“What’s the biggest obstacle to finishing your book?”
When the question was posed recently on a Facebook forum, it got the usual answers: Not enough free time, too many family obligations, too many job responsibilities. And then there was the more smart-aleck answer—”Writing the book.”
Smart-aleck or not, though, that one has the most profound implications.
The thing to keep in mind about writing long-format work, such as a novel or non-fiction book, is that it’s hard. It’s work. And as with anything that is, by default, difficult and challenging to do, getting from start to finish means staying focused.
Just not all at once.
We’ll get to that in a minute. But for now, here are some tips for writing and finishing your book.
Spend much time in the self-publishing world, and you’ll discover that all authors eventually identify themselves as one of two types:
I’m a plotter—someone who plots and outlines their manuscript before starting the writing process.
I’m a pantser—someone who writes “by the seat of their pants,” also known as a “discovery writer.” They discover the story as they write.
Both of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and there are shades that run between the two. For example, some authors hybridize their writing method by doing a light outline and then improvising between the notes.
Your preference may vary, but I’d like to suggest that if you are having trouble finishing your book, doing a little outlining and plotting might help.
This is pure sacrilege on my part—a devout pantser who has failed miserably when trying to outline a book. But even I occasionally have to build some kind of bullet list to help keep things straight. And that same method might help get you past any blocks preventing you from finishing your book.
If you find yourself stuck, give this a try. Outline the whole book or simply outline the chapter or scene you’re working on. It’s often helpful to work things out in shorthand, without worrying about the language, so that you can finesse it into the longer work afterward.
Keeping to a writing schedule is one of the easiest ways to get your brain into writing gear on a regular basis. It’s mental conditioning—leveraging the power fo habit to get you into the right frame of mind when you need to be.
Let’s be clear: Sometimes things go chaotic, and routines get disrupted. It’s going to happen. But the important thing is to attempt to stick to your routine most of the time. To the point that skipping it makes you feel uncomfortable. That’s when you’re in the sweet spot.
Getting into a solid writing routine takes time, but here are some pointers:
Pick a time where you are free, on average: If you are generally free between 6 AM and 8 AM, make that your time. Or write in the evenings after the kids go to bed. Or on your lunch break. The time itself only matters in that it needs to be something you’re comfortable with and will come back to consistently.
Writing time is only for writing: Whatever time you choose, clear your calendar of everything else. Or, inversely, block off that time on your calendar and make it exclusively writing time. No emails, social media, phone calls, or conversations. This time is sacred. You should also let the people in your life know that this time is important and that you expect people to wait to talk to you. They won’t always listen (they hardly ever listen) but be insistent enough, and you’ll get that time more often. The important trick is for it to be held sacred by you, and for you to take it seriously.
Don’t worry about quantity: Not at first. If you’re only writing two words during your writing time, count it as a win. Work to increase your output, but don’t fret over how much you’ve written. The goal is to get yourself into the headspace of “this is writing time,” and refuse to let yourself off the hook. Sit there staring at that blank screen if you have to, but write something before your time is up. Don’t underestimate the power of “The.” Single words are still words.
Don’t edit: Writing time is for writing. Don’t try to get it perfect on the first pass. Keep firmly in mind this one guiding principle, utilized by wise authors everywhere: “I can edit this when it’s done.” Your job, as a writer, is to write. Period. Later, when you’re in editing mode, your job will be to edit. But don’t try to do both at once, that just increases the odds that you’ll never finish.
Earlier, we mentioned that finishing a book takes focus. That’s true. You have to be present and stay on track in order to see a book from the first page to the last. But you don’t have to do it all at once.
A mistake that a lot of new authors make is fretting over the word or page length of the work they’re trying to produce.
“I have to write 80,000 words? It’s… impossible! Daunting! Stressful!”
It’s true, that’s a lot of writing. But here’s the good news: All books are written over time.
Finishing a long-format work comes down to chunking your time. And this goes back to establishing that routine we set up earlier. If you know how much time you have to write each day, and how long your book needs to be, and when the book should be finished, you can use a magic science formula to figure out the chunks you need to write in:
Target Word Count / Total Days to Completion = Daily Word Target
So let’s say you’re trying to write that 80,000-word book, and you want to have it written in three months (90 days):
80,000 / 90 = ~889 words per day
See? That’s not so bad. It can still feel like a lot of words, but you can massage the variables to get the words per day into a more comfortable range. Give yourself more time, or aim for a shorter total word target, and that daily target goes down.
By the way, you can also use this formula to figure out how many words you have to write daily in order to finish a book in any other timeline. Thirty days, 15 days, 365 days—it’s up to you.
In his book, Writing into the Dark, author Dean Wesley Smith introduced the idea of “cycling.” I can never remember that word for some reason, so I call it “looping.” But the concept is the same.
Remember when we said that you should never edit while writing? It’s still true. You will, and I’m not kidding, exponentially increase the odds of never finishing the book, if you try to edit while writing.
Carve it in stone. It’s that solid of a rule.
That said, some people just can’t move on if they know there’s some sort of typo or hangup in their manuscript. So here is the one and only “exception” to my no-editing rule.
Write to a short target, then loop/cycle back to edit and rewrite.
This isn’t necessarily the daily word target we calculated earlier, though you could use that if you wish. Dean writes in 500-word increments. I tend to write around 2,500 words before looping. But the idea is to write a block of the book, then cycle or loop back to re-read and re-write those words before continuing on.
The idea is that you are going back to not only polish your prose a bit, you’re also getting your momentum back. Momentum is very important in finishing a book, and looping/cycling allows you to create it in short, controllable bursts.
Looping is kind of like running sprints. You write in quick bursts, then sort of “rest,” and then do the next burst. You keep moving forward by taking short hops back, and your writing benefits from it a great deal.
This one trick has been known to help authors get past “writer’s block” and finish a book that was weighing on them for years.
Elephants are a lot easier to eat a bite at a time.
The final trick for finishing your book is to use your ego to your advantage.
This won’t work for everyone—not every writer cares whether someone thinks they’re a slacker or not. But if you’re motivated by keeping the respect of people you admire, this method can go a long way.
Pick someone you care about, who also happens to care about you, and commit to them in writing and as publicly as possible that you will finish your book by a specific date.
Some authors use social media or their email newsletters for this kind of accountability, and that’s fine, too. The key is to make sure you respect the person or persons you’re making yourself accountable to enough that it would hurt to let them down.
Then… don’t let them down.
That’s it. Some simple tricks, but they can make a world of difference between stalling and completion of your manuscript. Put them to work, and you’re sure to get past that daunting “muddy middle.” Get past the rough patches that keep you from getting the work done, and get your book written on your own terms.
If you have any tips of your own, please share them in the comments of this post! And tag us on social media. Everyone runs into trouble finishing, sometimes, so your tips could be the inspiration that another author needs.