How Do I Know When My Novel Is Done?

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

Sending out your novel is easy. You can upload it to CreateSpace or fire off an e-mail to an agent. Whew! you think. Now my novel is done. It’s out of my hands.

At one extreme are writers who send out work soon after they’ve finished a first or second draft. At the other extreme are writers whose work becomes a dusty ream of paper on a shelf. Sending out your novel too soon invites rejection and/or bad reviews. Hanging on to a novel too long can cause an author to lose interest. The author abandons hope.

Leonardo da Vinci

Another great quote from Leonardo da Vinci is this: “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” At some point, we authors must risk “doing.” We must put our work out there in the world. Image from Europeana via The European Library

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
Leonardo da Vinci

In this post I’m going to share some insights about when it’s time to release a book into the world.

“Putting Up” A Novel Or Serializing With Wattpad

A few weeks ago I was hanging out at Arizona State University’s “Desert Nights: Rising Stars” writing conference. I overheard a man and woman talking about the novels they had uploaded to CreateSpace. The man wrote science fiction, and he had “put up” his novels (meaning put them online), even though he had not yet completed Arizona State’s “Your Novel Year” online curriculum. The woman, a fellow student in the program, had also “put up” a novel. She had learned a great deal from her online writing workshops, and she was contemplating taking her novel down.

I stood transfixed. It had never occurred to me to “put up” work until I had done my best to perfect it. I’d never thought of the possibility of using CreateSpace to essentially “vet” a novel. Partly, that’s because most agents won’t consider self-published books. Agents figure that a self-published author will have sold all the books they’re capable of selling to family and friends. The self-published author will have exhausted the book’s sales potential. Agents make exceptions for books that sell in the tens of thousands, but those books are rare.

Possibly these two young writers were naive. Maybe they weren’t seeking to take the traditional path: find an agent –> New York publisher –> book in bookstores.

I could see that for writers of genre fiction and for writers young enough to be comfortable in the digital world of online music and online book creation, putting the work out there in the world might very well be the way to garner a following.

Wattpad is a site where writers serialize their work and put it online as they write. Fans (who read on their cell phones) let the writer know whether they liked the story, didn’t expect a plot twist, and so forth. The writer responds via Wattpad’s message app, so there’s an instant back-and-forth.

Wattpad’s model of publication is very similar to what’s happening in the indie music scene. New bands work to develop a fan base, and they stay in touch with fans on social media. If you’re writing fan fiction or in any of the genres–like fantasy–that are hugely popular on Wattpad, then maybe that platform is a good proving ground for you. At least you’d get feedback and know whether something was working or not.

Uploading A Novel To CreateSpace

My style, however, is not to put work “up” or “out” there until I’m sure it’s done.

Woe to the writer who puts work out for public consumption and then finds that readers loathe the book. It’s soul crushing to get one and two-star reviews. Even three stars can make authors wonder if the time spent writing was really worth it.

Negative reviews won’t build readerships with readers. Why would readers come back for another poorly written, poorly edited book? The author will have gone to a lot of trouble for nothing.

And, there’s another reason not to rush. Amazon has a policy against taking down a book once it has been published. They’ll make an occasional exception if a book has been published exclusively as an e-book, but they don’t always go along with an author’s desire to have a book removed from her or his Author Page. I know this because I’ve recently faced this issue.

But rushing a book into print isn’t the only way authors can err.

Novel’s Done But Author Won’t Let It Go

I never know whether it’s a streak of perfectionism or the fear of failure that makes writers hang onto work too long. If you’re in a writing group, then you’ve undoubtedly experienced the “helpfulness” of your colleagues. You bring in a rewrite, and your pals find some new issue. Back to the proverbial drawing board you go, but when you return with a rewrite, they raise new issues.

I love writing groups, but what I’ve noticed over the years is that they almost never say, “It’s done. Send it out.” Members of writing groups only feel they’re doing their jobs if they can identify flaws. Like you, they’ve lived through various incarnations of your novel. They’re no longer capable of giving it an objective read. So, how can you tell if your book is truly done?

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

At the Desert Nights, Rising Stars writing conference, I heard award-winning, sci fi author Michael Stackpole mention that he knows a novel is finished when his revisions change less than 10 percent of the text. At that point his editor takes over and flags any remaining problems.

Writers of genre fiction (science fiction, romance, detective stories, and fantasy novels) are generally less interested making each sentence shine. They’re striving for fast-moving plots and engaging protagonists. In addition, writers of genre fiction may have contracts that require them to produce four to six books a year. Under those circumstances, it’s pretty much draft and go.

In literary fiction–the kind most folks in MFA programs hope to write–the sentences are just as important as the characters or plot. Writers of literary fiction can spend five, seven, or ten years on a book. Donna Tartt is a prime example of an author whose output is low, but whose novels are highly regarded.

Sending Out The Novel To Agents

Many writers have a great query letter and synopsis. They may even have a full manuscript. They will have done due diligence and made sure the agents to whom they wish to send the manuscript are agents actually interested in representing what they’ve written.

On the other hand I’ve seen many writers get discouraged when agents don’t ask for the full manuscript, or when an agent sends a tepid response. Don’t use agents to tell you whether your manuscript is done.

“You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.”

– Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

Here’s my advice.  Sending out your novel to an agent will lead to success if you do this first: Solicit feedback from ten strangers. These are your beta readers. They’re possibly English teachers or librarians or retired doctors or lawyers. Ask them to make notes and let you know when they got confused or bored. That will help you enter the mindset of the “smart stranger.” You can then go back and take another look.

You have one shot with an agent. Agents won’t look at your work a second time. Make sure you send your very best.

The Trap of Endless Revision

What happens when authors get confusing letters from agents? Some agents want one thing. Others want another. Authors revise again and again. It’s almost as if agents have your novel in a drawer, and they want you to match their version.

If you’re getting back letters with pat-sounding phrases like “I just didn’t fall in love with the characters,” think about what the agent’s saying and see if you agree. If not, don’t bend yourself into a pretzel. If you’re getting personal letters, that’s a sign you’re close.

Keep querying. If you still get no takers, then hire an editor who has never seen your work before. Let that editor know what kind of feedback you’ve been getting. (Here are some good leads on hiring an editor.)

When the editor sends you her or his frank opinion, get right on the revisions. Don’t put the book on a shelf and let it gather dust. You truly will lose interest. You’ll lose the spark.

Options for Writers Who Can’t Find An Agent

If agents still aren’t interested, don’t sweat it. You have given the book your best. Now is the time to put it on CreateSpace. You’re not asking the public to vet your manuscript. Because of the careful work you’ve done, you can be confident that readers won’t find typos.

If you don’t want to deal with uploading the book yourself, you can approach an independent, non-fee-charging press. They take the formatting off your hands. Most do an excellent job of proofreading, and they’ll know how to get your book uploaded to Apple’s, Barnes & Noble’s, and Amazon’s online bookstores.

Both my books have been published by independent publishers. I found these publishers by compiling a list I’m happy to share with you. Click here and receive your “Publishers’ Report.”

In the amazing new world of digital publishing, you have many options that didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago.

Do the best you can every step of the way, and when you publish, be proud that you’ve defeated the dust bunnies and turned that “work-in-progress” into a book.

3 Responses to “How Do I Know When My Novel Is Done?”

  1. ed says:

    good post – critical, well-read beta readers, esp agents, editors etc – i was lucky, am in the biz – made my book better. whether it is good is anyone’s guess, but the beta readers made it better. MUCH better.

  2. Brad Graber says:

    I’d never consider putting a book out until it is absolutely done. And I think a lot of Indy authors run afoul of that rule – since they may be reluctant to pay for professional editors and proofreaders. Good post.