Every time I hear about a writer finishing a book, I want to jump up and down and go into a gospel choir of Hallelujahs! It’s a momentous accomplishment for two reasons.
1. Finishing your book is the most important thing any writer will ever accomplish.
2. Not many writers do it.
Seriously. Depending on the source you examine, as much as 90% of the population wants to write a book. And many of those people will go so far as to actually begin writing something. But the percentage that actually finishes a book? Minuscule.
Why is that?
Easy. Writing a book is hard. Even dedicated writers like you and me find it hard to keep at it when the going gets rough on a story that just isn’t cooperating, for any number of reasons.
On Facebook, fantasy author Lee Diogeneia shared the results of a poll from her writing group:
Conquer 6 Obstacles and Finish Your Book
If the most important thing a writer can do is also one of the hardest–finish your book–then don’t you think it’s time you tackle some of the major obstacles standing between you and the finish line?
Let’s take a look at the six most common reasons writers drop their manuscripts–and how you can put habits in place to best every single one of them.
Obstacle #1: Discouragement
Or maybe your email just pinged with the alert that one of your critique partners has returned their edits aaaaand they don’t really like the book.
Faced with these discouragements, you may find yourself tempted to throw in the towel. If you’re never going to be any good–if this story isn’t ever going to be any good–if it’s going to take your the rest of your life to make it any good–then what’s the point?
Solution: Keep Writing
You gotta keep truckin’, honey. Ain’t no story nowheres that popped out perfect right from the word go. Ain’t no writer nowheres who feels good about his story every single day of writing it. Hemingway rewrote the ending to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Farewell to Arms 47 times. Personally, I have gone through periods of major doubt about every single book I’ve ever written.
Is your book rubbish? Maybe. Is your critique partner right? Probably. That’s not news any of us wants to hear. But there is good news to be had there, and this is it: knowing the problem is halfway to solving the problem. Just in recognizing the issues, you’re already a better writer than you were yesterday.
And please note I said recognizing the issues. Use your brain here. Are you logically and reasonably identifying story problems? Or are you just in one of those moods where you feel like a failure? A writer’s gut instinct is a powerful thing, but if you can’t find a concrete (code for: fixable) reason for hating your manuscript this morning, then stop beating yourself up over nothing and get back to work.
Obstacle #2: Distraction
Life is more distracting than ever these days. Real-world jobs, family demands, Twitter notifications, you name it. Our attention is dangerously fragmented pretty much all the time. It’s frighteningly easy to let all these distractions shove our writing into the back corner of our lives.
Our writers’ imaginations, in themselves, aren’t always so helpful. Most of us are idea machines–churning out awesome new story ideas that are always and forever running off to dance with our muses… and leaving us to sit forlornly at our keyboards with our half-finished manuscripts. Sometimes it feels like you’re the one in detention, while all the cool kids are playing uproariously outside in the sunshine.
Solution: Create Priorities–and Stick to Them
Hey, I never said the solutions were going to be easy! Sadly, there’s no hack for turning off the distractions or the new ideas. There’s only discipline.
The ability to grit your teeth and keep writing past the distractions is possibly the single most important attribute of a successful writer. People ask me all the time how I get so much done, and the answer always comes back to one word: willpower.
But, first, you have to make sure your priorities are organized. When I was young, my mom read me a story about life priorities. Your life is a big gallon jar. All the stuff in your life are rocks. The big stones are the big stuff: family, job, writing. The little rocks are everything else: Netflix, checking email, going out for dinner. If you dump all the pebbles into the jar first thing, there’s no room for the big rocks. But if you put the big rocks in first? Turns out you can still pour some of those fun pebbles into the cracks.
Determining you’re going to sit down and write for an hour a day isn’t going to get you very far unless you’ve first structured your day in such a way that you have an hour.
Same goes for shiny new ideas. You need a plan in place to grab and organize the ideas so they don’t distract you from the project at hand. Check out this post for more ideas about how to deal with the distraction of new ideas.
Obstacle #3: Confusion
Let’s say you’ve got those first two problems licked. You understand how to cope with the ups and downs of writing and you’ve created a solid and professional writing schedule to keep you moving forward through life’s distractions. But what about when you’re halfway through your story and it just. isn’t. working?
Over my writing career, I’ve given up on three books. Ultimately, my confusion over the stories’ problems was the reason I gave up on every single one of them. After all, how are you supposed to finish your book when you don’t know how to finish it?
Solution: Logically Identify the Story Problems
There are two possible reasons your story isn’t working.
1. It’s Broken
This does happen. There will be stories that, no matter how much you love them and how conscientiously you’ve tried to make them work, they just don’t. There comes a time when you have to know when to pull the plug on a broken story.
2. It Has a Logic Problem
Stories are logical beasts. If there’s a problem with your plot or your characters, there’s always a reason. The vast majority of those reasons are fixable. But before you can figure out how to fix it, you first have to identify the problem.
Sit down with a notebook and a pen and start asking yourself questions on paper. Start with what you know. What feels wrong? What’s bothering you? What don’t you like about this story? Then start narrowing it down, until you get to the heart of the issue.
Knowing what’s wrong with your story isn’t a bad thing. It’s a fantabulous thing. Knowing the problem means blowing away the confusion.
Obstacle #4: Lack of Planning
Ah-ha, you knew I was going to pull the old outline card, now didn’t you? Outlining your story before you begin the first draft isn’t a guarantee you’ll finish your book, but it will head off more than half the obstacles between you and the finish line.
Most of the authors I meet who are struggling to find their stories’ end are struggling for the simple reason that they don’t know the story’s end. I faced this problem on my portal fantasy Dreamlander–the book that turned me, once and for all, into a confirmed outliner. When you don’t know your end, you not only don’t know what you’re working toward, but you don’t know how to set it up. By the time you discover your ending, the story you’ve written so far may be entirely the wrong set-up for that ending.
Bam. Just like that, you’re confronted with having to basically start your book all over again. Hence, the high abandonment rate.
Yeah, it’s really that simple. I accept that outlining isn’t a process all authors enjoy–and sometimes that lack of enjoyment can be prohibitive in itself. It’s also possible to over-plan your story (which is an obstacle I’ll get to in a sec). But the fact remains that an outline is a tremendously powerful tool for helping you plan and execute this huge, rambling, complex problem we call a novel.
Here’s another fact: I love outlining. It’s one of my favorite parts of the process. It doesn’t endanger my excitement about the first draft in the least. It empowers me to move forward in creating a story I completely understand from the outset.
(I’ve written extensively about my outlining process in my books Outlining Your Novel and the Outlining Your Novel Workbook. If you’re interested in seeing an example of one of my own outlines, you can grab the complete transcript of my outline for my dieselpunk novel Storming for free.)
Obstacle #5: Fear
There are a lot of reasons writers are afraid to move forward in finishing their manuscripts. The one I particularly want to focus on is the kind of fear that manifests itself in an obsession with “tweaking.” We see this kind of tweaking in two particular areas of the writing process:
Two questions I receive with some regularity are, “How do I know when I should stop outlining?” and “How do I know when I should stop editing?”
If you have to ask either of these questions, then it’s probable you’re dealing with a fear obstacle on some level. (Although please don’t get me wrong: attention to detail and the discipline to create thorough outlines and conscientious edits is a vital attribute for any writer.)
Solution: Be Honest About When to Move Forward
I’m a massively in-depth outliner. My outline for my last book was 63,000 words and took me three months to finish. But I always know when it’s time to stop outlining and start writing. How? Easy. I reach the end of the outline. I have a complete story mapped out. When I reach that point, I know it’s time to move forward into the first draft. If I were go back at that point and keep tweaking, I would be retrogressing, and I know it.
Same goes for editing. When you reach the point where you have fixed all the logical, obvious problems, you’re done (unless and until you find another unforeseen logical problem to fix). Sitting there, tweaking and tweaking, switching out commas and agonizing over whether or not “walked” is the right word choice for that one sentence? Probably not going to have a major effect on the overall quality of your story.
Every part of writing brings its own challenges. Sometimes it’s ridiculously tempting to just stay in the part of the process where you’re at. It’s familiar–safe even. Making the jump from outline to first draft or editing to querying is scary.
But don’t let fear hold you back. Set deadlines for yourself, and when you cross the finish line, don’t hang around. Move onto the next race. Pull the trigger on that finished outline, and go write that first draft. Pull the trigger on those edits, and move on to the next book.
Obstacle #6: Lack of Passion
Finally, we come to perhaps the most disturbing of all the obstacles standing between you and the finish of your book. What if you just don’t care about it?
What if you wake up one morning and you realize you don’t even like this story anymore? Maybe you never liked it. Either way, you just don’t have the oomph in you to see it to the end.
This can happen for a number of reasons. Perhaps you chose the wrong story in the first place. Perhaps, in your attempt to create what you thought the market wanted, you turned it into a different story altogether. Perhaps you’ve changed as a person, to the point where these characters and their problems just aren’t doing it for you anymore.
Regardless the reason, the magic is gone, and that faraway finish line looks like a trek through the Sahara with no water.
Solution: Give It Some Space
This one’s easy. Not enjoying yourself? Then just stop. Nobody says you have to write this book.
Still, for many writers, there’s a lot of guilt involved in giving up on a book. Not only is there all that pressure coming from the knowledge that to finish your book is “the most important thing you can do as an author,” but there’s also the little fact that you’ve sunk months, maybe even years, of work into this baby.
Now, before I go any farther with this, let me remind you of what we all know: writing is hard. That’s just the way it is. Even on the best of projects, we all have days where we want to shut off the computer and never look at words again. Those are the moments when we have to put our discipline to work and keep on truckin’.
However, there’s a difference between having the occasional bad day (or even month) with a project you love–and having completely lost the spark. You need to be able to recognize the difference. As important as it is to develop the habit of finishing manuscripts, there’s no good reason to keep slaving away over a project that is irrevocably broken or that you just don’t care about anymore.
The first step is always to simply take a step back from the manuscript. Put it on the back burner for a while. Go write something that ignites your passion. Perhaps this other project just needs you to gain a little objectivity about it (absence does make the heart grow fonder and all that). Or perhaps that objectivity will bring the understanding and acceptance that, in this particular case, not finishing is actually the right choice.
The 3 Fool-Proof Tools to Figuring Out How to Finish Your Book
No matter which of these obstacles you may be facing as you try to finish your book, there is a three-step process you can take to identify and fix the problem.
1. Identify the Niggle
If you’re feeling the niggle of a problem–whether it’s a structural problem in your story or just the beginnings of burnout–pay attention to that. It needs to be addressed from the outset, not ignored.
2. Use Logic to Find the Problem
Once you’ve acknowledged the niggle, you must go beyond the niggle. Gut feelings will only get you so far. If you don’t know what’s causing the gut feelings, they can drive you crazy. Sit down in a quiet place and sift through your feelings until you can find the logical cause at their root. Probably, it’s one of these six obstacles.
3. Accept the Solution
The worst part of any problem is knowing there’s a problem without knowing what it is. Once you’ve used the above step to figure out the specifics, the worst is over. From there, you have to be willing to accept and enact the solution–whether that means moving forward with discipline in prioritizing your writing, buckling down to some needed edits in fixing known plot problems that are holding you back, or sometimes even just giving yourself permission to step back from an unsolvable problem so you can move on to the next book.
The only reason finishing a book is the hardest part of writing is because it’s the whole of writing. Set yourself up for finish-line success by focusing on each daily part of the process in meeting your goals, identifying obstacles, and overcoming them. Before you know it, you’ll finish your book. When you do, be sure to tell me about it so I can start that chorus of Hallelujahs!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is the #1 obstacle you’ve faced in trying to finish your book? Tell me in the comments!
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