Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is it done yet?

Today I’d like to talk about knowing when your book is done, as in ready to go forth and terrorize agents and editors in the outside world. These erstwhile folks all say the same thing- don’t send them your work until it’s done. But how can we tell when that is?

The trick is to get it as polished as can be, but still feeling, sounding, and acting like YOUR book.

This came to me today while I was nuking my oatmeal (yes, I lead an exciting culinary life- I do add a ton of cinnamon though ;)). If you under-cook your oatmeal, it doesn’t taste right, and the texture just isn’t done. Yet if you over-cook the stuff, it becomes a giant blob of blech that over flows in your microwave.

Authors can have both problems:

1) Sending manuscripts out without proper “cooking”. Often seen with first books, this is also the result of no cooling off period. We’ve all been there. We rush through a book or project (seen it happen with short stories too) and are so excited about it, we jump right into editing, then send it off the instant we can.

Like being able to purchase a gun, books need a cooling off period. I’d say multiple cooling off periods.

We need time to step back and ignore our baby. Push it out of sight for a few weeks (or even months) before we go through that first essential edit. I’d argue that at least one more cooling off period would be a good idea to gain distance after we’re SURE it’s ready, when we’ve edited until we feel we can edit no more. Give it a few weeks, then check one last time ;).

It’s also good to get it in front of an extra pair of eyes, although there are some pubbed authors who don’t use a beta (aside from their agent ;)) and that works for them. Most of us really do better by having one or more trusted readers plow through things. If even just to catch the “stupids”, those little errors we all make and that our eyes somehow miss no matter how many times we read it.

2) Over-cooking. This can happen when someone has perhaps too many “extra-eyes”, or doesn’t have enough sense of their own voice to know when a comment shouldn’t be followed. It can cause the story to lose the “you” in it, to become watered down to the point where it’s not interesting to anyone.

It can also happen if someone over edits (and I know there are some of you out there screaming, “not possible!” but it can, and has, been done). Part of what we do as authors is take chances. We take a chance that our skill and drive is enough to make our dreams come true. But that takes a lot of faith too, in ourselves. If an author lacks that faith, they may edit their book to death.

I have three books that are “done”, yet like most writers I can’t stop poking at them. There is always something to change, fix, fiddle with. And ya know what? There always will be. At some point you just have to tell yourself, you’ve done all that you can. You’ve finished the book, let it cool off (while you work on a NEW project) then edited like a fiend, let some trusted folks read it, take in what YOU believe works from their comments, let things cool again- then taken that final look. THEN, knowing you’ve done all you can, you hit the submissions’ circuit with pride (you DID research all of your agents, right?!). Then get back to that next book!

What about you- are you an over cooker, or under cooker? ;)


  1. Great blog, I often worry about changing too much of my work based on what others say. I guess you could say I’m an overcooker.
    It’s funny, but I didn’t really realize that was what I was doing-but I do now. I’m going to try and listen to myself more.
    Rebecca K.

  2. I'm a chronic undercooker. After sensing work in I realize I left out a key piece of info.

  3. So dead on! I never know when to stop, and being the stubborn plucker I am, I keep at it over and over. I suppose in my case, that's a good thing. After all, I need to make sure the ms is ready for public consumption, and I don't want to offer anyone the blech, whether it's from under- or over-editing. I definitely undercooked initially, though, so I guess I'm more cautious now. Maybe more time and experience will make it easier to judge where the happy spot is...

  4. It's hard to know when to step away and let it simmer on its own. Too much rethinking is just giving in to self doubt. I agree, step away and move on to another project and give yourself the option to revisit your work at a later date.

  5. Love this analogy to oatmeal, Marie. It's really true! Another great blog post. :)


  6. Thanks for coming by all!
    Rebecca, that's great if the blog helped you sort things out.
    Shawn, it's easy to do- WE know what's in our story- sometimes that doesn't make it to the page! (and I'm guilty!)

    Angela- yup, we have to balance it- not undercooked, but not the overcooked blech laying in the bottom of the mircowave ;)

    Juliette- I agree, and having another project in place helps alot with that wait time :).

    Thank you Melissa! LOL- amazing where blog ideas come from sometimes ;)

  7. Great post, Marie!

    I think I've been guilty of every permutation you've listed. All on the same ms! Hoping this time around is the charm!

  8. I generally edit as I go and then do one more global pass all the way through... Then it goes to my editor and she gives me all sorts of notes to change even more! LOL

    I think it's really important to know when to leave it alone though. If you don't, you'll never move on and write book 2! :)

    Great blog Marie!


  9. Great post, Marie! It can be so difficult to tell when a book is really ready. And then once you're published and writing on a tight deadline, it seems like the books are more rushed and there's less time to tinker. I suppose the hope is that you learn as you go and make less mistakes on the next MS. Hmm... Yeah, I'll stick with that answer. *fingers crossed* ;)

  10. Very timely for me, Marie, as I am frantically editing a book due at the end of the month. A deadline really helps you know the book is done. Jackie Leigh Allen

  11. Thanks Kristen,Lisa, Cori, and Jackie!

    Kristen- LOL- I seriously doubt your alone on that front ;) (raises hand and nods). But I figure since we are constantly learning through out our career, that's just something else we learn (right? LOL!!)

    Great point Lisa- if ya don't finish, how can you find your next wonderful book?

    Cori and Jackie- you both make great points about deadlines- that would definately tell you when it's 'done'!

    Thanks again for your great comments all!

  12. Thanks for the post Marie.
    Looks like I've over AND under cooked the same manuscript!
    Off to get some oatmeal.

  13. Can't stand overcooked oatmeal, so that visual was a great one for me! I'm re-looking at a short (15,000 words) I did a few years ago. I'm wanting to tinker with the beginning, but I'm liking the rest of the story when I didn't think I would. Distance has definitely helped my perspective on this piece.


  14. Thanks for coming by Sally and Pam!

    Ya know Sally, I'm beginning to think most writers have done that too! I thought I was the only one ;).

    LOL Pam!! Glad the visual will have special significance for you ;). Isn't it great when we see something we haven't seen in a long time- and think, dang this is GOOD!

    Thanks again ladies!

  15. I eat my oatmeal out of the microwave a little grainy and without anything except lactose & fat free milk. Maybe that means I'm a minimalist. The truth is I got used to it and now prefer it. I'm for clarity in oatmeal and writing. You can taste the grain and it's satisfying, at least to me.

    Lately I've taken to Helenkay Dimon's advice: She starts her morning going back through previous scene(s) to make [the flow, facts, and arcs tighter]—my words.


  16. LOL!! I like that Bob :). Thanks for coming by and your comments.