I’m still unclear on how to tell when a story is really good and done, but I’m getting better at sensing when I’m not really dealing with a story’s central problems. Some indicators, in a handy top ten list:
1) You keep rewriting your first sentence, which focuses on a man riding a horse. Also, people are dying all around you.
2) You’ve changed the tense of your story more than once, under the impression that present or past tense will dramatically affect the reader’s experience of immediacy in the story.
3) You’ve changed the sex of the main character more than once.
4) You’ve changed the narrative voice more than once (most likely because this will make the story soooo much cooler), and have rewritten all the scenes you’ve written so far to match it; you’ve never written the story’s final scenes.
5) You’ve moved around the commas and periods (and the semi-colons!) in the first scene of the story five different times; you’ve never written the final scene.
6) You’ve completed the story. Having written all the major scenes, you decide that the arc is boring. You write it again from a different character’s point of view, but using most of the same scenes. You then decide that the first version was cooler and try doing step 2.
7) The prose of the first section of your story that gleamed yesterday (after much polishing) seems stilted. You rewrite it, returning it to its original state. You do this five or six times, going back and forth (You may also be cutting and pasting from earlier version(s) of the prose — all of which you still have “just in case” you regret a substantive change and are unable to undo it). You have not yet polished the story’s final scene. You may not yet have written it. (Is there a pattern here?)
8) After six months of work, your story’s words gleam like polished copper. Your sentences are diamond sharp. Your paragraphs cascade with rhythm and immersive detail. When you give it to a friend, s/he has no idea what the story is about.
9) You realize that the entire message of the story is being muddied by the way you constructed it; the story must be rewritten from scratch… except for a couple of paragraphs which are too beautiful to discard and which you’ll just cut and paste into a new document (you’ll just make the rest of the story fit around those pieces). As you proceed with the new story, you realize there’s another really good chunk of text from the earlier version which would fit perfectly into the new version (with minor rewrites) and you insert this as well. A week later, you realize that the earlier version really had the better delivery, and it’s stupid to write message stories anyway (an adventure story would be so much cooler, and a hell of a lot more fun to write) so you return to the earlier version, which had better prose, anyway, and begin moving commas and periods around, and change the story to present tense to make it feel more immediate and exciting, and then import the paragraphs that you had carried over from the first version, but then changed and massaged in the second version, and alter them to fit your new present tense scheme–
10) You start writing a new story, because obviously this one is never going to get done, and anyway you have a great new idea that’s going to be really simple to write so you should be able to bang it out in a week.