How do I know when my novel is done?

It was the fifth total revision—I think. I got to the end of my novel, sat back with a sigh, then posted on Facebook that I was finished, ready to share that book with the world. My friends congratulated me. But my critique group was still about 50 pages from the end, and I hadn’t heard their comments yet. We met Tuesday. Bill and Theresa liked it, but wanted a few minor changes. “Tough Shit Dorothy” hated it. HATED it. No, you can’t have your protagonist do that. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The story ends here, not there.

But I was done, wasn’t I? Maybe not. Critiques spread out around my computer, I went into the file and tweaked some things. Better. Maybe now it was done. But my friends’ comments had gotten into my head. Doubts crowded in. Do I need this section at all? Should I cut this? Expand this? Does my main character suffer enough? Dagnabbit, I just sent out my first queries on this book. I’m ready to move on to another project, but maybe I’m not really done. I got so flummoxed I set it aside and went for a walk in the rain.

When you bake a cake, it’s easy to tell when it’s done. If it’s not fully cooked, it will be wet inside, but if it’s ready, you can poke it with a toothpick, and the toothpick comes out clean. You can press it with the tip of your finger, and it bounces back. You could cook it another minute or two, but it might burn, and nobody likes a burnt cake.

So how do you get your book to that place between soggy in the middle and burnt, to where the toothpick comes out clean? I have no magic answers, but I have learned a few things in the course of publishing six other books.

* No book is ready on the first draft. No matter how good a writer you are or how inspired you feel while writing it, you have to go back and revise. Everyone makes mistakes. With a book the length of a novel, you’re bound to find inconsistencies, places where you’ve said too much or too little, and things that need to change in view of discoveries you made along the way. Details and names may have changed. One of my characters is on her fourth name.

* After a while, we authors can’t see our own mistakes. We’ve got to have someone else look at it. We need other people, writers, editors or wise readers–not your spouse or your mother–who can come to the book with clear minds and who don’t know what we’re trying to say, only what we have said.

* If you’re not sure about something, mark it and come back later. Go for a walk, then look at it again. When you cut a section of your book, save it in another file, just in case you change your mind.

* Writing novels is not a race. You do not have to finish in a month or even a year. Perhaps you drafted a book in 30 days  during NaNoWriMo. Bravo. Now take at least twice that much time to revise it. No one can say exactly how many revisions it will take. Revise until it’s no longer soggy in the middle and stop before it gets burnt.

* Sometimes it helps to stop reading fiction by other authors while you revise your own. That way, your story is the only story in your head.

* If you self-publish, you need an editor. Yes, even you.

* Even if a traditional publishing house buys your book, you need to revise and proofread like crazy. Today’s publishers spend less time on editing and proofreading than they used to. Any error in the manuscript is likely to show up in the published book. Be prepared to do some more revising for the agent and editor before the book is finally published.

So is my novel done yet? Almost. I woke up this morning knowing that what I have written is good. The house smells like sugar and vanilla, so we’re getting close. I can’t wait to frost it and serve it up.

Now go write.