When is it time to stop working on a manuscript?
I might as well say now, this post is going to be one of my least concrete.
Last week, February 26, I turned in The Moonlight Mistress. I’d turned in the draft at the end of September, 2008; this version was the result of revising in response to my editorial letter. This involved, mainly, adding some new scenes and adding depth in a few key areas. I’d completed the major changes three weeks before; I then sent it out to a reader and let it sit, while I worked on a proposal for my next novel.
After that point and before I actually emailed the document to my editor, I did a fair number of line edits, mostly just tightening up prose and making sentences clearer. I didn’t add any more scenes, or majorly change any scenes. Occasionally, wild ideas for changes to the story would fly into my head, none of which could be accomplished without major restructuring. Not only did I not have the time for that sort of restructuring, but I’d reached a point in my mind that I call done. So I did not try to implement any of those new ideas. Those ideas can be for a future book; after a certain point, there’s no more to do but start a new book.
Done varies from person to person and from book to book. There’s a saying that no book is ever finished, only abandoned. What I reached last week was the state of abandonment. The novel was complete in my mind; it had a shape and structure and feel to it that further tampering wouldn’t substantially alter. It felt done. It was done with me, and I was done with it. Deadlines sometimes help with this feeling!
For me, doneness also happens in stages. There’s being done with the draft, done with the revisions, done with the whole thing. There’s the stage of having added all the scenes you need, and the stage of having slipped in as many thematic reinforcements as you can manage. There’s the stage of having a good ending. I can be done with each of these things, and then pull away, and later go back.
One sign of doneness is that I can’t work on the novel any more; thinking about it leads to a feeling of calm emptiness, a feeling that I’ve done all there is to be done. This isn’t true, of course. But I think it’s a necessary stage. Otherwise, I would just pick and pick at small things, and never be able to draw back and look at the novel as a whole. If I don’t feel done, and don’t stop working for a while, I will never get a complete idea of the novel. It won’t be done.