Are we there yet?: When do we call our stories done?

How do we know when to call our writing finished? Right now I am hurtling towards that moment when I will call my novel done. The thought is so exciting. It is the next stage in my journey, before I begin seeking publication.

This is Rice Creek, a park I walked frequently during the four years I lived in Mounds View, Minnesota. During this winter’s return to the US, I had the chance to stop by Rice Creek for another walk. Many an hour did I spend here contemplating the story I am just now about to complete.

Yet there are the undeniable questions associated with things done, for when I declare that I am really at last finished, after… I check old file timestamps… three years and 161 days, then I also incur a new kind of responsibility: What, precisely, will I do with it now? Who should read it? What kind of feedback will I receive? Will someone ever be interested in publishing it? There’s a significant amount of nervousness associated with these questions, for at the point the novel is done, I am saying, at least to myself, “This is what I can do. This is what I have produced, and it’s time for others to see it.”

There exist two very real pressures that I feel as I contemplate that end of this longtime project: the first is the pressure to really be done. At last, after so long, how gratifying it will feel not to file an unfinished draft away but to really say, “This is something I have done. I set out to write a novel, and I have.” I want to move on to writing something different. I want to start querying agents. I feel ready.

Yet, I feel another pressure too: the desire to tinker, to quadruple-check, and to perfect this draft until it is beyond reproach. That last bit: perfecting. That, I think, is the sticky bit. Because obviously perfection-seeking is a trap, and obviously I could fiddle for years more and still find little details, words, or sentence structures that, in that moment, call out to be changed.

Walt Whitman famously revised his Leaves of Grass continually for more than three decades, “finishing” nine editions (six of which were officially typeset and printed) and publishing the last of these only months before his death. In January 1892, the New York Herald wrote this about what was to actually be the final Leaves of Grass:

Walt Whitman wishes respectfully to notify the public that the book Leaves of Grass, which he has been working on at great intervals and partially issued for the past thirty-five or forty years, is now completed, so to call it, and he would like this new 1892 edition to absolutely supersede all previous ones. Faulty as it is, he decides it as by far his special and entire self-chosen poetic utterance.

A couple of things stand out to me here: the book is finished, “so to call it.” This makes me chuckle, because I can imagine the reviewer wryly wondering if in a couple of years the paper will be asked to issue a similar statement about an 1895 edition. The other piece of this quote that resonates with me is the last bit, that Whitman is calling this latest edition “by far his special and entire self-chosen poetic utterance.” I wonder about my own poetic [or in my case, fictive] utterance. What do I want it to be?

A page of Leaves of Grass, with Whitman’s revisions. Source: the New York Public Library’s Treasures collection

What we write, and, crucially, what we write and share with others, is a part of us. What do we want that part of us to say? How will it be perceived? Publishing is a true act of self revelation, and it is understandable that we might be reluctant to relinquish the ability to revise.

Yet, to never call the novel done? That is a way of hiding. Tinkering lets us avoid potential criticism and lets us allay, for the moment, the anxieties that come with sharing our writing.

Really, perhaps, Whitman struck a middle course, publishing and sharing with impunity, and then revising the thing anyway. Nine times.

Rice Creek again, looking down the wintery path.

I’m working on a final readthrough right now. I really do think it’s the final one, at least before I start my querying process. I’m conscious of the desire to keep revising, but I really do think it’s time now. End of the year, end of this project. We’ll see where it all takes me.

Thank you for reading. I would love to hear from you. What projects are you working on? How do you decide when a piece of writing is complete? What factors do you consider?

Best wishes for Christmas, for the other day’s solstice, for your writing, life, the new year, all of it.


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