1. You’ve Run Out Of Things. You’ve reached the end of the story. Typed ‘The End’ and everything. Of course, this only works if you’re the type to write chronologically. If you’ve been jumping around the storyline like a coked-out pole vaulter, then you might have to go back and take a look at what you’ve done. Did you miss the entirety of Act Two? Did your main character’s mother fall into a plot hole halfway through and never reappear? Are there enough ninjas?
But if you’ve managed to hack your bloody way to the end of the plot, then you’re done. At least, you’re one form of done. You’ve got a draft which will need the tender razor blade of editing eventually. But, still, done. Take a lap and hit the showers.
2. The Deadline Has Arrived. It’s called a deadline for a reason. Whether you’re writing for an anthology that has a cut-off date or working NaNoWriMo, there comes a time when the decision about doneness is out of your hands. Sometimes there are real world reasons to stick a fork in it.
That being said, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to stop. Every single one of my NaNo projects ran more than 50,000 words. I just kept going after I crossed that imaginary finish line. Often it took me until January to finish up a first draft. If your novel isn’t finished—if you haven’t met number one up there—then, while you may be ‘done’, you shouldn’t stop. Keep going until you get a complete draft.
3. You Just Keep Picking At It. More for complete stories than partials, this is the disease where you just can’t stop second-guessing yourself. It’ll never be over if you keep picking at it. Just one more edit. One more pass. Maybe you should change ‘table’ to ‘horizontal food platform’ throughout. And that guy’s name. And that one scene could use 300% more robots.
This is a slippery slope. Yes, you need to make changes. Yes, you’ll probably do more than one edit. But there comes a time when you’re not adding anything of value. At that time, say ‘fuck it’ and let it go. Incidentally, this is a great time to look at submitting it somewhere. Hard to keep picking at it when it’s out in the world, bindle over its shoulder, hunting its fellow stories for sport. They grow up so fast, don’t they?
4. You Hate The Sight Of It. Much like certain people, too much time with your story can breed contempt. No, not contempt, the other thing…oh, yes, bowel-knotting hate. That.
You can burn out on your own stories. If you feel like this—consistently, I mean; the occasional day where you want to set it on fire is fine—then it’s a good sign you’ve been bashing your head against that particular brick wall for too long. Take a break. Work on something else. Come back to it when you can look at it more objectively. Or at least without wanting to spit acid at your computer screen.*
*I wish I could do this. Though not just at computer screens. I’d never have to hack the ice off my front walk again.