When you cook, it’s usually easy to know when something’s done. Recipes and cookbooks and cake mix boxes are full of phrases like “Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35-45 minutes”; “Cook until tender and golden brown, about 1-1/4 hours”; or “Cook until a meat thermometer reads 160.” How simple is that? And with experience, you learn that you really can chuck away the meat thermometer and just cook something for 20 minutes/pound, or turn off the heat on the vegetables when you start to smell them.
Novel writing isn’t so easy. As I worked on Parallel Lives (and that is a title that I am leaning towards more every day) I struggled with finishing. I started writing in early December: The sixth is the day that a document related to this project first appeared on my computer. It took nearly two months before I finally hit the end of the story. At that point I had a 180 page, 43K novella. It felt good to have an ending, yet I knew it wasn’t done. It just didn’t feel right. The toothpick came out gummy, so I finished the last sentence, said “Not bad,” and put it back in the oven, the words “THE END” conspicuously absent.
Over the next two months I tinkered and toyed, backfilled the story, and struggled with the ending. The one I’d written in January just didn’t quite ring true for me. I liked it in that I thought it was written well, but it just didn’t quite work. It seemed too precipitous, and I found issues with character motivation earlier in the story that bothered me. And there were times in February when I despaired. I had seven different documents with titles like “Ending (new)”, “Ending (newer)”, and “Ending recast” as I banged my head against the wall in an effort to really and truly reach the end. The efforts paid off in early April: I had the ending I wanted, solved the motivation issues and now had 300 + pages, 95,000 words of first draft finished.
But I still couldn’t quite write those two little words. Not yet.
I think there were two reasons why I couldn’t manage to write them. First, I knew the work was not done. I would have to read the book, and then I was sure to find all the flaws, all the problems, all the hatefully bad things in it, and then I would have to fix them. With all that work looming, it seemed somehow a conceit to boldly declare ‘The End.’ But really, if everyone thought that way, very few writers would ever decide they were finished, as there’s almost always room for improvement.
No, I think my fear of ‘The End’ is more of a superstitious thing, on par with hockey players who avoid the word ‘shutout’ when their goalie has a goose egg on the board late in the third period. I thought the book was pretty good; I thought I was finished with the story, had all the major events in place, had a satisfying ending, but I thought, by putting those words down, I’d somehow jinx myself and end up looking it over and saying “It’s not Scottish!” and it would be back to the drawing board.
The read through, as I’ve documented here, showed that it was not ‘not Scottish’. I actually think it’s pretty good. I also know I’m not really done. Despite the revision and the editing, there are still things I need to do. There are a couple of subplots still need fleshing out (or cutting – but I think fleshing out), a few themes that need more development, and still more punctuation, grammar and spelling errors to catch. Yet, when I reached the last page, I felt confident I could indeed put ‘The End’ down. How did I know? I can’t really answer that; I just knew. It's really not much of an answer, but I'm not sure there is one. No timer goes off, there is no toothpick to insert, or thermometer to read. There just comes a point where that’s it: You just know.
How about you? When or how do you know that you’re done? What tells you you can put ‘The End’ on your work?
NOTE: For a great 'this is when it's done' moment, follow the link below to an episode of Malcolm in the Middle. The entire episode is great, but fast forward to the 18:18 mark. Unfortunately, I could not embed it here.