How to Finish the Damned Book

Beginning a novel is like embarking on a new romance. There's the rush of discovery, the hope that this one story will soar to uncharted heights.

Then comes the hard work, the digging in, and the frustration that takes place when our efforts are not instantly rewards with a finished product. Too often, we abandon the work in progress for the thrill of a new love, a new opening.

Do you have a drawer full of unfinished novels or short stories? If you allow yourself to do this, to get out of the tough work, you'll never experience the mind-blowing satisfaction of having finished. Worse yet, you're training yourself to be a quitter.

Here are a few tips I've found helpful to "finish the damned book."

  • Know what you're writing. Take time to study the market and figure out where your completed book would be shelved. Read widely and consider joining genre organizations (if applicable) to understand the current market segment. Learn the reader expectations for this area -- and brainstorm possible endings to not only meet but exceed them.
  • Figure out what you're avoiding. Make a list of what scares you about finishing the book. Are you freaked out about family and friends' reactions? Worried about rejection? Afraid success will distance you from the life you know? Weigh these worries (most of which will probably look far-fetched on paper) against what writing brings to your life.
  • Realize your psyche's going to pull out all the stops to protect the status quo. Faced with the blank screen, everything else is going to suddenly appear much more important or enticing than finishing your work. Even scrubbing toilets can start to look attractive. Steven Pressfield has a name for the force trying so hard to prevent creative work from getting done. He calls it Resistance in his brief, brilliant book The War of Art. If you're really stuck, I highly recommend you read it.
  • Realize that writing a whole novel is such a huge task, it's far too scary for your mind to handle all at once. So do what many pros do. Break it down into bite-sized mini-goals. To do this, I have "The Wall of Sticky Notes," which is actually a closet door covered with one sticky note containing each remaining scene that I've envisioned. Writing out the stickies doesn't feel like work to me. It's fun and colorful and appeals to the little kid in me. Afterward, each day I shoot for zapping one of the notes by reaching and completing that critical scene. Then I (this sounds super-dorky but cheap tricks work for me) put a green sticker on that note, so I can easily look over and see everything I've accomplished on the book. Some people use spreadsheets; others come up with a reward system (five scenes completed equals a Starbucks Tazo Chai or whatever). What you're doing is training yourself to celebrate the steps leading to "The End."
  • Set and meet deadlines, even if they're only for your use. Train yourself to meet a deadline, and you'll be far ahead of the game when you actually have one. Choose a reasonably achievable date to complete the whole project. Then break it down into chunks. For example, if you wanted to finish two hundred pages within four months, you'd need to write at least fifty pages per month. Break it down further into weekly goals. Build in days off for emergencies, socializing, getting stuck on some plot point, etc. I don't pay a lot of attention to the ebb and flow of daily goals as long as I'm making the weekly and monthly ones.

I am a world champion procrastinator with lousy will power, so I've had to keep sharp to stay a jump or two ahead of my ever-evolving Slacker Brain. Somehow (miraculously), I've managed to complete a dozen novels, but I'm always looking for more ways to stay focused and productive. If you have a tip for finishing the damned book, I'd love to hear it.

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