Anne Lamott answers the question this way:
‘There’s an image I’ve heard people in recovery use – that getting all of one’s addictions under control is a little like putting an octopus to bed. I think this perfectly describes the process of solving various problems in your final draft. You get a bunch of the octopus’s arms neatly tucked under the covers – that is, you’ve come up with a plot, resolved the conflict between the two main characters, gotten the tone down pat – but two arms are still flailing around. Maybe the dialogue in the first half and the second half don’t match, or there is that one character who still seems one-dimensional. But you finally get those arms under the sheets, too, and are about to turn off the lights when another long sucking arm breaks three. … but if you know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that it’s the very best you can do for now – well? I think this means that you are done.’ (Bird by Bird 93-94)
Knowing when your work is ready to be launched into the wider world can be a difficult thing to pin down, a gut feeling. At the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2018, there was a fascinating panel about first novels. The question was asked by someone in the audience: ‘As first novelists you want to put your best work forward and you are constantly revising what you have written, so, at what point do you let go and decide, okay, this is perfect and I can send it for people to see?’
The Egyptian writer Omar Robert Hamilton answered it this way: ‘At some point if you go away from a text for a month and you come back and you look at it… for me, when it looks like I can’t even remember how I did that, or like I wouldn’t be able to do it again if I sat down to do it … and if it seems beyond me at that point, then maybe it’s done.’
Writer Dinty Moore employs a very practical measure for answering that question. He says, ‘If I can read it from the beginning to the end, out loud, to myself, and I don’t stumble on a sentence and go “Oh, oh, that’s awkward,” if it just reads well, if I hear it sounding complete, then that’s how I know.’ (‘Inside Flash Nonfiction’, Inside Writing podcast Dec 2020)
Writers sometimes give themselves a deadline to be done by. They say to me, ‘I have to get this finished by the end of the year, or by such and such a month.’ Writers who intend to self-publish have sometimes booked the printer and the launch before receiving any feedback. Deadlines can be helpful in terms of getting to the next point of the development phase, but finished? Maybe they will be, maybe they won’t. My response is, take a deep breath. Slow down. Give the work the space it needs to develop its full potential. You put so much of yourself into it, honour the process that is required for it to be the best it can be.