"So, how do you know when you’re done?"
That has to be in the top ten of all writers’ FAQ. But, maybe the question should be, "How do you convince yourself you’re done?"
I think a writer knows instinctively when the narrative has come to its close. I can still remember the moment when I typed, "The End," at the bottom of the last scene in my novel, tears welling up, chest constricted. And I was done, at least with the writing part.
But, it was only the beginning of the corrections. As I was typing and revising well after midnight, I would think of Walt Whitman who revised his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, over a span of thirty-seven years, right up to his last breath (if we are to believe the literary historians); hence, the "Deathbed Edition." At times, the corrections can follow the writer into the afterlife when someone finds the dusty notebooks and editors argue over which word or spelling he or she meant to use, as has happened recently to Robert Frost. Sorry, but I can not imagine Frost – or any poet or writer – being pleased at this minute scrutiny of his personal notes; notes he never meant for publication. Might he not have been mortified to see his cross–outs and (yes, possibly) misspellings revealed to the entire world?
My experiences thus far have been much more mundane. After the spell checks, after the grammar checks, come the agonizing choices. Should I say, "souls in torment" (too harsh?) or "souls in turmoil" (too pc?)? Should I explain further the foreigner’s problem with that idiomatic phrase, "Not in so many words?" Will the reader get the reference to the Wailing Wall, thanks to Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees, or must I elaborate?
My younger son asked me one day, "You’re not still making changes are you? I mean, you’re done. You’ve moved on, right? Got this one out of your system?""Of course," I answered, not a bit convincingly. "But, what do you think about changing …?"
A few months after my book was published, I purchased a new computer – my reward to myself for typing "The End." Within a short time though, I’d started a folder on the new computer called "More Corrections." I told myself it was for the next printing… the mass market edition… or just so I could get some sleep. But, gradually, as I went back to that folder and matched my notes to the text supposedly in need of more work, I found that the rhythm of the prose was fine just the way it was and would in fact be encumbered, even ruined, by these corrections.
I have now started another folder with my next book. And this time I’ve disabled the Thesaurus function on my computer. I am determined there will be no "deathbed" edition of my debut novel. It must stand on its own, with all its inherent flaws and idiosyncrasies. I will burn all my notebooks, including the one where I am writing this missive, at last putting THE END to the corrections.