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Often you don’t. Even published works change from one edition to the next. This is a frustrating answer, I know. But determining whether your work is complete is a personal decision. And your readers/critics might not agree with you.

As satisfying as it is to know when your work is done, it can be tempting to revise and revise and revise. You want your work to fulfill its great potential. As if it’s waiting for that one small tweak that will turn it into a masterpiece, and you just have to figure out what that little tweak is. But at a certain point, you need to equip yourself with tools that tell you enough is enough.

You can revise the life out of something so much that the spark of your original inspiration disappears. When you over-revise, you also run the risk of becoming too familiar with the piece, losing sight of the essential details your reader needs to comprehend your intended meaning.

It’s helpful to ask yourself what your main intention is for the piece, then determine whether that intention has been met. Do you simply want to do a character study, or is your goal to explore a larger theme or topic? Would you like your reader to leave the piece with a specific message, or are you open to a variety of interpretations?

As you ask yourself your own questions, you might find that the goal you set out to accomplish is too broad. What is the scope of the piece? Can you do what you want to do in the space of the story? Or does the scope need to come down out of the clouds a bit?

Sometimes your original idea for a story simply comes out flat. It’s important to recognize this, as well. Just because it’s the original idea, doesn’t mean it’s the best idea. Intentions can change, but once you know what you want a piece to accomplish, it can be easier to decide when it’s finished.

Even if you were trying to create a grammatically perfect piece of writing, you would never get there. There’s always another style choice to make, another synonym to consider. And correct grammar isn’t always cut and dry. Do you want a perfectly manicured lawn? The closer you look at any lawn, the more you’ll see that it’s growing imperfectly to whatever extent it’s allowed. No matter how much we try to cut and shape our world, it will always be a somewhat messy thing. As an editor, this is difficult for me to admit: there’s always room for a little bit of mess. And it just might make our stories truer to life.

Originally published with The Loft Literary Center.

This is a great question, because the narrative voice you choose informs so much of your story. One way to determine the most appropriate voice is to ask yourself a few questions about narrative distance. How closely do you want to enter the thoughts of your characters? If you were to turn your story into a movie, how closely would the camera situate itself in the scene? Would it focus mostly on one character’s experience, or would it travel from one character to another?

It’s helpful to think about whether your story could benefit from including the insights of more than one character. Is the story more gripping if the reader can only see through the eyes of your main character, or would multiple perspectives serve the story?

Should the reader know how the main character interprets his or her environment, or does the story require the broader awareness achieved with third person? There can be a big difference in these two points of view. Third person is good when the information the reader needs to know differs from the information the main character knows/is aware of/cares about.

Even if you feel you want to focus mostly on your main character, third person can sometimes provide a more complete picture by including the main character’s appearance or mannerisms—information the character wouldn’t naturally be aware of enough to share. But first person is the way to go if the reader should only be privy to the main character’s direct experience.

If you’re considering first person, will the main character’s voice carry through the entire story? Is it a compelling worldview? Decide whether the story benefits from the inner life of the main character being shared or being left a mystery. Is the heart of the story in the main character’s mind, or in the main character’s environment? It may be time consuming, but a great exercise is to write the story both ways to realize which angle is most compelling.

Originally published with The Loft Literary Center.

Gathering the parts of a fictional character is an exciting process. While doing so, you may have one real-life person in mind or your character might be a conglomeration of people from all walks of life. Drawing inspiration from the people in your personal life can be a challenge. On the one hand, you know how their body language and inflections communicate more than their words. On the other hand, you may be too close to them to realize the most effective details to focus on. There’s also the question of whether your loved ones will be offended by being the subject of your inspiration, so tread carefully and use your interpersonal instincts in these cases.

I find the most exciting way to gather details is to sit down in a busy public place and watch people as they go about their business. Sound creepy? Maybe. But you’re a writer—you have an excuse. And you can always pretend you’re waiting to meet someone, or reading a book. Watching people, searching for their distinctive features, their subtle movements, can be like an extravagant shopping spree. All the details are there for you to choose from and you can have anything you want. The wealth is incredible. Seeing the way a man holds his dusty baseball cap, curling and rolling the bill nervously in his hands. Watching two people make eye contact and dance as they try to avoid bumping into each other. Or watching two people bump into each other and noting the difference in how they each react. How do their appearances change as they walk away? You might even recognize other people watchers. They’re taking in an entirely different scene simply by sitting in another location viewing from a slightly different angle. The possibilities are endless.

Be sure to also make note of when you’re making assumptions. Appearances aren’t enough when you’re creating a full character. If we make assumptions, we often create flat characters who run the risk of becoming a cliché. When you notice yourself quickly assuming the inner workings of a real-life person passing you on the street, take a moment to analyze your own reaction. Would this assumption ring true to your reader? Would it be an interesting portrayal of a character? Chances are if you made a snap judgment, the observation will lack a certain depth. Question your assumptions and push yourself to take a moment to come up with other explanations of a character’s appearance or action. Readers love the unexpected. They love to be surprised by human nature. Draw on the people you see in the real world and find a way to push beyond the obvious. Tweak the truth until it’s true for your reader. That’s the beauty of fiction.

Originally published with The Loft Literary Center.

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