How do you know when it’s finished?

Last week, my wonderful critique group gave me feedback on the final pages of my book. Although there were still revisions to be done, I thought I heard the distant strains of this woman warming up her vocal cords…

But how could I be sure?

I took a few art classes in college. One memorable day, my professor took the class to his personal studio. He showed us his beautiful, intricate pencil drawing (his version of a rough draft) and the beautiful, intricate oil painting that he painted based on that drawing. There were minor differences between the two, but they were definitely versions of the same work. One student looked at these results of countless hours of painstaking effort and asked, “How do you know when it’s finished?”

I expected him to describe some sense of completion or satisfaction or pride. Instead, he said this, in a very matter-of-fact manner:

“When I can’t stand to work on it for one more second.”

I have been asking myself the same question of my book lately. How do I know when it’s finished? And while my art professor’s answer worked for him–he was professionally and aesthetically very successful–I don’t think it works for me.

Is it done when my critiquers says it’s done? When I find an agent or editor who wants it? When everything I do only seems to make it worse? When I start a new project and lose interest in this one? When, despite taking a step back for a week or two, I can’t stand to work on it for one more second? Somehow these all seem like unsatisfying, analytical ends to what has been a very satisfying creative process.

If only it were as simple as crossing a finish line or playing with all your heart until the clock runs out (or catching Tebow’s pass and taking it to the end zone in sudden-death overtime.) But I can’t find the finish line or hear the buzzer, and alas, Tebow is nowhere in sight.

This, I suppose, is both a blessing and a curse. I don’t know when it will be finished, but I’m grateful that I still have a chance to make it better.

Perhaps that’s my answer right there.

6 thoughts on “How do you know when it’s finished?

  1. I wish I knew the answer to this! In some ways, it's much easier to figure out with academic writing. I always tell my students: It's not finished, it's just due.

    That said, I think when you hit the point where the return isn't as high–in other words, when you've done as much as you can to polish it–then it's time to send it out.

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  2. This is a great post, Elaine. I think we can overwork something, but it's really hard to know when that is happening.

    I like your idea, Rosalyn. Maybe self-due dates are the way to go.

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  3. Um…if Tebow does show up, please make sure you call me…

    I think it includes when you can no longer add anything to your MC, conflict has been resolved, minor characters are well developed and there aren't any plot holes. Because honestly, I think every writer could always FIND something to change, but if you are seeking for that change, you are probably done. And I envy you for it right now 🙂

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  4. “When I can't stand to work on it for one more second.” That's pretty much how it is when I'm painting too, but when I'm writing, it's more difficult to back away and hang it up. Visual is so immediate. Words–well that's altogether different. There are endless varieties or words and subtleties that can be added, or subtracted or embellished…

    To be honest, I haven't 'completed' a novel yet. I guess when my publisher's editor says enough, it'll be DONE!

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  5. Love this post, Elaine!

    Hmmmmmm….I wish I could give some advice. But since I'm so far from being done I'm just envious of you being so close! 🙂

    I'm so excited for you to get your work out into the world though. I can't wait to hear about your success. Then all of us will have to get together and dress up like that lady in the first shot and sing in your honor (oooh, what a visual, right?)

    Good luck!

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