When Is a Novel Finished?

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I was told recently that I’m ‘sitting on’ my novel.

It’s true that I completed a second draft of Father’s Creed, and it’s true that I haven’t started on my third draft. To those on the outside of the creative process, I suppose this gives the impression that the book is either done, that I’m procrastinating in finishing it, or that I’ve allowed it to enter some limbo state whereby its escape would only be made after some unachievable perfection.

I do have a plan for marking it complete, though ‘complete’ is a relative term. Once publishers request changes, it will enter a new series of edits before they mark it as complete.  Still, this assumption of unnecessary delay forces me to ask some questions.

After all, if I wanted to finish the third draft, I would be working on the third draft. Instead, I’m working on the first draft of a different novel. That does give the strong sense that I’ve got this finished product gathering dust for no reason. Why am I not working to finish the novel that’s much nearer completion?

There’s several reasons:

  1. I don’t want to get trapped into endless editing. I’ve spoken to writers who have projects in the double digit years and/or drafts of a novel. I think this only happens when you have no real sense of why a story isn’t working, and/or no knowledge of how to fix it. By making sure I list each issue or concern, I can have a checklist of what to address rather than an open-ended concept of repair.
  2. I needed space to let the story breath. I needed to allow my own distance from the project so I might see it through new eyes. Even now, months after the second draft was done, I feel like I’m still learning about who my characters are. I have a stronger sense of where the heart of the story is, and I know which scenes need the most care to express this heart. Time away gives me focus for when I return.
  3. I want to prove that I can write more than one book. They say everone has one good book in them, but I have more. This isn’t a hobby for me. I want to be a writer, and nothing supports that goal more than having multiple books. My fear is that if I fixate on Father’s Creed, then I’ll never be able to move on. By immediately moving on, I gain confidence in my ability to be a storyteller. I prove to myself, and to potential publishers, that I’m at the beginning of something, not the end.

I’m not worried about whether or not I’ll finish my first novel. It may take longer than people expect, and they may not understand why it takes so long, but that’s alright. I have a plan, and like markers on a long journey, there are many milestones. Father’s Creed will be one of them, and there will be more. I have a long road ahead.

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