Updated: Aug 5, 2019
I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I get asked this question a fair bit, so I thought I'd wade in on the subject. How do you know when it's finished? Be it a screenplay, a short story or a novel - how do you know when the damn thing is done? And not just done, but ready to be kicked out of the house to fend for itself? That is to say, when is your creation ready to be judged by industry professionals and/or readers?
What I like to say: "You can just feel it."
When you're finished with a story, it has the feel of something complete. Not just because you've typed the words "The End," if you even do that. Or because you've already made a nice social media post announcing the completion your latest work-in-progress ("please acknowledge my competence and perseverance with a Like!"). Or you've just performed whatever traditional ritual-slash-incantation you believe permits you to let go of the work you've spent countless days, weeks, months, even years poring over every little detail of, down to the phrasing of a single simple sentence.
Feeling complete to me means the ending is the best I can possibly make it: high stakes, exciting and emotional, squeezing every last bit of juice out of the story I can. It means the opening chapter, paragraph, line is so exact it could be the beginning of this one story alone. It means characters act consistently except under circumstances when a person might choose to not follow a pattern. It means I've gone over it multiple times to pick out minor inconsistencies (of character, action, plot, timeline, etc), and major ones. And if I'm planning to send it out to publishers or agents, it means making sure there are as few spelling/editing errors as humanly possible. (Death to every homophone in the world, ever!) This often means hiring a professional editor or employing the use of "beta readers," who are not only an invaluable resource for editing issues but also for problems within the story itself.
If you've been writing for a long enough time, if you also read a lot and watch a lot of fiction, I think you will eventually get to a point where you can feel a story is complete enough to let it go.
This is as much a gut feeling as an intellectual one, and it won't be the same for everyone. But sometimes that gut feeling is actually food poisoning and you really need to seek professional help.
Maybe closer to the truth: "It's not done, but you have to let it go."
This could be due to a deadline or a need to move on to another more pressing project. Maybe you've rewritten it multiple times and just can't stand to look at it anymore. You've sat on it for six months or a year and gone over it again with fresh eyes and a fine-tooth comb and there's nothing more you can do for it short of a friggin' page-one rewrite.
In this case, I'd suggest getting someone else to look at it
before you start pitching it at festivals, shopping it to
agents/publishers, or clicking that sweetly seductive
"Publish Now" button.
It's always wise to get some outside opinions, particularly for something as complex as a novel. It's easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, or to have grown so close to some of the trees you forget you're in a forest at all. Getting the opinion of a fellow writer or a voracious reader of your genre, or even better, someone who does both, can turn a so-so book into something readers will really respond to, and not just your mom (no offense, Ma - love ya).
The real answer: "F*cked if I know."
And you know what? Maybe nobody knows. There's a well worn expression in Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything." Generally this refers to the marketability of a movie, but it's just as applicable to the story itself. Have you ever watched a movie and thought to yourself, "That could have really used a rewrite." The jokes were just a shade away from being funny, the characters made stupid mistakes nobody in real life would make, the dialogue seemed hackneyed, the plot points less homages than blatant ripoffs, etc. etc. Of course you have. If you watch enough TV/movies, you've probably thought it within the last couple of days.
Think about how many professionals a movie has to be vetted by before it gets to your screen of choice. At the very least it's fifty. Usually it's hundreds. So how does something so awful get made? Is it a question of taste? Partly, sure. But that can't be all of it. The fact that there are so many junky movies - I'm not talking about Trainspotting or The Basketball Diaries here, I'm talking just pure garbage - proves that nobody knows anything. That even the most lazily written script or book - *cough* Fifty Shades of Grey *cough* - can pass through so many gatekeepers and filter through so many eyeballs and still be a steaming hunk of dog shit scraped off the heel of a Crocs sandal. Bowfinger is an almost perfect depiction of this phenomenon (although it could have used a rewrite itself). The Disaster Artist is even better.
And the truth is, sometimes you're not done
even when you're sure you're finished.
This is something you often discover too late to do anything about. It happens to professionals just as easily as novices. Dean Koontz, for instance, is notorious for having rewritten several of his older novels after publication and even suppressing many of them from being republished, effectively taking them off the market aside from bargain bins and online auction sites. Michael Mann remade his 1989 film L.A. Takedown in 1995 as Heat. Even Hitchcock remade his 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956 with Jimmy "Aw Shucks" Stewart.
I've definitely been guilty of sending out stories before they've completely gestated. And it's a mistake I've repeated even after years of being "in the business." My first rejection came in 2006 - I think - for a short story that had no business ever being seen outside of my own computer. It was an abomination. An abortion of pretentious prose and plot threads without even the loosest connection. Gawd, the first screenplay I ever finished had an "Oscar bait" monologue that had nothing to do with anything else in the script, not even thematically - and I put it up on Copolla's old American Zoetrope website for strangers to read! Several of my short stories I've reworked considerably after having been rejected multiple times by various publishers.
With a recent novel, I started the querying process far too early. I knew it was over the generally accepted word count of what publishers and agents accept for horror, but I didn't think I could cut it any further without harming the story. I was wrong. And while it received rejection after rejection (usually with a very similar incarnation of the same phrase, which I intend to write about in a later post), I honed it further, trimming almost a full twenty-thousand words.
While trimming it down, I ascribed to the notion that if you can cut a scene from a work and the work still stands, it's not necessary to tell the story. Sure, it may add a little more excitement or an interesting character moment or subplot or aside - but if it doesn't propel the narrative forward and deal with character arc and/or theme, you can likely stand to lose it.
"Kill your darlings" is an adage for a reason. Don't be overly precious with pet phrases, characters or scenes.
And sometimes you've said everything already and it's time to just end it.
Is this post done? I don't know. I could probably ramble on for another few paragraphs. But I feel like I've said all I know to say on the subject, and maybe I wasn't even qualified to write this in the first place.
So I'll leave you with this: no less an authority than Leonardo Da Vinci said "Art is never finished, only abandoned." Or maybe it was Picasso. Even the internet isn't sure.
You see? Nobody knows anything.
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