The Three Times Your Novel is Finished

"How long did it take you to write your book?"

"How long does it take to write a novel?"

"When did you finish your novel?"

These questions are all close cousins, and I've done enough group setting Q&A sessions to know that they're inevitable—someone always asks.

For writers, answering these questions requires some math. When did you start it? When did you finish it? The difference is the length of time it took to complete the novel. Simple, right? Then why the hell can I never seem to come up with an answer?

For a moment, let’s set aside some variables concerning start date and process. Authors write at different speeds, they write with different routines. They write different types of novels (wouldn’t you know it, a 300k word novel takes longer than a 75k word one). Some authors stop and start and dabble with other projects. Maybe they started the novel, wrote a few chapters, waited 10 years, and then restarted the novel to complete it.

But when did they finish it? Any author who gives a definitive answer about an end date has a sensibility of neatness that I envy—I count three different times I consider a novel “finished.”

The First Draft

The first time your novel is finished is at the end of your first draft. I don’t care how much you outline, how much you edit as you go, or how unpolished or polished the final manuscript may be—when you reach the final line of the final page of a first draft, you feel finished. My anecdotal proof of this? Social media is littered with pictures of word counts and “The End” and closing pages. Most of these are first drafts—and the author even says as much. The author knows she’ll have to revisit the manuscript to improve it. She knows that rewriting is inevitable. So why all the pomp and circumstance?

Whether you’re self-published, traditional, agented or unagented, your second and most significant “Hey I finished my novel!” moment comes when you defeat the “final boss” of feedback.

Writing is unique because feedback has an incredibly long delay, and the human mind craves feedback. If you’re a comedian, you know if a joke needs work when you tell it on stage and no one laughs—the feedback is instantaneous. If you’re working on a film set, you are surrounded by peers that can help improve a scene from take to take. You can try different things with feedback and a sense of artistic collaboration. Authors have no clue if they wrote something great. They get no feedback. They tend to write in a vacuum. I feel that this is the source of Steven Pressfield’s “resistance.” We are programmed as cavemen to desire instant gratification, and this is mindset programming we have issues outrunning in many areas of our lives: a sleeve of cookies today instead of looking great next summer, spending that $100 today instead of having thousands for retirement.

So of course we’re going to say we’re finished, solicit feedback, and allow ourselves as authors to have a sense of completion and accomplishment—even if it is temporary.

The book is finished! But the work has just begun.

The Final Boss of Feedback

The second time your book is finished depends on where you are in the landscape of publishing.

Whether you’re self-published, traditional, agented, or unagented, your second and most significant “Hey I finished my novel!” moment comes when you defeat the “final boss” of feedback.

Authors spend time soliciting feedback from readers that they trust, but there is always a “final boss.” For me, it’s my agent. I try to use up all my beta readers and feedback resources to get the manuscript as good as I can get it, and then I turn it in to my agent, knowing full well that between him and his assistant, I tend to get fantastic notes and suggestions I’m always excited to implement. The rewriting process continues.

Self-published authors (at least, the good ones who run their empires like professionals) have a similar circle of readers, but I don’t think it’s uncommon for authors to have that ONE reader they are hoping to really impress. That’s the final boss, and whenever you feel like you’ve leveraged their feedback and impressed them, you feel like you’ve finally finished.

For me, this moment arrives when my agent says “This is great, I’m going to try and sell this.” I feel like the novel is finished! Time to celebrate! I’m done.

But not really.

Editorial and Copy Editing

The third time your book is finished happens after your manuscript sells. Sounds crazy, right?

An editor at a publishing house acquires the book. He or she contacts you, and the message goes something like this: “This book is wonderful and Earth-shattering, and I’m excited to work on this with an author as talented as you—now, here’s ten pages of notes about what’s wrong with the book.”

Yup, you’re right back in the mix. Now, I’m untalented enough to get ten pages of editorial notes. I’m sure that Stephen King gets more of a rubber stamp so they can meet his next publication date, and that he's been around the block enough times to dodge any whammys at this stage of the game.

Once you're through editorial rewrites, the manuscript goes through copywriting. To me, the final, final, final time your book is finished is when you approve those copy edits, and the book goes to print.

A lot of authors feel like that’s just smoothing things out and that once significant work is completed that involves story and character (basically craft edits), the book is finished and approving copy edits doesn’t really count. But to me, that’s your last chance to make any changes, so when you give your seal of approval, that’s when you close the book on closing your book.

Thoughts on Finishing

I didn’t write this as an end-all, but as a way to open the discussion on the complexities of asking an author, “How long did it take you to finish your novel?” For me, I tend to feel three separate occasions of completing the book—small, successive victories that build upon each other to allow me to fight the war of writing a novel.

I’m sure other writers will give different answers, as feeling that your book is finished is, in a sense, as unique as a fingerprint. As a final bit of advice for any writer at any stage in their career, I’ll say this out of experience—whenever you think you’re finished, whenever you think the book is fantastic, commit to doing more work, to soliciting more feedback, to re-reading that manuscript one more time. We live in a time of instant gratification, where it's tempting and easy to click “publish” in the Kindle direct publishing dashboard.

Too many times, that button is hit prematurely. The Amazon store seems packed with raw and unfinished novels, from the covers to the copy-editing. I've seen many great stories ruined by a disregard for hard work, a great premise blighted by a less-than-full commitment to drawing out the full measure of the story, the characters, the conflicts, the beats.

One too many rewrites is better than one too few. Commit to finishing your novel multiple times and trying to cross multiple thresholds of quality. My magic number is three, and it encompasses six to ten rewrites.

What are your magic numbers?

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