When Is It Done?

By John Gilstrap

So, you’ve finally made it to the end of your manuscript. Your plot points are all where they need to be, the characters have the personalities you hoped for, and the climax will leave people breathless. Whether it took you four months or four years, it’s seemed like a long time coming, but the day has finally come to either ship it off to your agent, or to go about the business of finding one, or to do whatever needs to be done to independently publish.

But wait. Is it really done?

Remember that place in Chapter Seven where you struggled with the action, and you wondered if the action was really motivated? Maybe you should go back and read that one more time. Yep, sure enough, it’s not all that you had wanted it to be. Maybe it was actually better before you made the change.

So, you delay pressing the SEND button for a day or two and you tweak that section again.

Oh, crap! If you make that change, then the big reveal in Chapter Fifteen won’t be as powerful. Maybe you should change it back. Yes, definitely, you should change it back.

And there. On page 24, you used “which” when you should have used “that.” Oh, no! Did you make that same mistake again? Oh, hell, you never were really sure of the difference in every circumstance.

Oh, my goodness! Look at all the adverbs . . .

When is it time to stop editing?

That doubt circle I present above is something we all face, but sooner or later, that circle becomes a spiral that will drag your project to destruction. So, when is it okay to stop? Some things to consider:

It will never be perfect.

I cringe every time I read a book that I wrote a few years ago. Why did I use that stupid phrase? Why did I use so many words? Why am I incapable of understanding the proper use of commas?

Everybody’s inner quality control manager is different. A writer-buddy of mine hires two proofreaders to go over his manuscript before he sends it to his publisher and their copy editors. And every book still has a typo or two.

I don’t enjoy my buddy’s level of success, but my bank account is smaller, too, so I don’t do that. I start every writing session by rewriting what I wrote the day before. When I get to the end, I do one major editing pass to make sure that the story’s connective tissue is all there, and then I launch it.

Staring in the mirror doesn’t change the image.

There comes a point in every manuscript where you’ve either nailed it or you haven’t. Staring at it longer, tweaking individual words and questioning decisions you’ve already made doesn’t advance the story. If you genuinely liked the story yesterday, give that fact as much weight in your heart as the fact that you’ve got doubts today.

A few typos won’t torpedo your project.

An asterisk to that would be that the first couple of chapters should be pretty friggin’ pristine. Once you get people hooked on the story, the tolerance for human error increases.

True story:

My first literary agent was “Million Dollar Molly” Friedrich with the Aaron Priest Literary Agency. This was in the mid-1990s. A friend/neighbor of hers said she had an acquaintance who’d written a memoir and would Molly look at it. With a cringe, she said yes and was handed a typewritten single-spaced manuscript on onion skin erasable bond paper. Despite every submission protocol being broken, she gave it a read and agreed to represent the book. The author was an unknown fellow named Frank McCourt, and the book was Angela’s Ashes. It did okay.

The lesson:

If the story is great, there’s lots of room for forgiveness of the little stuff.

So, TKZ family, when do you decide it’s time to launch your literary baby?

This entry was posted in Writing by John Gilstrap. Bookmark the permalink.

About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

15 thoughts on “When Is It Done?

  1. I recently sent in a screenplay. It made me laugh and it made me cry (both the reading and the sending). For me, it’s doing the job. Hopefully it’ll do the same for someone else.

    I’m a perfectionist who has a hard time letting go. It made me a good proofreader when I worked at a publishing house, but I realize now I should send stuff out earlier than I do. It was easier when I wrote newspaper columns. My editor would call at 0900: I’ve got a hole. Can you fill it? Me: Sure. When do you need it by? Editor: Noon. Me: Okay.
    Columns were easy and fun. I want everything else to be perfect.

    I ran across a quote yesterday by Tim Grierson. I put it in my work journal.
    “This is terrible. It’ll be less terrible later.”

    Thank you, John. I needed this today.

  2. Good post, John. There’s a lot to be said for listening to that little voice that twinges in your gut in an attempt to tell you not to change something in your story.

    Similar to your own process, after each writing session, I read back over what I wrote during the previous session (1000 to 1400 words) and allow myself (my characters) to touch it as I go. That gets me back into the story, and when I reach the white space I write the next session.

    When I reach the end of the story, I take a brief break, then come back to read over the last session. When that’s done, I run a spell check, then send the story off to my first reader. He catches wrong words and inconsistencies (anything that pops out at him as he reads), offers NO critical-mind advice on how he would have written it, etc., and sends it back. Then I create a cover, write some brief sales copy, and launch it.

    Finally, if it’s early enough in the day, I start the next story.

  3. When it’s not getting better, just getting different, it’s time to let go. I trust my editor will do the final polishing. Right now, she told me she’s been working on a book by a new author who’s dyslexic and has little grasp of the mechanics. But she loves the story and is willing to put in the hours to fix it. We can’t all have editors who will do that. My process is to print and read each chapter/scene as I write them, make minor markups (reading away from the computer–for me, it’s in bed), then use that as my starting point for the next day.

  4. You described my situation in this post, exactly. I learned after my first novel that my self-assessment of my grammar, punctuation, proofreading skills were highly overrated. But they haven’t improved in effectiveness or efficiency.
    Six weeks ago, I finished the manuscript for my fourth novel. Since then, I have worked through three full edits and am halfway through my 12th proofreading, which is of my author’s proof copy. I thought I fixed every possible inconsistency, error, and punctuation misstep by the time my proof copy arrived (except for commas because only three English-speaking people in the world truly know how to use commas).
    Right there on the cover, I found a capitalization error in the title. The title appears on the top of every page of the novel, so this is not a quick fix. I’m skimming the text and looking for formatting issues.
    Other than that, I think I’ve reached my capacity for proofing, because I’ve had a daily migraine for the past six weeks. After my husband reformats the manuscript to correct the title error, I’ll order another proof copy to check the title fixes. Then I’ll hit publish.

  5. I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s the Practice which is about the creative process and the practice of “shipping”, putting out into the world the result of that creative process. Perfection is impossible. Controlling the outcome of publishing (shipping) is impossible. What we own is the process.

    My own struggles my last few books are earlier in the process–anywhere from the outline itself to the 2/3rds point of the novel. Moving to mystery writing meant a huge learning curve, and the resulting first draft of my first mystery novel didn’t work. So, I’ve spent a lot of time building a better one, in outline.

    There’s always a point of diminishing returns, in revision as well as in outline form at the beginning, and that’s the point where I find myself merely rearranging chairs rather than making changes that really improve the layout and architecture of the house.

    After I’ve revised, received feedback, and revised again, I’m ready to publish. To “ship” and begin the process anew.

  6. This is a tough issue for me. Thing is, I love revising — which makes it even harder for me to let go. One way to hang on to what’s left of my sanity is to close my ms and refuse to look at it after I’ve submitted it.

  7. When is it done? What a great question.

    I’m a slow writer and something of a perfectionist, so I have lots of time to decide when I should hit “Send.”

    I work with a developmental editor early in the process to make sure I’m on the right track. Her approval of the final draft is an important step forward, but then I put my ms through ProWritingAid to get rid of all those overused words and adverbs. After that, it goes to a copy/line editor. The last step is the proofreader. Then I believe it’s ready. It may not be perfect (okay – it definitely is not perfect.) It’s an asymptotic function – it may get better with each change, but will never reach perfection.

    The real question for me is: does the story lead the reader on the journey I intended? And does it give the reader something to think about after he/she puts the book down?

  8. You’ve given me motivation to send my manuscript on to the agents. I find myself doing the exact same thing above. Fingers crossed.

  9. John –
    Great topic!
    In 2014 prior to the indie release of my first book (Jodie Renner edited, beta readers, 4 years in the making) and I was wrestling with the question you describe…is it ready?
    I attended a writing presentation made by a nationally successful thriller author. After his presentation we spoke and I posed the question “how do you know when a book is ready?”
    He laughed and said “Must be your first book or your indie and your writing is not how you pay your bills. I know when my books are done – it’s called a deadline.” I felt he was being a bit tongue-in-cheek but not completely.
    When I’ve come across the occasional “off” book by an author I enjoy i’ve wondered if the deadline was a factor. Incredible pressure to nail it creatively and make deadline every time.

  10. Deadlines seem to be the primary reason for “I’m done” for a lot of professional writers. “I’m sick of looking at this” is mine.

    On typos. My science fiction adventure, THE ONCE AND FUTURE QUEEN, had a long and strange journey to finding a forever publisher which included two name changes, four publishers, and EIGHT copy editors including my last editor who was a retired English teacher. (Ah, the Wild West days of early small press publishing.). Anyway, despite so many trained eyes on the manuscript, the final published copy has a typo on the first bloody page. Sometimes, typos are just evil.

  11. Great question, John.

    For me, it’s when I can’t take another stab at it. I’m sick of the story. I have other stories I want to write.

    It might not be a good reason to say it’s done, but it’s a reason. 🙂

  12. I’m late to the dinner table tonight, John, but still want desert so I’ll share my process. I write about 3,500 words per morning when I’m in production mode for a project. I do next-day editing and move on to more content. Once the m/s is done at first-pass, I sit on it for a few weeks. Then, I plug it in Grammarly and clean it up while twinking it a bit. Once that’s done, I send it to my human proofreader who does Word mark-ups. She doesn’t change a thing in the e-file and leaves it to me to type in each typo correction, punctuation error, and clean-up. She says I’ll never learn to write properly if she makes the changes for me.

    That’s it. I take the Word.doc, format it as an ebook file, publish it, and move on. If I waited for “perfection”. I’d never get anything finished.

  13. I edit ferociously as I go: I work one scene at a time, linearly, from a Dramatica-planned ‘storyform.’ I feel my way through what the scene is supposed to do, letting the characters tell me HOW from the WHATs. Then it becomes canon: it actually happened.

    When a scene is finished, it goes through a long list – listening, the Autocrit steps which count things (my damaged brain has a tendency to offer the same word), reading through again, items from the style sheet – and then it gets plopped into its slot in the final product.

    When a chapter worth of scenes is finished, my beta reader gets it, we write back and forth once or twice, and I’m permanently done with that chapter. It’s sort of like writing linked short stories. When my beta reader calls me an evil woman, I’m sure I have the effect I want, and I don’t go back. VERY occasionally, once or twice a big fat book, I will need to insert a sentence in a previous scene.

    When all the chapters are finished and vetted, next step is publishing – formatting and cover – and I’m finished.

    The only whole-book edits I do are to read – which occasionally pops a typo out, or an awkwardness, or a check to see if I got the horse’s name right (it poked at my subconscious – I hadn’t) – if life is letting me move on for some reason.

    This keeps pieces I’m working on small enough for my brain to process as a whole. I’m curious if anyone else writes like this, because I haven’t met anyone who does.

Comments are closed.