How do you know when it’s done?

For the last seven months I’ve been working on the first draft of a novel. Because I fall further on the discovery writer side of the discovery/outline spectrum, I start long projects like this with goals but no clear plan in mind for the ending. As I write and the story develops I usually know what’s going to happen next, but not necessarily what happens after that. I really enjoy this process, but sometimes a story gets out of hand and grows and grows until I lose track of my original goals for the ending. When that happens, it can be tricky to know for sure when I’m finished with the project. Or, at least, when I’m finished with this part of the project, and when it’s time to start thinking about a sequel. And that is exactly what has happened with my current novel.

Yesterday after I finished writing, I realized that I was going to have a rather difficult time tying off all the plot threads that I had spun out over the last 125,000 words. The scene I had just finished tied off two major threads, and recontextualized the rest significantly. Additionally, over the course of writing this first draft my worldbuilding had opened doors for a ton of new stories that could be told in this setting.

My original goal was to wrap up the core plot of this novel within 160,000 words, and I could probably still do that. But as I thought about what came next in the story I realized that it would be much more interesting to explore a few additional points of view, to expand the context of the narrative and give a voice to some of the characters and perspectives that had been touched on but not really developed over the course of the story. I had imagined the possibility of sequels to this story, but hadn’t had any clear concept for them yet. Now I do.

So how did I know that it was time for this part of the story to end and for another to begin? Part of it has to do with what I’ve already said. The plot itself had not been fully resolved yet, but the core question that had been driving this part of the story had been answered, and in a way that recontextualized the problems and conflicts facing the characters. In other words a plot had come to an end, but not the plot. Going forward my characters would still be trying to solve the BIG IMPOSSIBLE PROBLEM they had been facing from the beginning, but a significant smaller problem had been resolved that would change they way they approached that overarching conflict.

Further, as I thought about how I would start writing the next scene, I realized that I wanted to introduce a new point of view. My intuition was that the story had undergone a major shift, one that ought to be accompanied by a new perspective. This is not a smart thing to do 3/4ths of the way into a novel (though possible, it can throw your readers for a major loop if done poorly) but it is a perfectly common way to start the next novel in a series.

As a discovery writer, beginnings and endings are some of the hardest parts of drafting for me. In the end, I’ve had the most success when I trust my gut and let projects end when it feels right, rather than pushing them forward to try and reach some pre-figured goal. I often find that I’ve begun a story too early, or written past the natural ending point. I’m not sure if people who more rigidly outline have this problem or not.

Now, on to the next project.

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