8 Lessons I've Learned from Helping Almost 200 Writers Finish Their Books



This is the final episode in a mini-series I’ve been doing on the podcast, which I think of as “The Finishers Series.” It’s designed for those writers who have “Finish My Book in 2024” on their list of writing goals.

Links from today’s show:

First Book Finish Waiting List

The Brass Queen, by Elizabeth Chatsworth [novel]

Extreme Healing: Reclaim Your Life and Learn to Love Your Body, by Mari Ruddy [non-fiction]

Better to Beg, by Kirsti Mackenzie [novel]

The Resilient Writers Radio Show: 8 Lessons I’ve Learned From Helping Almost 200 Writers To Finish Their Books -- Full Episode Transcript


Well, hey there, Writer. Welcome to The Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. 

Because, let's face it, the writing life has its ups and downs, and we want to not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt-in-chair getting those words on the page. 

This podcast is for writers who love books and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who want to learn and grow in their craft and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them.

Writers who want to spend more time in that flow state. Writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call the writing life. We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives and we're having a good time doing it. 

So welcome, Writer. I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show.

Well, hey there, Writer. Welcome back to another episode of The Resilient Writers Radio Show. This episode will finish out the little mini finisher series as I've been calling it that is intended to help writers who are intending to finish a book in 2024. And today I want to talk about the lessons I've learned through coaching almost 200 writers now over the past four years in my First Book Finish program.

That's quite a data set, 200 writers, to have them finish the draft, finish the revision, get the book out into the world. That's a big deal, right? So there's a lot to work with here. I'm actually in the process of redesigning that program to make it even more effective. And so I've been thinking a lot recently about what have I learned about what it actually takes to finish drafts, finish revisions, get the feedback, do the edits, get the book out into the world.

Okay. And, I've got eight lessons for you here today. I don't know if anything else will occur to me as I talk this through, but for now I've got eight of them that I've, I've got some notes on, I want to share it with you. So the first one is: it takes true commitment, which means time. I think often we put “finish a book” on our goals list, but we don't actually look at our life and say, how am I going to fit this in?

Where am I going to find two, three, four writing sessions this week for about, you know, 30, 40 minutes? Or so each time and what might I need to not do in order to make the book possible? Are there volunteer commitments I have to back out of for a little while? Do I need to do less at work? Do I need to get some support to do less at home?

What is it I need to do to make the time possible when the commitment is there when it's a true heartfelt commitment, then I find people finish, but often it's like it's not a real commitment sometimes sometimes it's just like. Wouldn't it be nice if I finished this book? Wouldn't it be nice is not enough.

Yes, it would be nice. It would be awesome. But you're going to need to reorganize your life to make finishing this book possible within a couple of months. And that means time in your weekly schedule. So the commitment has to be there and the time has to be there. And it's not a quick thing. So, in our culture today, we love a quick fix, and finishing a book just isn't that, okay?

You can finish a draft in three months, a hundred percent. A lot of writers with me, most writers with me finish a draft in three months. But then it can take three months, four months, up to six months to revise, to edit, to get it out to beta readers, to get that feedback. back from those readers to integrate that feedback and be ready to go to the next stage, which is preparing for publication.

And then, you know, you've got to build an author platform; that takes time. So you have to be committed to this in order to be willing to make the time. The second lesson is you have to be brave with your revision work. I think that often revision is conflated with editing. And I'm here to tell you they are two different processes.

Revision is revisioning the story anew, and it's very structural, and it is deep work. It is architectural work. And I remember, shout out to Kirsti Mackenzie who just published her book. I remember that when she finished her draft, it was a good book. I read it. I thought it was great. It was a good book.

And she's like, you know what, I think it would be better from a different point of view. And she rewrote that sucker from scratch. That's the kind of bravery I'm talking about. Not every book is going to need a complete like point of view rewrite, but many of us are going to have to really, you know, shift things around, write new scenes, cut a whole bunch of scenes, cut a whole bunch of backstory, figure out – if it's a memoir, you're figuring out, you know, what scenes are in and what scenes are out. It's a big deal. And you have to be brave with revision in order to make that book a book that you're going to be proud of. 

And so the writers I see doing the deep structural work in revision. That's when I get excited and I know that they're willing to do what it takes. So we've got to be brave with revision. 

Now, here is something I want to say. This is lesson number three. So with First Book Finish, it's an accompanied program. So I'm really with people the whole way. I get to know them. I get to know their lives. I get to know their books. I get to know their writing style. And I'm going even deeper with that in the new program. And so when I look back, I can see, okay, I have an over 90 percent success rate. If you join First Book Finish, I get you to the finish line.

So anywhere between 90 to 92 percent of the time. And so because I'm that kind of person. I started wondering about the other 8 to 10%. Like what is going on with these people? Why would they show up, join a program, pay me the money, and not finish the book? Sometimes they stop coming, I'll send them messages, maybe I'll send a little note, I'll reach out and I don't hear from them and what is going on there?

And this isn't the case all of the time. But a lot of the time I can see as someone who has had this experience in my own life and has now coached a lot of writers, I can see that there's some unprocessed trauma there. So they are going through their life and they are pretty much constantly triggered. Their life is emotional chaos. Basically, they're constantly being triggered because they are dealing with some form of unprocessed trauma. 

And so they're just not in a space in their life right now where they're functioning. And you have to be there in order to get the book done. Think about it: a book is a project that's going to take you probably up to a year to finish in a very dedicated, intensive way.

And you've got to add that time and that commitment onto the rest of your life. If your life is in constant chaos, It doesn't work, it doesn't work. So I just want to say that I think if you are dealing with unprocessed trauma, deal with that first, do the work you need to do to heal and then finish the book. At least get to the point where you're what I would describe as. high functioning right with your trauma. We've all got some level of trauma, but I think I've really noticed a trend here around some folks who come to me and have a certain amount of unprocessed trauma that needs healing.

And I'm not a therapist. And I have no training whatsoever in that kind of thing. But it's something that, from my own experience, I know really needs to have a focus on healing that before you can really make headway with other big projects in your life. 

I think that this is especially true for folks working on memoir. I've now worked with a lot of memoir writers and, you know, sometimes, Memoir is really dealing with some hard stuff and some real trauma, some very difficult moments in people's lives, and you are not going to want to sit down and write that if it's still unprocessed and you haven't done the work you need to heal.

It's going to be extra difficult. And so I think we need to get to the place where we're writing from our scars and not from the wound. Right? Like, just as an analogy, you know, if there's a cut in your stomach and it's still bleeding and you're still in intense pain from it, not a good time to be doing a lot of other things. Focus on healing.

But when you were Mostly through that and you're just dealing with a scar, This is the place we need to be writing from. Writing from the scar and not the wound. It's where our wisdom comes from that we can share with our readers. I think that's especially true for a memoir, but you know what? It can also be true for writers who are working on fiction. So deal with the unprocessed trauma first, and then come back to the book. 

The other thing, I'll say, and I guess this is lesson four, is that I have worked with a lot of writers, particularly women writers, who started a book a fair amount of time ago, like we're talking about a few years ago at least, and they've put it aside. And typically they've put it aside because they ended up Prioritizing something else. 

Maybe they had to make a living and they got really focused on that. But often there it's caretaking responsibilities. Maybe a spouse has a very busy job or maybe you have children to care for or maybe you have elderly parents to care for.

Or maybe you've got all three going on and that's a lot and so you've put it aside and I completely understand why people would put it aside and I've done that with my writing at different parts of my life. But I know from my own experience as well as from the excitement and growth and celebration and just joy that I see in the writers that I've worked with now that when you finally say “No, it's my time now enough, I've put it aside for so long. I'm not doing it anymore. I'm going to finish.” And you put the work in to do that. Wow. That is really liberating stuff. It's a real high. 

And I think it's essential to our mental and emotional health to finish, especially when We have that sense of ourselves, a sense of our identity, right? We identify as writers and, yet we're not writing. We've set it aside in order to be all the things to all the other people, whether it's our boss or our kids or our parents or whatever. And there just comes a time. And often I'll see women in their forties, in their fifties, sometimes in their early sixties, where they're like, you know what, I'm doing this for me now.

And, I'm here for it. I'm here for it. And I love, love, love to see those women finally say, it's my time to finish. So if you've put it aside while other things happened, then I think you were going to experience so much joy, and so much kind of Just a creative renewal in ways that are really good for your emotional health, mental health, and just your soul.

So, I love seeing that and I've seen a lot of that. lesson number one, two, three, four, and that's the number five. You can absolutely fit writing a book into your life. Okay, so a lot of times I'll hear from writers, well, I would finish the book, but I don't have time. 

Honey, nobody has time, right? All of these books, especially first books, they're being done on the side. They're being done with work and kids and parents and volunteer things and getting the groceries in the house and getting some clean underwear in the drawer. You know what I'm saying? Like it's everything – We have so much else going on.

Nobody has time. We make time. We decide it's a priority. We look at our lives on a weekly basis. We carve out the time you can fit it into your life. I'm thinking about folks I know who've written with chronic illness, rheumatoid arthritis, or mental health challenges. 

And I'm thinking about Jessica who had small kids and would, you know, and they were always – when she was on a Zoom call with me in First Book Finish, you would like see in the Zoom, the little girl basically climbing all over mommy and Jessica would write on her phone when she had to. You know, it's not what she did all the time, but when she had to, she just would get to a quiet place and pull out her phone and write on her phone.

Also thinking about Elizabeth, who part way through First Book Finish, had some really acute and pretty scary health issues come up and it really affected her energy level. She was working on a second book with me and she had a deadline with a publisher and she just didn't want to give up on it. She wanted to meet that deadline. And so we figured out ways that she could work with her energy level in order to still finish while also taking good care of herself. 

So you can fit it in. I think about Ioana who went on a big family vacation and still managed to get some of her gorgeous book called The Poet's Wife finished, while she was on vacation.

I think of Mary Lynn, who has a really busy job as an academic. A lot of demands on her, including from students. And still finds a way to make the time. So you can fit it into your life. You have told yourself a story maybe, that you can't fit it in, that the issue is time. 

Most of the time, haha, the issue isn't time. It's fear. It's either fear of not living up to the beautiful idea of the project in your head, or there you just may not have done the things that you need to do in order to be able to set yourself up properly to make the most of the time when you have it. So you absolutely can fit writing a book into your life. Every life is different of course, but the strategies are there. 

Lesson number, what are we at now? That was one, two, three, four, five, lesson number six. Lesson number six is that writing craft matters. It absolutely matters, right? That you can write a scene that, you know, does the work of showing the reader instead of telling the reader. It matters that you know how to do effective dialogue. 

All of that craft matters, but mindset matters more. There's something about mindset, which is just like, you know, how are you in your own head about your writing? If you are constantly telling yourself that your writing's no good, you don't know what you're doing, you know, you're just constantly speaking to yourself in really negative ways.

If you don't get a grip on that, what you're doing is you're telling your brain, this is hard, this is hard, it's difficult, it's hard, I don't know if I can do it, it's hard, and your brain doesn't want to do anything that's hard and difficult, that it thinks is going to cause it pain. So you're always going to find it hard and you will not finish, but those are just stories you're telling yourself.

And there's a lot of work we can do and a lot of tools we can use from social science, from positive psychology, from cognitive behavioral therapy that helps us identify our negative thoughts and work with them to shift them into something that is more hopeful and therefore more productive. 

Okay. So craft matters, but mindset matters just a little bit more. And I think most of the time we think it's the other way around, right? We think, Oh, my book's not working because I haven't figured out what to do with Act Two. No, your book's not working because the fact that you didn't have an idea for what to write next in Act Two has you completely paralyzed with fear. And you don't know how to identify your fear, the flavor of the fear that you're dealing with in particular and then to work with it to get over it.

That is the skill set that you need in order to finish not just one book but to have a productive writing life for the rest of your life and you know I'm here for that – that's a big part of what it means to me to be a resilient writer. So: craft matters, but, really mindset, I'd say is about 80 percent of the work, particularly when it comes to the draft, but also the revision.

There's two places where people get stuck with books. The first one is finishing the first draft and the second is in revision. We finish the first draft and then we think, oh, hell no. What do I do with this thing now? Oh my God. And so we get paralyzed there. So mindset, 80 percent of the work. All right.

Lesson number seven, is that I've really seen a lot of confusion around the path to publication. I think that we have so many more opportunities and choices around publication now than we ever did. So there's traditional publishing the way we always had. But there's a lot around self publishing or indie publishing, as it's known.

And then there's hybrid publishing. And I think people get them confused. So, often there's a misunderstanding of the role of agents, for example, and how you work with an agent, and when you do and don't want an agent. All of the other opportunities that are there that are not the Big 5 presses in traditional publishing and how you access those.

And there's a lot of confusion between self publishing and hybrid publishing, and the potential under self publishing. What's required for you to be effective as someone who's decided to be indie published or self published. I'm using those interchangeably indie publishing, self publishing, same thing, but hybrid publishing is something different.

Hybrid publishing is where you're going to publish it yourself, but you're engaging with a company to help you through the process. So I'm thinking about, First Book Finished graduate, Mari Ruddy, whose book is Extreme Healing: Reclaim Your Life and Learn to Love Your Body.

I'll put a link in the show notes. It's just out, it's a bestseller. She's done an amazing job with it. And, you know, she went hybrid, which means she did a big Kickstarter campaign. I'm going to have her come on the podcast. I've already done an interview with her, but, I'm thinking I'd love to talk to her some more about how do you do a successful Kickstarter campaign, because she did an amazing one and she managed to raise the money that she needed to work with a company that she loved that gave her the level of support that she felt she needed.

She wanted editorial support. She also wanted marketing support, and to get the book out into the world in a way that was really going to help it become the bestseller that it became. And so that was important to her. And so hybrid was the way she wanted to go. She knew that self publishing it herself wasn't going to get her what she ultimately wanted. So to her, it was totally worth it. 

I've got a lot of time for hybrid publishing. I think there's a legitimate place for it in the scheme of things. You have to be careful. There are definitely some scams out there, but for the most part, where the prices are reasonable and you're getting what you expect and the contracts are clear and so on, hybrid can be a good way to go for many writers.

But I think that the fact that we have traditional we have self or indie publishing, and we have hybrid has just confused people so much, and writers are often coming to me with questions that that frankly I find a little shocking sometimes in terms of – but it's, it's not their fault it's because there's so much confusion out there about publishing, how it works, what does work, what doesn't work, what the market is for traditional, you know, all of that.

It's really, really important. And there's a lot of confusion around it now. So in this redesign of First Book Finish I'm doing a lot of work around accompanying writers through how they make the choice that's best for them in their book and then what are the step-by-step tasks that you need to do depending on the choice that you've made. So that's another lesson which is all that confusion around publication. 

So I think that was number seven. And then number eight, lesson number eight is that you are going to have to invest in yourself as a writer and invest in getting your book out into the world as the best book that it can be.

Now that that changes depending on who you are and what you need and what your books need. But it will be everything from writing workshops, to learn how to write a better scene, to learn how to structure your book, to learn how to prepare agent packages. Maybe you want to invest in editing. 

You'll definitely want to invest in proofreading. I'm telling you that right now. Please, for all that is holy, invest in some proofreading if you are self publishing or indie publishing, and save yourself the headaches of getting those one star reviews on Amazon because your book is full of errors. Not fun. Not fun at all. 

So you'll have to invest if you're self publishing. There's covers, there's, you know, there's just everything that goes into making a book work and making it possible for you to reach the readers that you want to reach. 

But there's also investing in yourself as a writer. To me, part of what it means to be a resilient writer is to constantly be learning and growing as a writer. And so that means that I'm always doing the workshops and I have a book coach and I'm invested in learning and growing as a writer. It's really important to me not just for this book, the book I'm working on – I've got a couple of books going right now – but the books I'm working on right now, but the books I'm going to write five years from now, 10 years from now.

So you have to think of yourself in that way. And I find that writers that are constantly saying, well, I don't want to spend any money on that, are shooting themselves in the foot and are unlikely to be successful finishing a book and getting it out into the world in a way that's going to make them happy, because it's just the nature of the beast.

We invest our time, but there is also – and it doesn't have to be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds or thousands of dollars, but there are some times, some moments where you need to invest in the book to make it the best that it can possibly be. A book that you're going to be proud of when it's out into the world. A book that you can stand next to and say, this is mine and I'm happy with it. You know, and then there's investing in yourself as a writer as well. 

So I think that's eight, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Yep. That's eight lessons I've learned so far from working with almost 200 writers in First Book Finish.

And I continue to think about this. So if, if there's something that comes up for me later on. I'll come back and do a specific episode on it. But these were the big things that were top of mind. You know, it takes commitment, which means just putting in the time, being brave with revision, dealing with your trauma first, so you can write from the scar and not the wound. Coming back to the book once you've put it aside and how essential it is for your mental, emotional health, and just the joy of your soul to finish. You absolutely can fit it into your life, fit finishing a book into your life, no matter what's going on in your life for the most part, 90 percent of the time.

Mindset's 80 percent of the work. You have to get clarity and overcome a lot of the confusion that exists in the market around publication. And you have to invest in the book and in yourself as a writer. 

These are the things I would say I've learned. There's probably lots of other little things that are craft specific. I'm constantly improving the program. So I'm adding a new step in my revision process, for example, based on this last cohort, that just went through. 

So I'm always learning in some way, shape, or form, and that's what it means to me to be a resilient writer, but it's also what it means to me to be providing a program that supports writers to finish the draft, finish the revision, figure out their publication path that works for them and their books, and get that book out into the world in a way that allows them to promote it so that they can finally connect to their ideal readers and have the kind of writing life they've always dreamed of. 

I think that's really what we want. We want the book out into the world so that we can be connecting with our ideal readers and, and living that, you know, hashtag author life. That's the deep satisfaction of knowing that we've had this identity for years of being a writer, being an author, and we finally realized that dream, and everything that flows from it.

So I want that for you. I hope this series has been helpful. I might do a series in the future, maybe one focused around craft. I'll see, let me know if you found it helpful. I would love it if you would leave a review, or just hit me up rhonda [at] resilientwriters.com, send me an email and let me know what you felt and what you thought about this series. And if you'd like to have other series in the future, and if so, what I might focus those around for you, that would be most helpful to you. 

So I will be back with you next week to close out Season 3 of The Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm going to have some reflections next week on what it means to be a resilient writer, based on all the conversations we've had on the podcast so far this year. So thanks for being with me and I will see you again next week. Take care. 


Thanks so much for hanging out with me today and for listening all the way to the end. I hope you enjoyed today's episode of The Resilient Writers Radio Show. While you're here, I would really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving a rating and review of the show. You can do that in whatever app you're using to listen to the show right now, and it just takes a few minutes.

Your ratings and reviews tell the podcast algorithm gods that yes, this is a great show, definitely recommend it to other writers. And that will help us reach new listeners who might need a boost in their writing lives today as well. So please take a moment and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it. And I promise to read every single one. Thank you so much.


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