I’m not very good at finishing stories. This is an embarrassing thing for a writer to admit, since it’s kind of my job to not only start things, but see them through to their ends.
What I mean by this is that when I can sense I’m reaching the end of something, I can’t always ignore the temptation to just keep adding to it. I think I’ve written the last line and then I come up with a better one, and then another, and I sort of keep dragging things out as long as I can because goodbyes hurt my feelings!
When I launch into editing mode, of course, all the extras at the end usually don’t make the cut. But it’s taken years of practice for me to learn how to tell when I’ve truly told as much of a story that needs to be told.
Every story must end at some point. How do you know when you’re really “done”?
The answer to that question isn’t one you’re going to like, because there’s not really a checklist or formula or a concrete measure of what “done” looks like. When you go into editing and start mapping everything out to make sure all the wires are connected where they’re supposed to be connected and there aren’t any loose ones just hanging around asking for trouble, you could argue that’s a decent road map. But how do you know you’re ready to even start drawing the map?
The truth is, when you’re “done” — really done writing, and ready to bring it all together — you just KNOW.
I KNOW. That doesn’t seem very helpful. Stick with me. You’ll see.
It’s hard to explain this feeling, but I like to think of it as the same sense of overall calm you feel when you know you’ve made the right decision. I recently had to make a tough call, one that I knew was going to have the best outcome but would leave me feeling disappointed and sad anyway. Despite that, when I did finally act on that choice, I felt at peace, as if in my heart I knew I’d chosen the right path.
We could call it writer’s intuition — that’s a good way to describe it and it also sounds fancy. When you’re in tune with your story and characters and you’ve poured as much of yourself into a piece of writing as you could, when it’s done, it’s done. You know it. You know that, at least for now, you don’t need to add anything else to it. You look at the story laid out in front of you and you think — and genuinely believe — “I’ve done it. I’ve finished it for real.”
Perhaps the most important clue is that you are no longer concerned with the basic framework of your story. Up until this point you’ve had plenty of doubts — you’ve had those “I’m not sure if this is going to work” moments. You’ve been building not just the foundation of your story-house, but the support beams and outside walls as well (I know nothing about how houses are built, just take the metaphor for what it is).
Now, you feel an almost inevitable pull to fill in the rest of the house, put up the walls, insert the windows, lay down the floors. You’ve felt plenty of temptation to do this throughout your first draft — of course you have, we all want to shop for just the right paint colors before the walls are even standing, it’s our instant-gratification nature to jump too far ahead. But now you’re confident you can do this. The story is written. Now you get to fix it up and make it look just the way you’ve been imagining it will.
This is the hardest part for many writers, I think — knowing when “done” really means “done.” Many writers rush through certain parts of the process even before others are completed, making the distinction between “needs a little more work” and “I’ve done all I can do” even more blurred. This is why I always advise people to focus on one step at a time: First draft first, where you get to make all the mistakes, then the second draft, where you map out your story as you go and identify problem areas and take pages upon pages of notes of things that need fixing, and so on.
You can’t do it all at once, or you’re never going to finish. Or maybe you will, but you’ll unnecessarily create more work for yourself along the way. It’s kind of like trying to build, paint, and furnish one room of a house at a time. If you build it all first, then paint everything all at once, then buy the furniture, you don’t have to keep going back to Ikea every time you finish a room. You just make one trip. (Again, just enjoy the metaphor, no one realistically makes just one trip to Ikea, I GET IT.)
Along your writing “journey,” you’re going to encounter many hardships. You’re also going to find yourself wondering if a certain scene needs more or fewer words, if different parts of your story need expanding or need to be dissected and reduced. The more time you spend knee-deep in your story, the better your chances of figuring it out.
Maybe you’re not good at finishing things, either. Maybe it’s still hard for you to tell when your story doesn’t need any more additions or subtractions. Be patient. This is something I and many other writers have learned over many years of writing, revising, rewriting, and everything in-between.
Don’t stress if you feel like you’ve been doing this a long time and still have no idea whether you’re doing it “right” or “wrong.” Every writer has their weaknesses, their areas that could use some improvement. That doesn’t make you any less of a writer or some kind of “failure.” Really, it just makes you human.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.