Sunday, February 15, 2015

Five Ways to Know When You’re Finished Writing

On Friday, February 20th, my new novel, Pandora’s Promise, will be officially published: available for download from Kindle and other venues. Unlike the first two novels in the Pandora’s series, I am self-publishing this one, which means I didn’t have an official editor to tell me when it was ready to show the world. (I did have two excellent editors, but they were not paid by a publishing company.)

So, how did I know when my book was finished? How does any writer know when any piece of writing is finished? The truth is, it’s very hard to be certain, especially when you have written something very long (108,000 words) and complicated, like Pandora’s Promise (four separate sections, three protagonists). With a short story or novella, it's easier to tell--when you can't cut anymore, it's done. With a long novel, though, there is always more you can cut, but SHOULD you? Have you already cut too much? Does continuity suffer? Should you rearrange chapters? Divide some of the longer chapters? At some point, you may be tempted to throw up your hands and write "The End."

I’m afraid there is no easy way to know when to stop writing, but I’ve found that answering the following questions can be very helpful:

  1. Can you cut anything longer than a paragraph without hurting the continuity or flow? In a long work like a novel, you can usually lop off a paragraph here and there to tighten--and thereby improve--the book. But if in re-reading you discover that a whole scene or even chapter could go without disturbing the structure of the book--then go ahead and cut it. If you find you’re keeping something in just to make sure your novel is long enough, you aren’t finished.
  2. Do you have repetitive sections? This seems obvious, but it usually isn’t until you are very close to done with the book and have some distance between your original writing and what will be the final product. For example, in Pandora’s Promise, I had a scene I liked between Zach, the main protagonist, and a fellow-mercenary in a fighting contest. The scene had been fun to write, and imparted a piece of information that would be important later. But on re-reading it after I had finished the first draft of the book, I discovered that the scene was repetitious of a previous scene between the two men. My choices were to combine the scenes, putting the important information in the previous scene, or write something new. I chose the latter course, creating a scene between Zach and a camp follower, which not only included the wanted information but gave me a chance to add some humor and flesh out a bit player.
  3. Do all your plot points make sense? If you have an uncomfortable feeling about anything in your novel, pay special attention to it during your final revision process. An important section of Pandora’s Promise takes place in a large wilderness area, where Evvy is trying to find a comrade who has disappeared. While writing that section I’d had a nagging feeling that Evvy’s wanderings weren’t quite logical--there was too much reliance on luck and coincidence to get her where she was going. My main editor emphatically agreed and pointed out that Evvy’s trip made no sense at all. Though it took a lot of effort, I completely reworked that section, adding a clearly-marked trail that had been left by the missing comrade and reducing the area that needed to be traversed.
  4. Have you tied up all the plot points? Although I always know where a novel is heading, I’m often surprised by how it gets there. In a large novel with many characters, it can be easy to forget to explain exactly what happened to so and so, or how such and such an event was resolved. In Pandora’s Promise, I used one of the last two chapters not only to bring a conclusion to a protagonist’s story, I also tied up and explained the lingering questions about other characters that readers might experience. (How I did that is a subject for a future post.)
  5. Do you have anything else to say about your characters or the situations they are in? If so, you are not finished with the book. Tell the complete story before you write “The End.” I generally do not have this problem, because I write the ending in my head when I’m about three-quarters through with the book. But in the case of the Pandora’s novels, I found out--as I detailed in a previous post--that I had two more novels’ worth of things to say about my characters and their lives.


  1. You make some great points here. I've gone ahead and shared this on my Facebook Fan page and on Twitter. I hope you don't mind ;-).

    Point number 4 really hits home for me. In my first book, 'Relic', I needed to find a plausible stopping point because the book is the first in an ongoing series but I didn't want to leave the reader hanging with too many loose ends. It's a mystery not sci-fi where 'sequels' are the norm. Readers expect a mystery to be solved by the end of the book and most of the dangling plot threads to be neatly tied in.

    I'm nearly finished with the 2nd book in the series, 'Busy Bees'. The plot to this one is much more intricate than the plot in the first book was. Your point reminded me that I need to keep looking backwards to make sure everything I laid out in chapter six or seven isn't lost to the winds by chapter twenty.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Anne! I tend to rely on my subconscious (my greatest writing partner) to tie things up, but it doesn't always remember to remind me. In the case of that summing-up chapter, I consciously went through a list of all the characters who'd had "speaking parts," and if it was relevant, made sure that we knew what happened to them after their last appearance.