When To Call Your Novel Finished

As I move into the last stages of writing my latest novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes for me to call a manuscript finished.

I don’t think I’ll ever be an author who releases a novel a month as some indie authors do. At the same time, I don’t want to release only a book a year.

The book-a-year schedule leaves a long time for readers to forget about my characters and their stories and makes marketing harder. It’s also frustrating creatively because it feels like I’m working hard but not getting a lot done.

So I’ve been transitioning.

In my first series, it was two and half years between the first couple books, then a year. With my new series, I’m aiming to release two novels a year.

The Deck Chair Method

In the days of traditional publishing, I’d rewrite multiple times before querying agents or editors. And I’d rewrite again if any of them asked me to rewrite and resubmit or sent personal comments or suggestions that resonated with me.

That was a good learning experience.

But looking back, I spent far too much time simply rearranging or making minor changes. Basically, to use a cliche (I know, I know, I’m a writer, I ought to be more original) I didn’t feel finished until I was doing the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

My other way of knowing I was done was if I felt like I’d throw up if I had to look at the manuscript again.

Finishing Faster

Instead, in the last book and my current one I’ve been trying to look at the separate parts of the manuscript to see if it’s working well. If it is, I make myself stop fiddling with it.

I look at what each scene is doing or not doing, the characters, the dialogue, and the line editing.

Scene By Scene

To call a novel finished, each scene needs to move the plot and/or develop a character.

Because I write suspense and thrillers, I try very hard to have no scenes, though, that are only character development. A literary novel can do much more of that, but most readers of commercial fiction–which is largely what I love to read and write–want the plot to move quickly.

Any scene that doesn’t move the plot, I cut.

Caveat: All my books have an element of mystery. Because of that, some scenes are moving the plot but that’s not obvious on first reading. For instance, a small detail about a character may be revealed that seems insignificant but that later provides a key to what’s really happening.

I try to work those revelations into another scene that also clearly moves the story, though, so as not to lose reader attention.

Characters: 3D Or Not 3D

In my first outline of a novel, and in my zero draft, some characters are there simply to serve a plot purpose.

When I wrote the first draft of The Worried Man, for example, a couple of the alternate suspects simply walked on, said their lines, and walked off and I knew next to nothing about them.

When I rewrote, I picked out the characters that needed to be fleshed out. I developed back stories for them, some of which I worked into the novel, some of which remained only in my mind.

Some of those characters ended in being reader favorites.

To call a novel finished, I need to feel I know each character well and that each is distinct.

Caveat: How much character development is enough varies by genre.

Book 1 in The Awakening Series

The Awakening, Book 1, a supernatural thriller, on one day got back-to-back reviews with opposing views. One praised the characters as being so well-developed, the other said the characters were all flat.

When I looked at other books the reviewers read, the first one read a lot of thrillers and suspense and the second read more general fiction and literary. Because the first fell into my target reader category, I felt the characterization was sufficient, but I did in later books further develop two side characters the critical reviewer mentioned.


In a final draft, the dialogue should sound real but not actually be realistic. To achieve that, I do my best to cut lines that people say in real life but that don’t move the story or reveal character. (Such as: “Hey, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?”)

Also, ideally, each character’s voice is distinctive.

One of the side characters in my current novel is very dramatic. Her bus ride in bad weather is “horrible” not “annoying.” Another woman’s shoes are “stunning” not “pretty” or “cute.” Another character has a verbal tic where she describes people as “little” regardless of their actual size.

Other differences are more subtle. My protagonist’s best friend tends toward light sarcasm. My protagonist has a wry sense of humor. When I’m close to finishing, I look for those types of distinctions and revise the dialogue to try to make it fit each person.

Caveat: I do my best to make most characters’ voices unique, and in a perfect book, you’d know who was talking without any dialogue tags.

But doing that for every single character could both take forever and would probably read like a spoof on bad writing. In real life, not everyone has a quirky way of speaking or sounds that different from someone else with a similar background or experiences. You need to decide how much time and effort and how far you want to go to differentiate dialogue.

In my favorite book of all time, Pride and Prejudice, some characters are completely recognizable in how they speak. For others, it’s sometimes difficult to tell one from another. Yet the book remains popular hundreds of years later.

Line By Line

Line editing is also key to finishing a novel. I used to do it only at the end. Now I try to line edit as I go if I can do it quickly, and then do a pass again later.

For me, this process involves:

  • Ensuring sentence length varies
  • Splitting most sentences over 3 or 4 lines into two sentences
  • Varying paragraph length
  • Not starting more than two sentences in a row with the same word
  • Checking for typos and grammar errors
  • Avoiding passive voice unless there’s a reason for it (such as that’s how that character talks or I’m trying to deemphasize the subject of the sentence)

Caveat: Good line editing is vital. But it can be a little too easy to spend endless hours line editing if you like to do it, as I do.

Many books with a strong plot do well despite clunky writing. (In my view, several James Patterson novels fall into this category and no one can argue with his success.) I don’t aspire to clunky writing. Yet sometimes I need to stop because the changes I’m making may, to me, improve the writing but will make little or no difference to the reader.

That’s all for today. Until next Friday, when I’ll talk about 6 Reasons To Create An Author Video

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you’re looking to improve your characterization, you might find my Free Character Creation Worksheets helpful.

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