There is done, as in complete, and done as in finished. These are not the same thing. A completed novel is polished and as ready as it will ever be. A finished novel is something you don’t plan to work on anymore. It is an abandoned pile of ideas and scribbles. It is a symbol of all the months (and perhaps years) you wasted on characters you don’t care about and a plot that has become transparent.
Not only do you wish to vomit when you see the pile, you have the distinct impression that you already have and in the form words inked from that bile.
I know… Yuck.
But what are the warning signs? How can you avoid that whole bile as ink metaphor [which is bad enough as a lame metaphor someone else wrote (i.e. me) let alone something you might actually experience firsthand]?
How to know when your novel is done-done.
1. When you stop writing it.
So simple and yet complex. Actually not so much.
You know when you’ve stopped writing your novel. No one else does, but you know. Here’s a simple way to tell though. When someone asks you if you are still writing and you get that panicky feeling in your stomach and then you laugh that nervous laugh or kick the ground and say you’ve been real busy, you’ve stopped writing your novel. This does not mean you need to fess up to your interrogator. Just smile your knowing smile and say, “As always.” If they press further, tell them you never comment on works in progress. That usually gives them the slip and you will be free to wander off into the wilderness of the soul, searching again for that glimmer of hope that will lead you to creative nirvana, the pulitzer prize, and of course sales figures that will make lesser mortals send you hate mail.
2. When friends, family, or complete strangers suggest you begin a new project.
Like all artists, writers get obsessed when they go deep into a project. Long hours spent staring into the darkness or the sun (take your pick) are the norm. Ideally, something beautiful erupts from this state of hyper-pensiveness and spills out onto the page. But there are also times when we just explode in a general way and fling our frustrations into the faces of spouses, co-workers, small children, pets, gas station attendants, the dead, our mothers and maiden aunts, and of course the mirror.
It happens to all of us, but it doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the project. However, if it happens enough, we might be wise to heed the advice of those passing by and try moving on.
I realize this goes against all writing advice you have ever read, but really there are times when a novel can be more damaging than useful.
3. When you no longer care about the characters.
I mentioned this briefly at the start, but it deserves its own heading. Once you have stopped caring about the characters, your novel is finished. This does not mean that you should print it out and send it to the ten agents you’ve been pining to make your own. No, the novel is done in the sense that you are not going to get anyone to read it (except for the aforementioned mothers and maiden aunts). If you do not care about your characters, no one else will. Novels with characters readers do not care about are not novels, they are blogs.
4. When you forget you are writing a novel.
This actually happened to me once. I was going along with the first draft of a book. I had about 65,000 words, and then something distracted me. It could have been a butterfly or some shiny object on the sidewalk. The next thing I knew, I was in the middle of writing a series of articles for a website and I’d forgotten that I was working on a novel. I never went back to that book. [By they way, a total of 87 people visited that website in the two years it was up and running. So, I feel real good about that too.]
5. When you start “getting serious” about your job.
Nothing will kill your creative fire quicker than getting serious about your career (viz. the one that pays the bills, not your writing). Soon after committing to the world of business or whatever field you happen to be in, you’ll find that your tenuous connection to the world of literature seems even more tenuous than ever.
Tenuous Plus! Now with Indecision and Regret!
It will take some time to get back to the world you actually care about (i.e. writing). When you do return, don’t look at your old manuscripts. It will just depress you.