How Do You Know When Your Book Is Finished?: The Blunt Instrument on How to Begin and When to End

The Blunt Instrument is a monthly advice column for writers. If you need tough advice for a writing problem, send your question to blunt@electricliterature.com.

This month, she answers related questions from two writers wondering how you know when to stop working on a book.

Dear Blunt Instrument,

Lately I’ve been pondering how authors can know when their books are finished, and I mean both finished as in complete and/or finished as in it’s time to abandon the project (I’m >4.5 years into writing a novel and although I completely believe in it, have been totally baffled by it for a while now). In both instances, when is it time to stop?

Thanks,

-matt

m,

These are two different questions, but the answer to “how do you know” in both scenarios is the same: You don’t!

The way you (and many others) have framed the question suggests that doneness is a property inherent to the manuscript itself — a secret truth hidden inside the manuscript and waiting to be revealed to you. This is the wrong way to think about it. It’s not something you passively wait to discover. Calling a manuscript done is a decision you need to make.

But let’s speak specifically to the first part of your question — how do you know when your book is ready for wide readership? This may sound unromantic, but in the real world, a book is finished when someone wants to publish it. I’ve heard authors say things like, “The book is done when you keep removing and reinstating the same comma,” but for some authors, that stage never arrives. Robert Lowell was famous for endlessly revising even published poems, to the point that Elizabeth Bishop wrote, in the elegy “North Haven”: “You can’t derange, or rearrange, / your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.) / The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.” For other writers, that stage arrives too soon; they start screwing around with commas and other micro-level details before addressing bigger problems like structural concerns or the general “So what?” factor: Why should anyone care?

So I don’t think there’s some universal sign you can rely on to know it’s done. You just have to decide This is truly as good as I am able or willing to make this book, and then hope a publisher agrees that’s good enough.

So I don’t think there’s some universal sign you can rely on to know it’s done. You just have to decide This is truly as good as I am able or willing to make this book, and then hope a publisher agrees that’s good enough.

Now the second part: How do you know when it’s time to abandon a manuscript? I’d advise you to never, or almost never, abandon anything completely. There is almost always some worthwhile nugget (a darling), if not much more, that you can save. In the liner notes–like author’s statement at the back of Familiar, novelist J. Robert Lennon explains how he started writing the opening chapters shortly after 9/11, wanting to capture the feeling of a “subtly altered world.” He abandoned the book after 40 pages, deciding he “didn’t have the chops” to accomplish what he wanted to do. Years later, after writing and publishing several other novels, he decided to revisit those pages, “to see if I could gather some momentum this time.” He completed a draft, but his wife (Rhian Ellis, also a writer) deemed it unfinished. He got the book right on his third draft, when he decided it was really about parenthood (“the transformations our personalities undergo in response to the utter impossibility of doing the right thing day in and day out for eighteen years and more”) and not 9/11 at all.

If you get to the point where you can’t make a book any better, but no one wants to publish it, set it aside and start something else. In two years or five or ten, you might be a better writer, and you might find you are willing and able to make it better. You can take only what you want or need from the original drafts, and leave the rest.

Dear Elisa,

I wonder if you could say more about beginning and ending writing tasks. How do you know when a book is finished? I’m particularly interested in poetry here, since it’s hard to know when to stop revising a novel, but it’s especially hard to know when to stop adding poems to a manuscript — especially if the poetry volume is not a “project” book (I dislike that vocabulary but I’ll use it here for the sake of economy).

And then — how do you know when something has begun? Any telltale signs for when the idea you’re playing around with genuinely becomes A Book You Are Writing or Piece You Are Writing? This question is especially tough when I have ideas during the writing of something else.

Sincerely,

In My End Is My Beginning

IMEIMB,

My answer above applies to your question as well, but I’d like to say little more about the poetry question specifically. I know what you mean by a “project book,” but I’d argue that even if you’re not writing a “project book,” your manuscript needs to have some kind of cohesion, be it stylistic or thematic or (ideally) both. Otherwise it will feel like a thrown together collection of “all the poems I’ve written since my last book” or, in the case of a first book, “all the poems I’ve written ever.”

The good news is, if your poems are somewhat conscribed by time — meaning they were all written during a specific period, like between 2011 and 2013 — some of this cohering takes care of itself, since writers tend to obsess over the same themes for a while. But part of your job when organizing a manuscript is heightening those themes through arrangement and what you include and exclude. So, stop adding poems when they no longer have particular connections or resonance with the other poems in the book.

The second part of your question is a little more complicated. I do think there’s a “sign” you’re working on something that’s worthwhile (to you) — it’s when you enter into a “flow state” while you’re writing. Flow, a concept first outlined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, occurs when you’re so immersed in a task (“a feeling of energized focus”) that you lose all sense of time. Many people see flow states as the key to happiness, since you’re completely in the present moment with no troubling memories of past pain and failures or worry about the future, no awareness of your impending death and so on. Anyway, it’s kind of a gift when you’re that excited about a project — instead of forcing yourself to write, you’ll want to work on it all the time. Of course, realistically you’re not going to be able to complete a whole book in a flow state. Some stages of the writing and revising are going to be a slog. (Not to mention the trying-to-get-it-published part.)

Ideas can function as procrastination — thinking about a new book, which is all open sky and gleaming potential, is a way of avoiding the harder work of completing the book you’ve already started.

Case in point: I know a writer who constantly has ideas for new books and projects, and always while he is already working on other things. Ideas can function as procrastination — thinking about a new book, which is all open sky and gleaming potential, is a way of avoiding the harder work of completing the book you’ve already started. Still, you can start (or as you put it, “play around with”) all the books you want if that makes you happy — the real question in, which books should you keep working on?

And this brings me back to the distinction between decisions and signs: Don’t wait for a sign that you’re working on the right book, decide what book you want to write to completion. Conviction is what’s going to get you through the hard parts.

The Blunt Instrument

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