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How to Recognize the Finish Line

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

A story a dancer once told me: It’s opening night. Six dancers wait in the wings, nerves taut. Their entrance is imminent—the overture has begun and they are counting the music—when the choreographer, heeding an infamous penchant for change, rushes over to them aflame with last-minute inspiration. The dancers do the only self-preserving thing they can do—stick their fingers in their ears and ignore him.

You’d think writing is more set—after a certain point, you are limited to the little black marks on the printed page, right? Ha—that’s what the “delete” key is for! And I’ve seen more than one author pause a public reading to decipher last-minute changes scribbled in the margins.

Truth is, we could tinker forever. But all artists—painters, poets, and novelists alike—eventually have to trust that it’s time to let a project go.


Deadlines and other useful delimiters

This post was pulled from a larger collection of wisdom than I could use, but I was limited by: 1) how much I could cram into a reasonable word limit, and 2) my deadline. But is reaching imposed limits reason enough to consider a piece “finished”?

In some cases, preset parameters can both inform a project’s conception and provide a sense of its completion, says writer and painter Joe Skrapits (Allentown, PA). This is particularly true in one of his specialties, plein-air landscape painting.

“The light is at a certain angle, or of a certain quality, or the shadows are in a certain place, and so you give yourself an hour or two to state what that is,” says Joe. “When the light changes, you don’t keep changing. It puts a limit on your participation of that day, anyway. And sometimes that’s good.”

A novel can’t be written in a few hours, but Skrapits offers a useful metaphor. Creating limits around your work is one way to practice walking away from it. A baby’s nap can give you an hour or two to free write. A contest provides a deadline. NaNoWriMo sets a one-month, 50K word-count goal. Creating limits will bring your finish line into clearer focus.


Perfecting vs. finishing

So how can you be sure you’ve come up with the perfect combination of the 90,000 words in your manuscript?

Of course, you can’t.

You will use the word “finished” many times in the life of your novel (you’ll finish… each draft. Developmental edits. Beta reader edits. Concision edits. Agent edits. Publisher edits. Copy edits.) But beyond the mechanics of writing “The End,” from whence comes your sense of completion?

“A piece is finished when it satisfies the artist’s intention,” Skrapits says, adding that his definition presupposes that the artist has a fairly clear vision of what he or she wants to achieve.

That leads us into the first of many ways to define “finished.”

Philosophical: What were you trying to say, and have you said it? Such a simple question and yet we can forget to ask it. Writing a new synopsis after each draft will help determine if your accumulation of words has indeed fulfilled your intention.

Editorial: Is it as tight as it can possibly be? Readers won’t want to wade through excess verbiage to find your story and publishers won’t want to cut down one more tree than necessary to print your book. Make every word count.

Critical: Ask your beta readers what they perceive the story question to be, and if, in their opinion, you addressed it. Ask about character arc, relevant obstacles, pace. While caught up in your novel’s minutiae, you may have trouble seeing the big picture.

Promotional: “This is a great book. It starts slow but hang in there because it has a great finish.” We hear recommendations like this all the time. What we don’t hear: “This book is amazing! It starts with a bang but then fizzles out.” Make your ending strong enough to generate word-of-mouth sales. If that necessitates going back to the beginning to deepen your character’s desire or raise the stakes, and you have the heart to do so, it will be worth it.


Finished—or abandoned?

While “finishing” is debatable, “stopping” is often a practical decision. Maybe your perseverance is used up, or your emotional connection to the work has snapped. A new project insistently calls your name. And there wouldn’t be such a thing as a “drawer novel” if most of us hadn’t experienced the need to walk away because we’d reached a dead end.

“There are times when I complete a draft and feel oddly sated and at ease with the work,” said poet Ann E. Michael (Emmaus, PA). “This can be a good sign. It can also be an indicator of self-delusion. I have heard poets speak of the ‘click’ at the close of a poem, like a perfectly fitting lid. That’s nice to achieve, but it doesn’t mean the poem is done. It just means the ending’s okay. There may still be work to do.”


Letting go

Remember that a novel is a snapshot in time. The concern that led you into the story was indicative of where you were in your life. Hopefully, you will grow as a person and your concerns will change. If you start adding these new concerns into your old novel, it’s probably time to stop.

Most likely, the only creative piece requiring a lifetime of effort is you. When it comes to your writing, if you are finished exploring one idea, move on, or you’ll be rewriting the same piece your whole life long. Keep submitting it for critique and others will gladly reinforce your uncertainty by continuing to find things for you to change.

Skrapits used the notion of a visual arts retrospective to explain why the notion of “finished” shouldn’t cause an artist undue stress. Writers can do the same by imagining all of their novels on a shelf—even those that were abandoned or failed to sell. “You see the whole arc and how everything relates,” Joe says. “You can tap into the dialogue going on among the work. ‘Finished’ matters less, and you just consider where it fits.”

Would you call intuiting when to walk away a “mad skill”? Have you struggled with finding the finish line in your own work? Share: how do you know when you are finished?

About Kathryn Craft [1]

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [2] since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.