Yesterday I decided to add a short author’s note to the end of one of the books I have on Amazon. Because of this I had to check to make sure the copy I was changing was the most recent version. So reading the first page of a novel I wrote several years ago I found myself really wanting to edit the entire novel.
The things I saw weren’t necessarily wrong, but they were bad writing. There were sentences that were too long had extra words or other basic issues that could be improved. I'll admit I changed a couple of things that I couldn’t bring myself to leave, but this led me back to an old problem I have, and I suspect a lot of writers find themselves with the same issue. A novel is never done, just abandoned. That is, of course, true of all art, as anyone who recognizes the paraphrase will recognize but if you work on a statue or painting long enough you're going to run into limitations of the physical material. There is only so much stone and if you keep chipping away at it there won’t be anything left. That isn't true with a novel. I can literally work on it forever and the last draft would likely be better than the previous draft.
So how do I know when to move on? For me, the first clue is when I'm simply tired of working on something. I like editing. Often I enjoy it more than writing, so I'm generally not in danger of becoming bored too early. But once a piece of writing becomes a chore I find myself getting less done and putting much less passion into it.
Another clue is how much each draft changes from the previous draft. In my case first and second drafts are often very different. It's not uncommon for me to throw out entire chapters and rewrite them or change the ending of a story. The next draft typically is about tightening the story and connecting things. I add foreshadowing, make certain character descriptions are uniform, and cut out everything I don’t need. In most cases the story will get about ten percent shorter after a third draft.
From there I tend to go back in and add more words into the prose in the next draft. This is because when I'm telling a story I often don't put in all the details. I'll have a conversation between two talking heads with no connection to the area they are in and have scenes with almost no details about the location. (I know what the place looks like but that isn’t much help to a reader).
After that the question of being done begins to become more important. At this point, the story is basically done. I'm not going to change any major plot points and character changes are going to be in detail and scope if there is any change at all. All I'm really doing at this point is polishing the stone. That needs to be done, but in general I’m just adjusting words and grammar. Both of those are important but they're certainly not my strengths and I like to play to my strengths.
I don't care enough about grammar to ever be great at it. (I hate it being wrong, but I can't get worked up over a comma) and I'm never going to be the guy who looks spends an hour deciding if I should use the word red, crimson, cherry or magenta. I might change between them in different drafts, but probably not for any deep reason and the people who care deeply about those things are almost certainly going to find problems in my writing no matter how much I edit.
But that isn't to say that editing for grammar and words doesn't help. I have a number of bad habits which, at the very least, add extra words to sentences. I will see and fix those problems in subsequent drafts and every time I replace two words with one or cut out an unnecessary part of a sentence I know it makes things better. The question is how much better.
And that really is the point. Every draft of a story has a diminishing return. Very few people will ever see the first draft of anything I write. I tend to edit emails and twitter posts several times unless it's to someone I know very well. And I suspect that in many cases it would be difficult for anyone but me to really see the difference between late drafts of a story.
But that isn't really the reason I stop. I abandon my writing mostly because there are other stories I want to tell. By taking what I have learned and moving forward I will, hopefully, avoid some of the errors I missed until the fifth draft of my last novel and make something better with deeper characters and a better plot.
Of course there are people who would say to spend more time on the novel and others who can afford to pay a professional editor. Perhaps there are even a few people who would say I spend too much time focused on minutia (though I suspect not many). But in the end the only thing I can say is that I know it's not perfect. I know it's not close. If I'm not my own worst critic then there is someone out there who is way to mean. But at some point every author has to abandon his work and as much as I want to go back in and add that scene between Jaba the Hut and Hans Solo back into the story (metaphorically speaking) I know that my time would be better spent making something new and better. (Well perhaps the metaphor breaks down there.)
So you write, you abandoned and you hope that the work you did years ago is enjoyable and embarrassing. And if you're like me you do your best to avoid looking at it too carefully later because every time you do you find yourself with that urge to begin to edit again.