Are you writing to FINISH?
Nearly every writer has days when the voices in her head get snarky and loud.
>> Why even bother?
>> Is this even worth it?
>> Who do you think you are to write a memoir?
>> You’ll never get this published.
>> Why don’t you stop wasting your time and do something useful for a change?
Honestly -- that voice is such a b*tch! And she always shows up uninvited and at the worst possible time.
If you hear that voice often, then you will at some point wonder if you should even bother finishing and if your book is worth it.
So let’s take that question at face value and try to answer it:
Should you even bother finishing your book?
Simon Sinek has a great book called Start with Why and it’s lead me to thinking about the importance of WHY we write in the first place.
Because depending on why you write and why it matters to you, the answer about finishing your book will be different.
If you’re writing a novel because you’ve dreamed of being a published author since you were a little girl, then you’ll obviously have to finish a book to have any hope of publishing one.
If you are writing a book in order to leave a legacy to your family and friends (as is the case for a lot of memoir authors) then you’ll have to finish it so that they can read the book and enjoy that legacy. (Which is really about being seen and known, isn’t it? Important to know.)
If you’re writing occasional poems and short stories because you enjoy the process and don’t really intend to publish them, then you may not need to finish an entire book as a cohesive whole for the process to still be meaningful for you.
My friend Sarah [waves at Sarah over in Calgary] writes poetry and has done so for years. She keeps notebooks and journals that are filled with poems she’s written, but she doesn’t share them and she has no desire to write a book. She’s writing because she enjoys the process and is interested in what her inner Self may wish to say.
Not every writer wants to finish a book and that’s perfectly okay. My concern is more with those writers who either haven’t truly decided yet, OR are letting the nasty voices in their heads take over.
Because sometimes the decision is a little less clear…
Sometimes writers wonder whether they should finish a book because they are anxious about whether or not they know enough about writing craft to be able to write a good book.
When writers are in this kind of anxious rumination about whether the book is any good, some of the questions that come immediately to mind are along these lines:
✍🏼 Am I creating a compelling character in my protagonist so that a reader will want to spend 300 pages with them?
✍🏼 How do I structure this thing??
✍🏼 How much backstory do I include and how do I work it in?
✍🏼 Do my poems have to be all on the same theme in order to come together as a book, or can I mix things up? And if I do mix themes in one collection, how then do I shape the book into a coherent whole?
✍🏼 Everyone says “show, don’t tell” but how will I know when I have the balance right?
✍🏼 I’m writing a book based on true events that really happened, so how do I tell a story that respects other people’s experiences? (And am I even allowed to tell this story?)
What all of these questions have in common is that they’re all about the craft of writing. And that’s what we tend to think the process of writing a book is all about: craft.
But the truth is that craft is only part of the equation. In my opinion, at the first draft stage craft is not even the most important component of the book-writing process.
[vinyl record scratch] Wait, what??
I get it: this seems counterintuitive. And of course writing craft does matter, it just doesn’t matter as much as some other key elements in the process at the first draft stage.
So what does matter most when you’re trying to finish a book?
You have to treat writing your book like a project, and structure your time accordingly.
You need a way to build accountability into the book-completion process so that you increase your chances of writing this week (and every week!) even when you really would rather not.
It’s true we’re alone with the page, but we don’t have to be alone with the process of writing a book. However you decide to build community into your book-writing process, this is absolutely key.
You’re going to get stuck at some point...it’s just what happens. And when you do, you need someone who can raise questions you didn’t know to ask and provide advice on how to tackle the issue(s) that arise, and help you with the motivation to just keep writing all the way to the end.
That doesn't have to be a paid coach -- I've seen writers achieve this through a good writing buddy or writing group -- but someone who's further along in the process than you will be most helpful.
Yes, you need some craft too -- guidance and advice on how to make the book you’re writing even better. But without the other 4 elements, craft alone won’t get you to the finish line.
Please don’t get me wrong here: of course you need to know how to improve your writing skills and how to overcome the craft challenges that your particular book will throw up for you.
But if you think that writing your book is ALL about figuring out the craft, you’re dead wrong -- especially in the first draft stage of the book-writing process.
Often the writers I speak with know that their real issue is fear. They desperately want to finish their books but they just can’t manage themselves to get over the visceral fear reactions they have that lead them to avoid writing altogether.
For a lot of writers, the story of writing a book goes like this…
Have brilliant idea for a book. ✅
Get excited about the book and start writing. ✅
Write about a third or perhaps half of the book just by riding that wave of excitement. ✅
Then...start to worry.
Worry about the middle.
Worry about the ending.
Worry about the language.
Worry about the structure.
Worry about how to make the book GREAT.
Worry about finding an agent. [Note: book still not yet finished!]
Worry about finding a publisher.
Worry about people reading it.
Worry about people NOT reading it.
Worry about what your friends will think.
Worry about what your family will think. [Book stuffed firmly in drawer at this point!]
Worry about what critics will think.
Worry about how the book will compare to books by [INSERT FAMOUS AUTHOR HERE].
Worry about the next book, especially if you don’t finish this book.
Friend, that is a LOT of worry. And the really fun part is that our brains can process anxieties so fast that we might have all of those worries in a single sitting! Who can write in the face of all that?
What most writers struggle with the most when tackling a book-length project is managing their fear and anxiety so that they can maintain a calm and productive mindset over the course of the months (and months!) of consistent work required to finish a book.
This is why I spend so much time on this with my students. In fact, in my First Book Finish course, we have an entire module -- Module 2 -- focused just on overcoming the most common mindset blocks writers face, such as perfectionism, self-doubt, and finding focus.
Of course, worry is just another word for FEAR. Garden-variety, run-of-the-mill, deadly boring and yet sometimes completely debilitating fear.
So here are a few of my best tips to manage the fear inherent in tackling a book-length project.
It looks so easy in the movies, doesn’t it? You just sit down and keep typing and eventually you have a book. Then you fix the spelling mistakes and you’re all done.
Ah, NO. That is emphatically NOT how it works in the real world. What you need to do first is complete a first draft -- until you do that, nothing else can happen.
The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. -- Terry Pratchett
So the trick then is to write that first draft all the way through to the end, WITHOUT getting caught up in your natural questions about how to fix the structure or language, and without waiting to “finish” your research.
Pro tip? You don’t need anywhere near as much research as you think you do, AND you also don’t really know what research is absolutely necessary until you’ve finished telling yourself the story.
We go deeper into this in First Book Finish, but basically what you want to do is embrace the reality that you are engaged in a project with multiple phases and you don’t have to get it perfect in the first phase -- you just have to get the basics in place. They call it a “working draft” or “developmental draft” or “first draft” for a reason.
Writing a book is a project and you’ll need a project plan. Breaking your book down into bite-sized pieces allows you to see the road ahead and measure your progress -- which is essential for helping you maintain a sense of progress and momentum.
A well-organized book project will have a road map that is specific to your life circumstances and preferences. You can’t get to completion of your manuscript without a clear understanding of where you’re going, what to write next, how much time is required and how you’re going to fit that time into your busy life.
A ritual is a series of actions performed in a consistent manner at the same time. I believe that every writer needs their own personalized writing ritual, one that calms the part of the brain that tends to get fearful and anxious about writing, and instead draws us back to the desk time and again looking forward to a pleasurable experience. (Fire up the dopamine!)
You’ll want to design your own ritual in a way that speaks to your own life, personality and preferences. Mine involves lighting a candle, listening to Yo Yo Ma play Bach cello concertos and working in timed sessions -- among other things.
Every season, I rethink and refresh my ritual to take advantage of new circumstances. (Writing outside is possible at the moment, but in February would be a death sentence where I live!)
If you can establish a pleasurable writing ritual, your brain will come to recognize writing time as a reward and will begin to miss it when it doesn’t happen. You’ll get to the point where sitting down to work on your book is a kind of sanctuary, a time when you reclaim your creative life back from the demands of the rest of the world, and it will be truly rewarding.
The fear hasn’t disappeared completely, it’s just not as relevant for your brain.
I know it sounds a bit weird to speak of “using” community, but in my experience community is an incredible tool for a writer. It’s not just about the pleasure of having other writers to talk to about craft, and/or the pleasures and challenges of the writing life.
Having any kind of community -- a writing partner, mentor or online group -- can be set up to provide you with accountability so that you commit and live up to your commitments. It’s always fascinating to me how we will commit to showing up with and for others when we’d find it so hard just to show up for and by ourselves. (I guess that’s why personal trainers have a job!)
You want to use community to check-in on a regular basis, to set goals and help you meet them, to bounce ideas off, and to help you celebrate your progress or provide some wise counsel and a shoulder to cry on from time to time, should you need it.
The stereotypical lone writer typing away in a cold garret may make for great movies, but it isn’t that helpful when it comes to actually finishing books. I don’t know any published writers who go it alone...we all have some form of community we rely on to help us get to the finish line.
These are three important ways you can manage your fear and anxiety to help you finish your book.
Writing a book is a process with 6 distinct phases and you’ll have to commit to seeing it through to the end.
And trust me, there’ll be times when you want to use your initial pages for fire-starters!
There’s a danger zone some writers fall into. They decide to write a book and get off to a great start...then at some point something about it starts to feel hard. Maybe there’s a technical question they can’t figure out, or maybe it’s just garden variety creative fear talking.
Either way, they stop -- just for a while, just to “take a break” while doing other things. (Sometimes they tell themselves tiny white lies about this: “Cooking is also creative.” “Sewing Is just as rewarding for me as writing.”)
A wee little break to catch up with your soul because life has been a bit nutso (Hello COVID!) is one thing, but the danger zone is when you stop and never go back to your work-in-progress at all.
So many writers have a third, or half or three-quarters of a book just sitting in a drawer or box in the closet somewhere, abandoned. And that breaks my heart. It breaks my heart as a fellow creative, but also as a reader: I might have loved that book.
There’s a point early on in the life of a book when you have to commit to finishing it. And you’re going to think you’re committing so you can see the book come to fruition and be published so your Ideal Reader can find it on the shelf in a bookstore. That’s important -- it’s certainly why I write books.
This week, I’ve had writers tell me that actually what worries writers most is “knowing” it won’t be published or that publishing it will cost a lot of money. First of all, you don’t “know” that, you just believe it. And sure, self-publishing can cost money -- so then the question to ask yourself is: how will I save or raise the funds I need to self-publish my book?
(Yeah, we do 3 weeks on Mindset in First Book Finish for a reason!)
You commit in order to become the writer who finishes.
Finishing one book makes it so much more possible to finish the next one, and the next. Because now you know what it takes, the good times and the bad. It’s a rite of passage, finishing your book. And the first step is deciding to finish..
First Book Finish will open for registration in late August to start on September 1st, and obviously if you’ve already decided that you do want to finish your book and would like to have some support in the process, then I’d love to have you to join us.
If you're thinking about joining us, then definitely get on the Wait List now because I'll have a special offer for writers on the Wait List that won't be available anywhere else. :-)
What I would hate to have happen though, is for you to decide to not finish your book because you're afraid you're not up to the task. Whether you join First Book Finish or not, my wish for you is that you create a writing life you absolutely LOVE...and if that includes finishing books and getting them out into the world to connect with readers, only you will know.
Only decide, and if finishing a book is important to you I truly believe you can do it. And on the days you don’t quite believe that yourself, you can borrow some of my belief in you to tide you over!