TLDR: I’m a first-time author writing a picture book, and I’m taking readers along on the journey.
Unless you are already under contract, writing a book is a process that could take an infinite amount of time. As an editor, I’ve worked on many pieces that could have stayed in the oven a bit longer. No matter how talented you are as a writer, there are always things to improve.
So, as I go into month 11 of my book-writing year, I’m wondering: How do I know when I’m done?
Every time I revisit my manuscript, I find 10 ways I could improve it. I realize something new about a character. I question the point of view. Sometimes, I’m so frustrated I want to start over from scratch (and once I did, but the second version was worse – thank god I kept a copy of the original manuscript for backup).
I’ve heard people compare writing a book to having a baby, but for me, the parenting milestones are so obvious, so ingrained, that I don’t think that’s the best comparison.
Kids hit certain benchmarks in the academic and socialization process, and they are allowed to end one phase and enter the next. I knew I’d be sending my kids to kindergarten when they were 5 and middle school when they were 11, and, gulp, now high school when the older one hit 14.
With my book, no one’s telling me when that happens.
Once you get an agent and an editor, yes. They will help milestone your book to the finish line.
But when you’re still trying to decide when to query an agent, you are left with just a few choices:
- Join a critique group, and listen to your trusted peers about when the book is ready. I’m actively looking for one, though the idea terrifies me because I think we writers are always a little scared to put our most personal work out there. I’m worried it sucks and I’m way further from the finish line than I thought.
- Have family members or trusted friends read the book and tell you it’s ready. My husband is an editor, and my mom published a couple children’s books, so I’m in a better position than most to take this path. However…see end of option one.
- Decide to stop dawdling and put it out there. It may not be perfect. But that’s what the editing process is for.
I may never feel as though I’ve gotten the book just right. This occurred to me as I re-edited a section the other day to focus on my protagonist instead of the secondary character. It read so much better, I began to wonder if I’ve focused too much on the secondary character throughout the book. Cue obsessive rereading of manuscript and self-doubt.
That process could go on forever.
I suspect I just need to declare myself done. At a certain point, a manuscript stops improving if you worry it to death, like a roast you leave in the oven too long.
So I’ve decided to give myself an artificial deadline. I’m committing to participate in a December Twitter pitch event. At that point, I will have to stop tweaking and put the work out into the world.
That means it’s done. Hopefully someone will like it, and they can tell me if they think it’s done, too.
And if I don’t get any bites, well, these pitchfests happen quarterly. I can tweak it for another three months and send it off again, or I can ignore it for three months and get some perspective. Either way, I think that’s a win.
So, where am I on my book today? I have:
- Published a piece based the book for Narratively, which was absolutely the most fun I have ever had researching a story
- Joined a Facebook group devoted to picture book writers
- Started a file for agents I think might be a good fit for the book; the file is currently blank because it feels presumptuous before the manuscript is done, but I’m almost ready to start filling it