One could argue that creative projects are never really done. Like any skill, our creative processes and practices improve over time. You are a better writer today than you were yesterday, and you’re definitely a better writer now than you were three years ago. Because our skills are constantly improving, it can be difficult to recognise when a creative project is finished.
You may finish revising chapter twenty-six and decided on a whim to look back at chapter three. Then your heart sinks. The chapter is crap. Well, maybe not crap, but you know that you can do better. You know that you can lift chapter three to the level of chapter twenty-six. One of the trickiest things about writing a novel is learning how to maintain a consistent voice across three-hundred-plus pages while your technical abilities as a writer constantly improve.
The desire to constantly tweak, lift and better your work never goes away.
If you love words, if you believe in the power of storytelling, and if you respect the craft of writing, then chances are you will have very high expectations when drafting your own novel.
Dani Shapiro once said that it would be an insightful experiment to have an author re-write the same book every ten years because it wouldn’t be the same book. An additional decade of life experience and craft development would ultimately result in a book that may have a similar premise to the earlier edition, but the quality and content of the updated copy would be entirely different.
So, how do you know when a novel or project is finished? Below are a few signposts that may indicate when a creative work has resolved itself.
You’re Kind of Over It
Resentment and boredom are good indicators that the cake is baked. If your eyes glaze over while revising chapter three—again—or if you feel irritated, frustrated or angry every time you sit down for another writing session … perhaps it’s time to hit the pause button and do some evaluating.
- Am I having a bad week or am I truly done with this project?
- What would it feel like to ‘hit publish’?
(This could mean publishing a blog, sending a manuscript to an agent or publishing house or submitting a pitch or article to a magazine)
- Am I done or am I quitting?
(Remember: quitting feels great in the short terms, but lousy in the long term)
- Can someone (other than Mum) read my work and provide some feedback?
- Have I given this project all that I have?
- Am I still in love with this project?
- Does working on this project make me feel excited or drained?
- If I were still working on this project in a month’s time, would I be okay with that?
The answer to these questions may help you decide whether this project requires more time or if it’s actually “complete.”
Pushing vs Perfectionism
Pushing yourself and perfectionism are similar, yet there is a subtle difference.
When we challenge ourselves, we are extending ourselves beyond our comfort zone. We are awake and alert. We feel focussed and excited. The obstacle course we find ourselves on may be tough, but we know that we are capable of finishing it. Even if we’ve never done anything like this before, we know that it’s possible to leap over hurdles, weave between obstructions and cross the finish line!
Here’s the difference: pushing has an endpoint; perfectionism doesn’t.
An obstacle course of this vain doesn’t have a finish line. Instead, the course is a loop that you climb, jump and run through, over and over again until your feet give out and you vomit from dizziness.
Are you challenging yourself to make your novel (or any work of art) the best that it can be or are you reaching for an ideal? Because, dear friend, there is no there, there.
There is no such thing as a perfect novel.
Don’t believe me, let’s consult some experts.
“Near enough is good enough.” Elizabeth Gilbert.
“The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” Randall Jarrell.
Deviation from Original Concept
Another indicated that it may be time to wrap things up is if the project is starting to deviate from the original concept. If you continue to work on, develop and revise your novel for too long, there is a very good chance that it will move away from your initial intentions. It’s good to push yourself and to allow projects to develop and change over time, but you also need to recognise when your constant need to tinker with the work has morphed into unproductive meddling.
There is a difference between tweaking a story in order to strengthen/improve it and changing a story so much that it is unrecognisable. Embedding new ideas, cutting out and adding characters, deleting scenes and writing new ones are part of the creative process but are you doing these things in order to excavate the story buried deep inside your soul, or are you simply fucking around?
Do not ignore the voice of your subconscious in favour of what you think the story should be about.
Finish the story you set out to write and reserve any sparkly new ideas for future projects.
Books are never really done. A writer could spend their entire life trying to making a manuscript match the ideal version they envisage in their mind. At the end of the day, you have two options. You can spend years/decades/a lifetime tweaking and ‘perfecting’ a single manuscript or you can do the work, make it presentable, hit publish and move on to the next project.
The choice is yours, so choose wisely.
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