When is my novel done? This may be the question I’m asked most frequently by my students. It’s a subject much on my own mind as I draw to the close of a novel I’ve been working on for the last year and a half. The plot’s in shape. I like my characters. All the chapters have the right numbers. So is my novel done?
There are some final points I like to check before hitting send.
Some tips for knowing when you’re done
1. Check out the scenes. I’m a big believer in the importance of scene because I think they’re the heart of the novel. Often when I think about a book I’ve loved, what I’m really thinking about is a scene I’ve loved. Remember Mr. Darcy’s first proposal in Pride and Prejudice? Remember his second? I still get chills just thinking about it. Setting the bar too high? Maybe, but I do want to make sure the emtional stakes in my scenes are as high as possible.
2. Is the end compelling? Someone wise once told me that the first 50 pages entice people into the book, but the last 50 pages determine whether an editor or agent will pick it up. I want my reader to get to the end of the novel and feel like they’ve gone on a journey and that they’ve been transformed in some way. That’s what I’m looking for when I read a book. So I make sure to set aside time to go over those last 50 pages. Several times.
3. Is the opening page working as hard as it can? I feel like opening pages are those guys in ice skating competitions who have to lift up the beautiful skater and look calm and collected, even as they’re maneuvering around the ice. Your opening page is doing a lot of work, and you don’t want the reader to see him sweating. But he still has to do a lot of work. Am I getting across the protagonist? Setting? A hint of the plot? Most importantly, am I enticing you into sitting down for a few hours and reading my book?
4. Focus on sentences. This is where I read through the entire manuscript, splicing in the best words I can. Getting rid of adverbs. Experimenting with verbs. Listening to the sentences out loud so I can hear their music. When people are reading your book, they may not be conscious of the ways in which they’re absorbing the craft of your writing. But they are, and I want my sentences to sing.
5. Proofread. Not much to say about that, except one feels foolish if there’s an error on the first page.
6. The final read-through. This takes a bit of patience, which is hard to find at the end, but I do try to put the novel aside for a few days, and then come back to it cold. You really do see things differently when you see them fresh. Amazing how solutions (or problems) can just jump right out at you.
One final tip
Accept that your novel won’t be perfect, no matter what you do. In fact, perfection isn’t really the goal. Much better to focus on laughter and love and story and warmth. Or as the wonderful Anne Lamott says:
How about you? How do you know when you’re done?