NOV 10, 2018

How to finish the damn book

Just last week I wrote THE END on my 40th book.


(Actually, if we’re being technical, I wrote ‘TO BE CONTINUED’ because the book ends on a whopper of a cliffhanger).


If you’d asked me ten years ago if I imagined myself in my 30s with more than 40 published books, I would have laughed long and heartily. My first novel – started during sixth form at high school, finished while at university, and edited into shape for two years after that – took around seven years from start to finish. My second book was five years. Now I write roughly one book a month.


I’ve discovered there’s truth in the adage that the more you write, the easier it gets. Not that writing is easy, but the words come faster now and I know what to do with them once they hit the page. 


If you look at that previous statement and think, “that’s not fair. I can’t even finish ONE book. Save some words for the rest of us,” then this article is for you. It outlines some of the techniques and mindset I use to get from “it was a dark and stormy night…” to “…and they all snuggled up in bed with pie.”



You can’t finish the book if you don’t have time to write the book. We’re all busy, but if you try and claw time from your packed day, you’ll find it might be weeks or months before you have an uninterrupted stretch of writing time. You’ll probably spend most of that time re-reading what you’ve already written to remember your story.


Most books aren’t written in 8-hour uninterrupted creative binges (although that is definitely a thing). They’re written in 10/20/30 minute chunks around jobs, families, friends, charity work, and pole-dancing lessons. I believe all of us – no matter how busy we are – can find a 20-minute slot once a day to get some words done. If you can carve out that twenty minutes and use it to actually write, you’ll finish a book.


For the last year before I quit my day job, I would write during my commute, hunched over my laptop on the bus. It was uncomfortable and shitty, but I would tell myself that I could put the laptop away and read a book as soon as I got 1000 words. With two bus journeys a day, 2000 words quickly add up to a novel draft. (Note, these were early drafts only. I can’t edit on the bus like this).



Writing a complete novel is a huge task, and it can feel overwhelming in the beginning. The classic rule of goal-setting is that when you feel overwhelmed, it’s because you don’t have achievable short-term goals. So set yourself some short-term goals. Most writers do this by setting a daily word-count. 


To give you an idea, the average novel is 70-90,000 words. YA, category romance, and cosy mysteries are usually shorter, and fantasy/science fiction/historical tomes with lots of characters and world-building are usually significantly longer. Your first draft will likely end up shorter than your finished book, so aim for 50-60,000 words. 


500 words a day (a single page of text on a word processor at 12pt font size), will net you a completed novel draft in a little over three months. If you can work even faster than that, you’ll get that draft done even sooner. I always recommend my students start at 250 words a day – it seems such a paltry amount as to not even make a dent in a book, but it will get you a complete draft in around seven months.



If you have a twenty-minute writing slot, then you’ll probably already be using this technique informally, but even then I recommend setting a timer and sprinting.


This is called the pomodoro technique, and people around the world use it to improve their productivity. The standard way to do it is to sit down with a timer, set the timer for 25 minutes, work without stopping or getting distracted until the timer goes off, then mark off your ‘pom’ (that’s one 25-minute session) on a paper/spreadsheet, take a short break away from your computer (get a cup of coffee, do some lunges, chase that cat around, etc), then go back and do another. After 4 ‘poms’, take a longer break. 


I used this technique to improve my speed. Now that I’m doing this all day every day, I don’t use it all the time. However, when I do I’m always more productive and focused. I do 20 minute poms because I find that better, followed by a short break where I absolutely MUST get out of my chair.



There are two types of writers – plotters (who need everything planned in excruciating detail) and discovery writers (called pantsers because they write on the seat of their pants). 


Even discovery writers like me benefit from an outline. When I start a new series I write a short outline of the idea and the character arc and what will happen in each book. For the five-book Briarwood series, it was about two pages, with most of the detail on book 1.


I discovered recently that actually I do outline. I just use my first draft as an outline. My first drafts are very rough, especially toward the end when they are half-finished sentences and 95% dialogue. It’s a way for me to quickly get down the structure of the book and figure out what happens where and how the characters will evolve within the story.


There are so many different outlining techniques. You need to find out what works for you. If you are stuck in your novel, then sitting down with an outline or beat sheet can help get you unstuck. 


Try these: 

    500 words a day will net you a finished book draft in less than three months.

    Steff Green

    Writer and publishing coach.



    A problem writers in my classes face is the urge for perfectionism – these are people who spend all their writing time editing their first three chapters over and over and over. They don’t want to move on until their beginning is absolutely perfect.


    This is something I did for years as a teen writer. The problem with it is that you won’t ever finish because nothing – especially not writing – is ever perfect. If you ever did finish the book, you may discover that you don’t even need those first three chapters after all. Imagine spending two years fine-tuning every word only to throw them all away.


    Instead, focus on getting words on the page, no matter how crappy they are. You can’t edit a first draft until you have a first draft. My first, extremely rough draft is me spewing basic thoughts and unfinished sentences at a mile a minute. This draft is about 15,000-20,000 words for a full-length book. It is basically a long outline. I mark out chapters and create the scenes I want in the story, but those scenes mostly consist of some dialogue and action. The beginning few chapters get fleshed out but by the end, it’s a mess. 


    Once I have that structure in place, I go back and lay down the actual scenes. I fill in all the detail and finish all the sentences. I call this my first draft, although really it’s my second. 


    Once that draft is done, I re-read the book from beginning to end one last time, fixing any errors and filling in any final gaps, before sending it to my beta reader.



    Often when I’m writing, there will be a scene in my head I know has to be in the book, but I don’t know exactly how I’m going to get there. Instead of using my precious writing time figuring it out, I just write the scene and fill in the details later.


    Remember, the goal of your 20 minutes of writing time is to get some words down. It doesn’t matter which words, in what order. They just need to be there when you’re finished. 


    I said earlier that I use my first draft as kind of a long outline. This also means that I’m allowed to skip ahead and write those nagging scenes that won’t leave me alone. You don’t have to write in a linear timeline. Words on the page are the important thing, not where they are in the story. 


    Plus, I find that if I skip ahead and write the scene, the problem of how to arrive there in the story solves itself.



    Having someone cheering you on and working toward the same goals can help keep you disciplined. Find a friend who also wants to write a book (they don’t have to be a writer, but it’s more fun if they are) and crack the whip for each other. Set yourself a daily or weekly target and check in with each other at a certain time to see how you get on.


    Many of my writer friends do “sprints” together using a site called My Write Club. It’s like the timed writing we discussed above, except with other writers. You might be amazed at how writing with others improves your discipline. 


    You can find accountability partners and sprint buddies over on the Rage Against the Manuscript FB group!



    Once you’ve carved out your precious 20-minutes of writing time, don’t spend it doing non-writing things. There are oodles of activities writers indulge in that feel like work but actually aren’t, like research, social media, reading articles about writing (hello!), staring out the window, drawing maps or pictures of characters, or eating cheesecake. 


    Write, dammit!



    Some writers struggle with the linear nature of the book. They need to see the plot in a visual way. They want to be able to move things around easily. One way to do this is to use index cards and create a visual map of your plot and characters.


    This is not a technique I use personally, but a lot of writers find it really useful. Margaret Dilloway outlines her index card technique on her blog. An amazing fantasy author named Holly Lisle also uses index cards.



    I meet a lot of writers and wannabe writers who like the feeling of having written or talking about writing than the actual writing. I admit that sometimes the work feels like pulling teeth. 


    But it’s also fun. It’s special. Not everyone can do it. You get to create something from nothing but the wobbly stuff between your ears. You can reform the world and right the wrongs and convince everyone how awesome you are. Story and art move people and give hope and inspire change.

    Chuck Wendig wrote a great essay (ALL HIS ESSAYS ARE GREAT OMG READ THEM NOW) on why writing is hard, but you should do it anyway. But don’t read it. Get to work.



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