How to Know When a Book Is Done

Hi friends.

I have a new essay up over at The Guardian. Part of it will appear in my book, so you can get a little idea of what I’ve been working on there.

Endlessly working on, it feels like.

I think so much about endings these days. When things will be over. When we can move on to whatever comes next. I think about it in terms of the world, this country, the health and success and stability of people in my life. And because I’m in the middle of revisions, I think about it in terms of my book.

How do you know when a book is done? A question authors get asked in workshops, at readings, in interviews. It took me a few novels to figure out how to answer that question, at least in terms of fiction.

As someone who writes character-driven fiction, I like to go around to all my characters and check in with them, ask them if they have anything else to say, if there’s anything else they want to add to the conversation. Plot so often exists for me as a place to hang the growth of a character. So I need to know: Did I take your story as far as it could go? Did you get to where you needed to be in this book? And they’ll tell me.

In terms of memoir, my answer now may change by the time I’m done. But I’ve been asking myself two questions.

The first is: Is there anything left I’m willing to share? Because there’s no way I can cover my entire life, and I’m not going to spill all my secrets. That’s not why I’m writing this book. Of course, this is a personal and nuanced question. I’m the only one who knows my boundaries.

And secondly, have all the themes come to fruition? I’ve been making lists of the overarching themes and tracking their progress through the book. When each one finally gets a check mark next to them, I think I might be done.

From an interview with brilliant author Catherine Lacey at Hazlitt:

Laura van den berg, one of the sharpest readers I know and author of the newly released, impeccable story collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, was the one who pointed me to that interview while I was asking her thoughts on the subject.

“For me it’s reading the whole thing through and feeling genuinely excited, and like there are no more questions/problems I’m still trying to unknot,” said Laura. “And also, when someone else tells me — outside readers, agent, editor.”

For my last book, it was my copyeditor, the great Larry Cooper, who truly told me. I was on my fifth round of fixes to him and he sent me a gentle email suggesting…the next time might be the last. I had gone too far. I was pushing commas around the page.

Trust your advisors, access your resources. They’re in your life because they’re smart. I ask friends for their opinions all the time. Did this chapter take you somewhere? Do you see any holes? Did I land this plane?

Of course, you can only trust yourself most of all. You know how far you want and need to take your work. I asked Esme Wang, novelist and memoirist and teacher of wonderful workshops about how she knows when she’s reached the end.

With fiction, she said, “I have a pretty solid sense of inherent completeness. And I can see it coming, kind of like approaching a dead end or the edge of a waterfall If I try to go any further, it’s just disaster.”

And with her non-fiction book, the bestselling The Collected Schizophrenias? “With an essay collection, there was a little bit more of a sense of being able to add another essay here or there, but toward the end of the process, there was also a similar sense of completeness. Like if I tried to tack on another essay it would be like adding a third arm.”

I have been thinking about this so much lately, how I could keep adding to this book of mine forever. The only way to combat that feeling for me was to start actively subtracting instead.

“I’ve never really thought about it until you asked, but it’s very much a gut feeling,” Esme said.

“Of course,” I said. “I mean there’s no math to most of this, truly. You can’t teach gut.”

“Yes,” she said.

“But you can teach ideas that inform what to do with that gut,” I said. And you can teach people how to even listen to their gut in the first place, how to trust themselves in the first place. How to ask the right questions. Do you feel like you’re done writing this book? Have you given it your all? Have you scraped inside every crevice of your soul? Sit with yourself. Look around in there. Is there anything left to tell?

No one knows your answers but you. Are you prepared to ask them?

Happy holidays from me & Sid.


You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). Last week I donated to this fundraiser for Shanice, and the Pro Bono Project,