You’re on the home straight. Your first draft is far behind you, your characters are well thought out, and your plot is clever in all the right places. A few more months of work and you know for certain your novel will finally be finished. The only problem is that you knew that three months ago, and three months before that, and three months before that…
Finishing a novel is a superhuman task, maybe even more so than starting one. It requires you to officially finish with a piece of work that everyone will judge and no-one is waiting for. Why not take a little longer to finish, when no-one is pounding on your door for the finished copy?
After all there’s always more to do. Well…
Why you need to finish
Obviously you need to finish your work so someone can read it, but if you think another month of work will lead to a better product then that reason isn’t enough to really commit to finishing. Instead, reflect on the fact that authors change over time.
Who we are now is not who we will be tomorrow, or in a year’s time. The things we value and believe, the stories we are suited to tell, can change gradually or suddenly. Because of this, a writer who keeps adding time to ‘perfect’ their work becomes a victim of shifting goal posts.
This is where the tortoise comes in
Those with a fondness for paradoxes will know ‘Achilles and the tortoise’. Here the philosopher Zeno of Elea suggests that in a race between the hero Achilles and a tortoise, where the tortoise has been given a head start, Achilles will be unable to catch the tortoise.You can’t finish your book for the same reason you can’t outrace a tortoise. Click To Tweet
If both competitors travel at constant speeds (one fast, one slow) then after a finite amount of time, Achilles will reach the point where the tortoise was when Achilles began running. During the time it takes him to reach this point, however, the tortoise will have traveled a short distance further. It will then take Achilles some more time to reach this new point, during which the turtle will have traveled slightly further. Whenever Achilles reaches a point the tortoise has been he will still have further to go to catch the creature, and this problem continues into infinity so that Achilles can never overtake the tortoise.
Of course Zeno, and Aristotle after him, offered this paradox as something clearly predicated on false assertions. Runners can rest easy that in real life, a (relatively) simple equation proves them quite capable of catching up with a tortoise.
Authors, however, have no such luck.
Shifting goal posts
As our values and experiences change, so do the stories we want to tell. Writing being what it is, it takes time to change our work to reflect these new ideals. In that time, however, we have changed just a little bit more. More time is spent perfecting our work to the new ideal, yet when we are finished we have changed yet again. The ‘tortoise’ of our perfect story is constantly moving, even as we move to catch it.
This isn’t just a matter of personal growth; reading your own work changes your perceptions, even before you’ve finished your story. This means that you’re constantly working on something you’ve already planned, read and rewritten. Certain passages or events will lose their impact due to familiarity, even though to a reader they would be as fresh as you originally intended.Your writing will never declare itself finished. You have to make that decision. Click To Tweet
Instead of writing two or three novels, with a gradual evolution of viewpoint and style, you end up writing one book for years with no real end in sight.
It’s difficult to break out of this cycle, where the very act of perfecting your work to a new standard breeds yet another ideal to be reached. The end result is very rarely an author who is completely satisfied with their work.
Finishing your book is an act of willpower; the ability to declare a book ‘done’, even if you aren’t completely finished with it. Thankfully, this doesn’t have to come out of the blue. In fact, it can be the result of one very specific question.
Can you improve it by ten percent?
If you’re set on finishing your book, then you need to set deadlines. Give yourself a fortnight to work, but set a date and time by which you will officially be finished. Work after that point will count as a new editing period, with its own deadline. The more official you can make this, marked on a calendar or declared to a writer’s circle, the better. This stops you giving yourself ‘just one more day’, but to put a limit on how many fortnights you spend on a book, you need to ask yourself if the next editing period can improve the book by ten percent.
That may seem like a lot, but it’s the nature of change, experience and that fleeing tortoise that after reading and redrafting a piece of writing, you’ll be able to see how around a five percent improvement could be made. If, on top of that, you can honestly say that a further five percent improvement can be made, then feel free to enter another period of rewriting. If you can’t, then it’s time to finish.Been working on your book for a long time? Ask if you can really improve it by another 10%.Click To Tweet
That’s not to say you couldn’t improve it if you tried, or that the improvements don’t matter, just that your readers and yourself will benefit more from the work being finished than from the four percent actual improvement plus a delay.
The best way to make a decision stick is to act on it as soon as possible. Once you’re at the stage where less than ten percent of your book can be improved, it’s time to begin the publishing process, whatever that involves in your personal experience (contacting publishers/agents or preparing your book for the platform of your choice.)
Remember, given that five percent ‘tortoise gap’, the most you can hope for at any time is ninety-five percent satisfaction. That might feel great, but writers have spent years trying to drag themselves up from ninety-one percent instead of publishing and applying that same time to a new project. With some distance, you’ll see that multiple great works are preferable to one that never got off the ground.
If in doubt, regard authors like Stephen King or Terry Pratchett; authors whose style and outlook have changed radically over many, many books. If Pratchett had kept updating his first book to the ideal of his recent work, he’d have one nearly finished novel and more than fifty unwritten ones.
The real truth is that your latest ideal only looks the best because it’s the newest. Forcing yourself to back down and trust the competence of your past self will pay off, and in hindsight you’ll realize your book was complete a long time before you were finished with it.
Have you got a cautionary tale for other authors, or have you managed to escape the perfection cycle? Either way, please share your story in the comments. For more on this topic, check out 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book and How Loving To Write May Stop You Getting Published.Here’s How A Tortoise Can Help You Finally Finish Your NovelClick To Tweet
11 thoughts on “Here’s How A Tortoise Can Help You Finally Finish Your Novel”
Getting past that final push to write a book (non-fiction in my case) a book by Heather Sellers, Chapter After Chapter was extremely helpful!
It’s really more for fiction writers, and the first half was over my head, or I was past that stage or something. More psychology than I needed by then. The second half really helped me to stay focused and finish the thing! .
It’s odd the places you can find what you need. The second half of a book aimed at a different type of writing is a brilliantly authorial place to find inspiration. I’ll put it on my list to check out.
I think ‘finish the thing’ should be the motto on the author coat of arms.
‘Produco eam’ underneath crossed quills, with a turtle and monkey rampant.
Great advice. I chased the turtle for 25 years. Finally, drew a line in the sand, took a huge breath and clicked the button to self-publish. The monkey is finally off my back.
Thanks very much., and kudos for keeping the ‘animals tormenting authors’ theme going. Getting a piece ‘just so’ is one of those things that feels like the be all and end all before you publish, and a pipe dream afterwards. Hopefully you’re happy with the finished product.
Zenone’s paradox is fantastic.
I suffered from this tortoise thing, too. Now I prefer give and end to my stories as soon as I can.
Congratulations on recognising and fixing that issue. A huge part of becoming a great writer is developing how we do things.
To paraphrase Hemingway, “I never write. I only rewrite.”
While I have no desire to chase the tortoise, I find my first draft to be journalism more than a story. This is my way of outlining my project. When I think I have finished my story/novel, I put it aside and let my inner being (subconscious?) ponder it. Days/weeks/months later, I look at it and almost upchuck it is so bad. So I make notes at the top like ‘add more tension–let the characters tell more–kill my darlings–where is the twist?–you call this an ending?–yada yada.’
Then if I think I am chasing the tortoise, I either put the story in file 13 (the trash can) or begin a serious revision with faith that there will come the Aha! moment.
Thanks for your advice, Rob.
My pleasure! Your system sounds like it works well for you. A cooling-off period between the first and second drafts is always a good idea. It takes strong judgement to throw something away completely, but it’s good to clear out what clearly isn’t working – just be sure to salvage anything can be put to use elsewhere.
As the saying goes, usually better to be good than to be perfect.
I have now published my fifth novel. The first one was hard. I kept polishing and polishing. It had been through numerous beta readers and had a pass by an editor. I finally came to the conclusion that I was going the self-publishing route through an author’s cooperative publisher. I was still completely in charge of when I published. Scary. Waiting for permission, I guess. Finally, I said, “It must be finished by X date.” At that point, I had created a deadline for myself. I read it one more time and then, on that date, I started formatting for publications and I set another date for when I would publish.
Since then, with the other books, I’ve had no problem getting to “done.” Sometimes I struggle finding my way through the draft, but I’ve always enjoyed rewriting and when I send it off to the beta readers, I know that this is pretty much what I want to publish. I still set deadline dates for myself on the premise that it encourages me not to procrastinate.
Thanks very much for sharing your process. It sounds like you’ve found a really effective way to work.