy and did my taxes. Tomorrow, I’ll clean my studio and start over. Again.

Those of you who have been following my progress might very well scratch your head about now and ask, How will you know when you’re done?

Trust me. I’ll know.

I’ll know, just like the song from Guys and Dolls.

dice            When I started writing Ellen, I was like Sarah Brown, imagining every bit of the novel, just as she imagines every bit of the man she’ll chemistrylove. But writing a novel is a process of discovery, more a matter of chance and chemistry, like Sky Masterson’s take on love.

I’m talking about a novel – and writing a novel is a lot like falling in love, welcoming the discovery of the unexpected, the quirky, the unknown. And there’s not just chemistry involved, but alchemy, the spinning of story from straw.

When I started, I knew just what I wanted the story to be, and it was hard going, trying to get the characters and complications to comply. It took a few drafts before I knew the characters well enough, knew their milieu, understood how they might act and react to one another, and learned to trust them on the page. After a few more drafts, they were telling me their story; I was just writing it down.

Now, I have a beginning, several middles, and an end. Now, it’s time for me to start ordering my characters around, taking out some of the middles, complicating these characters’ lives a bit more, and give the story more arc. Now, I’m ready to rewrite the book.

So how will I know when it’s done?

I’ll know.

Just like in the song: Suddenly, in my heart, I’ll know.

dll2013Deborah Lee Luskin lives in rural Vermont, where keeping the bears out of the bee yard and the weasels out of the chicken coop is a constant challenge.

21 thoughts on “How Do You Know When You’re Done?

  1. Deborah,
    Thanks for sharing this. As a new writer who is struggling with getting all the words on the page, I am heartened and reassured by your thoughts about “knowing.” Thank you.

  2. Hi Deborah, It’s so much fun to be in love, isn’t it? Someone called it ‘splendid misery’.

    How did you write your first draft? Did you take the NaNoWriMo approach and write day and night until you got it all down? Or…did you build up an outline until you reached some point and started writing?

    Thank you, Silent

    • “Splendid misery” indeed!
      How did I write my first draft? Let me count the ways. I did do NaNoWriMo in 2013 and added 50k words to the 20k already on the page. And I’ve attended a weekly writing salon, where I’ve written to prompts, producing about a thousand surprising words at a time. But mostly, I write daily in my studio, and when I’m not actually writing or staring out the window, I’m thinking about my characters and what I might write the next time I sit down. But this is me – everyone has a different process.

    • Good advice!
      The other side of the coin, however, is cautioning those who rush a work into the world before it’s done and polished. I think fine woodworking is a good analogy: there are all those painstaking steps of sanding and finishing before the piece is really done.
      Thanks for your comment – and for reading the blog.

  3. Pingback: Posts I loved this week | Taylor Grace

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