Vicki's Book News and Articles

Craft: When Is the Book Done?

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

Q. How do I know when a book is finished and ready to be submitted?
It’s a common question—for multi-published authors who work on tight deadlines and for as yet unpublished authors who are juggling commitments for writing time.
Writers have the tendency to nitpick a manuscript to death—given the opportunity. Yet we want our work to be clean; mechanically and technically sound. The problem is that when the writer is working so closely with a book, how can s/he tell when done is done?
A. The short answer: A book is finished and ready to be submitted when the writer reads it and changes nothing of consequence to the quality of the work. If the writer is just shifting words here and there and isn’t editing for clarity or rhythm or consistency or to sharpen image or characterization, then it’s time to call it done.
Writers go about writing a book in different ways. Some edit as they write. Some streak through an entire first draft and then edit. Some write in scene or chapter blocks and edit in scene or chapter blocks. All ways are right–whatever works for the writer, works for the writer. No method that works for the writer is wrong (though some may be illegal ). The point is eventually we all end up with a book that we’ve written, edited, checked for errors–major and minor–and we can’t think of a thing to change to make it a better book.

Our natural tendency is to piddle with it anyway. The reasons why we delay taking action or a logical next step vary:

1. We finish the book and we feel we have to “do something” with it. We feel compelled to have it critiqued or to submit it to an agent or editor. That action invites criticism and/or rejection. After all our hard work, we hesitate to open ourselves to that. Actually, we strenuously resist opening ourselves up to that.

The only cure for this is to remember:
A. Agents, editors, and authors are all focused on the same goal: making your book the best book possible.
B. A rejection is no more than an invitation to submit elsewhere–to an editor or agent who appreciates the brilliant work you’ve created.
C. Even a professional’s opinion/critique is merely his/her opinion on the marketability of the work. Not the value of it, and certainly not the value of you, the human being. Comments are on the work, not you, so take nothing personally.

Once you remind yourself of all these things: SUBMIT THE BOOK.

2. We finish the book and we have to start another one. After months (for
some writers, years) with the same characters, the plot that’s evolved and developed, we feel a warm sense of accomplishment and creatively drained. In
total honesty, we have mastered our novel universe and we don’t want to let go and start over building another universe with strangers, which new characters will be. We like our current characters. We know and understand them. We are confident of how they react in any situation and if we let go and start over on a new book with new people, then we’re staring at a blank slate.

Often, blank slates intimidate us. They attack that vulnerable part of us (as human beings) that positively hates being forced to tread outside of our comfort zone. That comfort zone includes all that is known to us: all we have mastered and all we know to expect and anticipate. We know how to react. If we leave our comfort zone, we enter the unknown. If we don’t, we stagnate. What’s a writer to do?

Accept the reality of what is happening: we’re scared. At core level, we fear. Writing one book doesn’t automatically mean we can do it again. It required hard work, sweat, tears, and mountains of discipline to write the book. We poured heart and soul into it and we must accept that the only way we are going to write another book is to again open those veins (and arteries and organs) and pour our all into it. That’s doubt, friends. We doubt we have it in us to write another book. The good news is doubt is normal. The better news (for the fragile side of us) is that it’s rare for ANY writer to be exempt from it.

Fortunately, we know from life that there is an effective way to deal with fear and doubt: faith and courage.

Faith that we have the desire, ability, and discipline to produce the work and the courage to actually do it.

So acknowledge what is going on at core level, understand and accept it, then press on and write the next book. Give yourself permission to fail your way through it. Finish it, and you’ve failed your way to success. The first book wasn’t a fluke. You CAN write books.

In practical tips: You might start the next book before you finish the current one. This lessens the transition shock because the new-book slate isn’t totally blank. Or you might make the second book relate to the first one through a secondary character or a setting–some thread that you pull from the first book to use in the second one.

So the work is done when you’ve corrected all the obvious errors (spelling, mechanical or grammatical challenges) and you’re not making significant and valuable contributions to make the book better, you’re just piddling.

The comment in your question that concerns me most is that “everyone who reads the work has different opinions on what needs changing” bit. Listen, I’m going to be brutally honest about this. I don’t care who is looking at the work, they are not objective and their opinion is just that–their opinion. It’s up to you to hear and listen to what they say and then to evaluate it.

This concerns me so deeply because I hear case upon case wherein authors enter this or that contest and have this or that group critique or this or that person critique and everyone’s opinions are different. The authors’ far too often take what everyone says as gospel–even if the suggestions were based on the person having read only a few chapters of the book–and the author ends up with a hodgepodge of work that has totally destroyed the author’s voice. That’s the very thing that sells a book–the author’s voice. So you must guard yours voraciously.

I’m not saying to ignore what everyone else says. I’m saying to weigh and judge what everyone else says, to incorporate the changes YOU feel best serve the book–and ONLY those changes YOU feel best serve the book. Ditch the rest of the suggestions.

This is one time when you must never forget that while a fresh eye often catches the things the author misses, that fresh eye also misses things the author didn’t miss. For example, once a copyeditor mistook a setting my characters passed through for the actual scenes settings. Having missed the actual setting, the copyeditor noted throughout the book a host of challenges created–all based on the erroneous setting premise.

I received an edited manuscript with a couple packets of post-it notes stuck to the pages. Pages I had to review, stick explanation post-it notes on, referring the editor back to the actual setting and the page upon which it was established. I thanked that editor for trying to save my backside (which if she had been right, she would have) and we got it straightened out. The point is that even professionals make mistakes. Their intentions are honorable, their motivations are honorable, but they too are human.

The moral of this story: check, and double-check, then check your double-checks.

In the end, be grateful for the advice of others, but trust your gift, your inner wisdom, and your vision of the book. Other writers look at what you write and comment based on their perspective and approach to writing that story. They try to distance themselves and be objective, but no human being can totally disassociate, and so a part of them is present in their remarks. You must decide if that part of them serves your vision and story well. If so, incorporate their suggestions. If not, don’t. Either way, keep uppermost in mind that this is YOUR story and it is written through YOUR perspective. Don’t edit yourself out of it. You belong in it.*


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