When is it time to stop working on a novel?
As with anything to do with the craft of writing, there are a lot of different answers, and the only answer you can count on is “it depends.”
But here are my thoughts on being Done, and how they work for me on contracted novels. To give some background, I just turned in the fourth novel I’ve completed. I rewrote my first completed novel twice before I submitted it anywhere; it never sold. Prior to my first completed novel, I spent quite a long time on two other novels that were never finished. I’ve had quite a few stages of Done.
There’s a saying that no novel is ever finished, only abandoned. When I abandon, the novel has reached its required wordcount and is complete in my mind; it has a shape and structure and feel to it that further tampering and small enhancements won’t substantially alter. It’s done with me and, just as importantly, I’m done with it. (Also, the deadline will have arrived. I’m good like that.)
There are ways I can tell I’m Done. These feelings vary from writer to writer, and the only way to recognize them is to finish something, preferably several somethings, and identify your sensations of doneness for yourself. (Nobody said this was easy!)
For example, when I have a complete manuscript of the appropriate wordcount, I might enter a fair number of line edits, tightening prose and clarifying sentences. I don’t count those things against being Done. Done means I won’t add any more scenes, or majorly change scenes. If I have ideas for changes to the story, it always turns out those changes can’t be accomplished without major restructuring, so I don’t make them. Those ideas are for some future project.
Being Done for me is also a multi-stage process, partly related to the publication schedule.
I’m done with a polished draft when I submit the manuscript to my editor; any substantial changes after that will be completed because of her suggestions. It does help to know that period of leeway is built in; it helps me to let go of that polished draft for the first time. I’m done again when I’ve finished the editor’s required revisions (and usually a few more of my own, that occurred to me in the intervening months).
Then there are the final line edits, which I will continue to work on until my brain is in the condition I call Empty. That is when I am really and truly most sincerely Done.
Empty means I can’t work on the novel anymore. Thinking about it leads to a feeling of calm peacefulness, a feeling that I’ve done all there is to be done. This isn’t true, of course, but when niggling thoughts arise, I brutally crush them. If you never submit the novel, it can never be published.
Finally, there can be a hard call that’s sometimes associated with that mental stage: sometimes I reach Empty when I’m not Done. And then I know, from experience, that it’s time to abandon the manuscript and move on, because I’ve learned all I can from it. At that point, I either start a rewrite from scratch, usually from a new angle, or begin another project. I’ve learned that if I dig away at a manuscript for too long, without making progress, that it’s likely it won’t sell, or will only sell with great difficulty. I don’t often reach that stage these days. I’ve studied my own process so I can start over before the novel goes too far in the wrong direction.
I think recognizing when I’m Done is a necessary stage of my writing process. If you’re never Done, you can’t move on to write something new and better.