January 28 – February 3: “How do you determine when a story is ready?”

This week join ITW Members Toby Tate, Vincent Zandri, Merry Jones, Chris Allen, Catherine Stovall, Judith Cutler, Melinda Leigh, Sharon Alice Geyer, Amy Lignor, Lee Weeks, Michael Sims, David Housewright, Catherine Jordan and Jason Dean, as they discuss how to determine when a story is ready.


Melinda Leigh writes dark romantic suspense. Her debut novel, She Can Run, was a 2012 Thriller Award nominee for Best First Novel and sold over 100,000 copies in its first 6 months of publication. In 2012, She Can Tell and Midnight Exposure were both #1 romantic suspense bestsellers. Her next book, Midnight Sacrifice, is scheduled to release in April 2013. She is a mom, a dog lover, a 2nd degree black belt in Kenpo karate, and a women’s self-defense instructor.

Len & Mick writing as Maynard Sims have had numerous novels, novellas and stories published over the past thirty five years. They have run a small press, been editors, essayists and reviewers. Currently they are writing novels, screenplays and stories.

Chris Allen writes escapist action thrillers for realists. A former paratrooper, Chris retired from the Army as a Major in 1996, transitioned into humanitarian aid work during the East Timorese emergency, served with three major law enforcement agencies in Australia, protected the iconic Sydney Opera House in the wake of 9-11 and between 2008 & 2012 was the Sheriff of New South Wales. His novels DEFENDER and HUNTER feature Alex Morgan of INTREPID.”

Catherine Jordan is a Pennsylvania author of paranormal thrillers. She is a wife and mother of five children. Born in Indiana, she was raised in Northeastern PA. She is a graduate of Penn State University with a BS in Finance. Catherine has been writing stories since learning to hold a pencil. She loves family, travel, good food, great stories, and writing. “I do what I love.”

As the daughter of a career librarian Amy Lignor grew up loving books; ‘Patience & Fortitude’ at the NYPL were her heroes. Beginning with Amy’s first book of historical romance, her career flourished when her YA series THE ANGEL CHRONICLES arrived on the scene. She began developing the storyline for this new seven-book series which moved her into the world of action, adventure and romantic suspense. Working as an editor in the publishing industry for decades, Amy is now the Owner/Operator of The Write Companion, as well as a contributor to various literary publications and websites.

Merry Jones is the author of the suspense novel THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE, the Harper Jennings thrillers (SUMMER SESSION, BEHIND THE WALLS, and WINTER BREAK), and the Zoe Hayes mysteries (THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS and THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS). She has also written humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and non-fiction (including BIRTHMOTHERS: Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories.)

Catherine Stovall is the author of the fiction series, The Requiem of Humanity, and the short story, Fearful Day. Stovall received a degree in Criminal Justice from Colorado Technical University. After working in the field for several years, she has decided to dedicate her life to her true passion, creating captivating works of fiction. She lives in Southeast Missouri with her husband, three children, and pets.

Lee Weeks was born in Devon. She left school at seventeen and, armed with a notebook and very little cash, spent seven years working her way around Europe and South East Asia. She returned to settle in London,marry and raise two children.She has worked as an English teacher and personal fitness trainer, a tomato pollinator and a nightclub hostess. Her books have been Sunday Times bestsellers. She now lives in Devon.

Vincent Zandri is the author of THE INNOCENT, GODCHILD, THE REMAINS, MOONLIGHT RISES, and more. An adventurer and freelance photo-journalist, he lives in Albany, New York.


Dubbed Birmingham (UK)’s Queen of Crime, Judith Cutler began her working life as a college lecturer. She is a prize-winning short story writer: her work has been widely anthologised. Most of her full-length thrillers feature contemporary female protagonists, but Tobias Campion, a nineteenth century clergyman, has joined the women in their fight to right wrongs. Her latest novel is Burying the Past, featuring Detective Chief Superintendent Fran Harman.

Sharon Alice Geyer lived and worked in both Iran and Israel from 1963 to 1989. She returned to the United States and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Arizona State University. She lives in San Juan Capistrano with her husband, an archaeobotanist and research fellow at the Sinman Institute. She is currently working on the third book in the Samson Option Trilogy.

Toby Tate has been a writer since about the age of 12, when he first began writing short stories and publishing his own movie monster magazine. LILITH is his second novel. Toby is also a songwriter and musician. He currently lives with his family near the Dismal Swamp in northeastern North Carolina.


Jason Dean was born in London and raised in the south-east of England. After spending much of his working life as a graphic designer, he finally decided he wanted to try writing the kind of American thrillers he’s always loved reading. Now a full-time author, Jason lives in the Far East with his wife, making occasional trips to England or the States whenever the need arises. BACKTRACK is his second novel.

David Housewright has published 14 novels including PENANCE (winner 1996 Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America and nominee for Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America), PRACTICE TO DECEIVE (winner 1998 Minnesota Book Award) and JELLY’S GOLD (winner 2010 Minnesota Book Award). His next novel – THE LAST KIND WORD (St. Martin’s Minotaur) – will be published in June 2013. Housewright’s short stories have appeared in publications as diverse as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and True Romance as well as mystery anthologies TWIN CITIES NOIR and ONCE UPON A CRIME.

  1. The story is finished when you have murdered your darlings. This would be Arthur Quiller-Couch’s answer to this question. He told his students: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of particularly fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to the press.’

    He was only adding to something the great Dr Johnson had said: ‘Read over your compositions, and whenever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

    R L Stephenson was even more succinct: ‘There is but one art, to omit.’

    So that is what I do. I write to my heart’s content – always keeping an eye on the word-count, of course – and produce fine phrases, fine sentences and fine paragraphs. I sit back and marvel at my brilliant prose. I save it, and go and write something else. A few days late I start the edit. It very rarely means adding anything, especially just words; if I’m way below the word rubric, it’s a matter of adding another incident. I start cutting – I like to think of it as pruning, as you would nurture a rose bush. I leave it. I prune some more. I leave it. When I’ve pruned all I can, I find some victim to read it aloud to. I don’t just let them read it, while I sit back and await plaudits. I have to read it aloud, because if anything sounds wrong aloud, it’s definitely wrong on the page. I make the changes – sometimes I find to my horror that changing one words means changing a whole paragraph. If I have time, and my poor victim has patience, I’ll read it aloud again. And keep pruning: at the end of all that pruning you might not have a rose, but you’ll have a better short story than the one you bashed out all those months ago.

    I’m not joking when I say that writing a short story can take longer than writing a novel. Is it worth the effort?

    Dr Johnson would think so: ‘What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.’

  2. How do you know when the story’s ready?

    My training was broadcast television. With television, the show went on the air when it was scheduled, whether or not the director/cast/crew thought it needed improvement. The opportunity for rehearsing, revising, tweaking and being creative was finite. When the clock ticked down 3-2-1, it was show time, ready or not.

    It’s been some decades since I’ve worked in television, but I’ve kept that deadline philosophy with my writing.

    Whenever I start a project—whether it’s a story or full-length book, I estimate time for research, outline/synopsis, first draft and revision. I total it all up, add some slack, and set a reasonable deadline. Only once have I ever tinkered beyond that date. The secret, I believe, is in seeking not to create something perfect, but simply to complete a smoothly polished product.

    I don’t know that this approach would work for everyone, but here’s what I do: From the onset, I create reachable goals. I am satisfied with reasonable imperfection. For my work, perfection is not only unattainable; it’s also an obstacle. I want to write page-turners that entertain. There will always be a better phrase to insert here, a more precise word to substitute there. The deadline gives me a chance to stop nit-picking and declare a work finished.

    But let’s get more specific about the story itself. The main goal in telling a story is to tell the story. In a simple classic linear plot, the main character starts out with the motivation to achieve/attain some goal and confronts obstacles. The obstacles cause conflicts. The conflicts mount until they climax and ultimately get resolved.

    The resolution can take many forms. Our character might overcome the obstacles and achieve her goal, or the obstacles might prevail so that our character fails. More possibilities: The character might think she’s succeeded, but actually failed. She might think she’s failed but actually succeeded. Or she might partially succeed and share both success and failure with her obstacles. Or they might both walk away with the conflict unresolved.

    No matter what form the resolution takes, once it’s been reached and the character’s main goal achieved or lost, the story arc is completed. It’s done. The basic story has been told. Even so, the story isn’t ready: it needs polishing and revising.

    The revising and polishing processes are essential. But they can be pitfalls—traps that suck writers in like horses in quicksand. As I’ve said above, there will always be room for improvement–a more nuanced phrase, a crisper detail, a superfluous clumsy adverb. I believe that the key to completing a piece is to accept that, if the writing flows, lacks grammatical errors, is concise and gripping and well paced—and if the character is sympathetic and believable and the voice is consistent, then the work is done. Issues of structure, sequence, vocabulary and style can be examined, altered, reexamined, re-altered ad infinitum. The manuscript will never be perfect—not that there is a way to measure perfection in writing. And the process of trying to perfect it can be the obstacle to any writer’s goal of completing a work.

    Hence: the deadline. It’s the best way, at least for me, to know that the manuscript is ready. Because, when it comes, the story is ready. For better or worse, it’s show time.

    1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on how to know when a story is done. It sounded so much like me, I could hardly believe it. Setting a deadline for each project and working toward it is the best way my co-writer and I have found to complete our first two books. So glad to hear other writers agree.
      Thanks so much,
      DJ Weaver.

  3. How do you determine when a story is ready? Please, someone. Tell me. I beg others to read. My editor reads. I read my stories a hundred times—the editor in my head is never satisfied.
    But that can be a good thing.
    I know when the story is at “the end” when I feel that I’ve taken the main character as far as he’s going to go; when he’s gone full circle; when the story has started at point A and sufficiently concluded at point B. I then wrap up all my loose ends, my plot holes. And still, I feel like I could do more, develop more. More, more, more.
    But that can be a not-so-good thing. More isn’t always better. I have to honor the advice of those who read for me, and trust my editor’s objectivity. Then I tell the editor in my head, “Hush.”

  4. That’s a good question, since a lot of authors ask, “Is a story ever ready?” The reason I say that is because I can still find things that I want to change even after a book has been published. It’s never perfect. But then, neither are we, right? We’re only human, after all.

    A good example is the poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. Whitman spent his entire life revising his book in several editions. In 1892, he published the “Deathbed Edition” and declared it to be finally complete. Maybe it was. Nobody knows but Walt Whitman.

    What I can determine, however, is when I’m ready to let a story go out into the world. When I first started writing, I thought I was done when I typed “the end.” Later I found that was not the case—I was far from done. I had, in fact, just finished what is known as the first draft. Then, it was time to let the story sit for a while, work on something else, then come back to it and read it again with fresh eyes. That is known as the second draft.

    But even then, I’m not done. I let it sit once again and look at it with another fresh set of eyes, then do some more edits, maybe let a couple of other writer friends look it over. When I feel like there’s really nothing more I can add or take away to make the story any better, I hand it over to my editor or wherever I’m submitting. Then, it’s time to sit back and wait, or move on to the next project.

    The editor will then look the story over and send it back with his or her suggestions, which you either implement or tag for questions. After a couple of times of doing that, it goes to the proof readers, who also have their suggestions, which you either implement or tag for questions.

    As you can see, writing is a long and arduous process, because most writers only want to put their best work out there. At a professional publishing house, a book usually goes through all these stages before it can finally be said that, “Yep, it’s ready.”

  5. This is a really tough question, and very well-timed as I just turned in a manuscript to my editor. And just like every other time, the second I hit the SEND button, my reservations kicked in. I should have read it one more time.

    I used to be a perfectionist. I couldn’t allow anyone to read my work until I thought it was as good as it could possibly be. But deadlines do wonders for humility. I no longer have the luxury of an endless revision period. Honestly, I’m never 100% satisfied with a book. I could edit forever. There is always an improvement that can be made. If I waited until I thought a book was perfect, I wouldn’t be a published author. I’d still be rewriting my debut novel. I know writers who finish a draft and turn it in the next day. I would break out in hives if I did that. Even with a tight deadline, I allow a minimum of 2-3 weeks for revisions before the book’s final due date.

    Here’s my practical answer. When I find myself making changes that aren’t adding value, editing for the sake of editing rather than improving the story, it’s time for fresh eyes.

    There is no substitute for having one trusted person to provide that initial feedback. My agent is fabulous at honing in on any major problems in a manuscript. She knows the market and my style. Once she has been through the story and I’ve addressed any issues she might have spotted, I know the book is ready to send to my publisher.

  6. Once upon a time (This is not an indiscriminate way to open this essay so, yes, pun intended…), I mapped out my novels with all the careful planning and design of an architect or engineer planning a new building. Perhaps this method came about over my having been raised in the construction industry and, for a time, having enjoyed (not the word I’m looking for here, but what the hell…) a career laboring, supering, and project managing. To apply the artsy creation of a novel, which in essence a cerebral undertaking that’s derived organically with no perceived boundaries, at least in the initial drafts, to the black and whiteness or, in this case, blue and whiteness, of blueprint making, might seem like a contradiction. But it worked. Worked for me anyway, with novels like The Innocent, which was my first BIG novel.

    Back then I rented a back room in an insurance agency my good friend owned. I recall mapping out each scene on both legal pads and index cards, and taping them up on the wall. I would write up full bios on each individual character, often including many details that would never make into the book but nonetheless proved extremely useful in creating this grand novel structure in which I would inevitably become lost. The process was slow, painstaking, and required the utmost concentration, not to mention energy. This kind of writing is particularly suited to the youth of the world and it requires no time limits since you are not yet published and do not need to mine words under the terrible or, not so terrible, auspices of a deadline. This was also a time when I was freelancing, enrolled full-time in grad school and had two toddlers running underfoot. How I survived I have no idea. But I can tell you this: the process was exhilarating. Like building a steel span bridge with my own two hands, my legs dangling off the girders as I fit each piece together, hoping I wouldn’t crash to my death before reaching the other side.

    In the end, my efforts proved entirely worth it. My bridge held together and I made it to the other side without falling. I spent more than an entire year rewriting and showing the book to other writers and readers for their valued opinion. When I started pulling words out then putting them back in again, I knew I had finally come to the end. The ribbon was finally ready to be cut on my first novel, The Innocent (back then it was called, As Catch Can).
    The many months of designing and building proved fruitful. The Innocent received reviews like “Brilliant…Sensational…Masterful,” from The New York Post and “The most arresting first crime novel to break into print this season,” by The Boston Herald. It did not sell very well right out of the gate, which proved a disappointment, but it would eventually go on to sell more than 100,000 copies in one month alone when another publisher took it over.

    All these years later, I write fiction for a living and no longer enjoy the luxury of blueprinting my novel designs. In fact, I wouldn’t do it if given the choice. I’ve learned a thing or two about the organic process of writing along the way, not the least of which is to never get too far ahead of myself in the planning stages for fear of losing the spontaneity of creativity. If writing were sex, how boring it would be if you planned ahead of time precisely the type, duration, and sequential maneuvers of foreplay prior to de-clothing. It simply wouldn’t work.

    Now my initial outline is essentially the same as a comprehensive first draft. In fact, often times, the first words I write will be the last words I write. This comes only from experience, from writing every day, day in and day out, and trusting your abilities. Confidence is crucial here, even if the critics, both professional and amateur (this is the golden age of the amateur after all), have lambasted you as of late. In that case, it might be necessary to slow down and go on an extended holiday. Recharge the batteries if you will.

    Once my first draft is completed, I read it through, making corrections and edits as I go. When that process is completed I will print the novel and let it sit for a while on my writing desk. I will spend a week or so away from it, just staring at it, watching it fester and bloat, until finally, I just can’t stand being away from it any longer and I will edit on paper. Having transposed those edits, I will read through once more, and barring any train wrecks (which I most definitely better not have at this point or I’m not doing my job), I will type in the words, THE END at the bottom of the final page. But this will only be a beginning because down the road there will several more edits and perhaps even a rewrite should my editors require it.

  7. When I first began, it seemed like every single time I finished reading a book I wanted to do more, edit more, turn things around, etc. In other words, I wanted it to be so ‘finished’ and ‘polished’ that there was literally nothing even Poe, himself, would change.

    However, after I got further along and learned more I realized (through a lot of friends, family, agents and editors who were rolling their eyes), that I had to just let go. Now, when I finish reading that book and there is absolutely nothing more to say, I know it’s ready. The characters have nowhere else to lead me and I’m thrilled with the outcome. I have the ‘good’ feeling that I’ve done them justice and followed what they’ve said in my imagination all the time I was with them. Then, it’s like a child leaving for college or saying goodbye to an old friend. The only upside is that even though the door closes on this series or that one – at least those ‘friends’ will remain in my imagination if one day we want to pick up and journey somewhere new.

  8. How do you determine when a story is ready?

    At first, I pondered why I chose to be a leader in this discussion. The idea of knowing one hundred percent that your story is ready is a difficult thing to discuss. The process in which an author turns out a tale is unique to each individual and my own process never goes exactly the same way twice. Before I send any of my novels, shorts, or articles out into the world and expose them to the eyes of others, they must go through a rigorous amount of scrutiny. I can always tell if my creation is ready to take on the harried journey to publication, using a single method. I must be able to read the story completely, from beginning to end, without face planting into my keyboard.

    This means that there are no giant plot holes to condemn my plot bunnies to certain death and my limited personal editing skills are exhausted. It also means, though if I let myself I could change a million things with every read through, the characters have followed a path true to the story’s destination. Once these criteria are met, I can joyfully send my brainchildren out into the world of the publishing professionals and hope for the best.

    When I finished Stolen, the story was ready when I was absolutely sick of writing, rewriting, editing, and editing again. With Reborn, the story wasn’t ready until I had found the closure I needed and felt satisfied it would pass the test of my publisher and editor. As I near the end of the third book in the Requiem of Humanity Series, Eternity, I am unsure how I will know the tale is finished and ready to join its sisters in the public hands. I guess I will know when the time is right.

  9. Good morning!

    Do you all find that there’s a difference – as I do – between writing novels and writing short stories? As a novelist, I’m probably more concerned with pace and plot-holes; in a short story, I worry about every word.

    1. I do most certainly agree Judith. With me, I love the novel better because I have more time to get that character as far along as possible. With short story I need to be concise and make sure that the words are lasting – even when I feel that there aren’t enough of them 🙂

    With Mick Sims (as Maynard Sims) I write thriller novels – supernatural, crime and action, and also ghost stories.

    When I write THE END at the bottom of the final chapter. A glib answer, but a true one. In theory you could spend the rest of your life writing just one book. Rewriting it, trying to improve it. But after countless revisions and endless tweaking there comes a time when you have to bring it to a close and to send it out there to be judged. Hopefully by then the tale has been told to the best of your ability: story strands have been brought together and tied up: your characters have behaved consistently throughout: the plot arc has successfully reached a satisfactory conclusion.

    Eventually you have to let it go out there and take its chances against the hundreds of books written every year, but there will still be nagging doubts that you could have written it better. That seems to be the writer’s curse. You live with it in the hope that the next book you write will be better.

  11. Clint Eastwood once said “directing is knowing your concept asnd getting it.” The same is true of good writing. I know a story is ready when it has been patted, poked, prodded, squeezed, and manipulated to the point that the reader will know exactly what I want him to know.

    1. I agree. I wonder…there are alot of actors and directors who say they can never watch the finished movie when it’s up on the screen. Are you, and are there other writers, who can;t read the book once it’s been put in the bookstores?

  12. Here I am, a little late to this conversation, but I do enjoy reading all the comments. I am writing the third book in my Samson Option trilogy, so I never have to think about when the story ends. It goes on logically to the next sequell. Eventually, I will have to reach a final adventure for my two intrepid characters, Ari and Lily. I am already thinking about a spin-off story that involves their daughter Abigail and Professor Scott, the archaeologist. Who knows? The possibilities are unlimited.

    1. This series sounds extremely cool. I have that issue too with the series – knowing that I have a world of opportunities there. I believe I know there will be seven. Five are complete and I have that feeling that six and seven will be the catalyst to bring my ‘team’ to the place I can stop and walk away from. But there are so many things that can happen. LOL

  13. Finally typing those two little words THE END is one of the real pleasures of writing, but that’s clearly only the first step. After pushing the work to one side for awhile I’ll then come back to it and spend a couple of weeks on the second draft. This mainly consists of tightening up the prose, making sure the characters consistently speak in their own voices, eliminating any plot holes I might find, and taking out any sentence that sounds like ‘writing’ (thanks for that one, Elmore Leonard). By the end of that fortnight I should also have reduced the manuscript by at least 10% (and thanks for that one, Stephen King).

    Then I usually send it to my agent to get her take on it. Once she’s read the manuscript, she’ll then point out areas where I might want to tighten things up even more. Once I’ve done this I give the book one more read-through, often making a few final adjustments before sending out to my publisher. As Len says in the post above, you have to let it go at some point.

    And in response to Amy, I don’t actually mind reading my own stuff once it’s in print. Sure, you naturally gravitate towards the things you’d want to change if you could do it again, but if I wasn’t basically happy with how it was written I wouldn’t have submitted it in the first place. And besides, I want to make sure there are no glaring typos in the hardback that are going to then be carried over to the paperback version.

  14. In a way, the story never “ends.” We drop in on our characters and leave them, but they go on without us, unless we revisit them–or kill them. There’s a difference between a story being “ready” and a story actually reaching “the end,” no?

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