The Secret to Finishing a Book

We’re half way through November now, which must mean that we’re also half way through NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month. I’ll come clean, I’ve only ever ‘won’ Nanowrimo once, and that was with a book that I had already started beforehand and had stalled on. I used NaNo to write the final 50,000 words and finish the thing. That was the novel that (after another 8 months of editing) became False Colors.

Even that probably doesn’t count, because you’re supposed to go into Nano having written none of your novel beforehand. So technically that was a fail.

However – and I think it’s an important however – I have now finished and published fifteen novels and eight novellas. So one thing I can claim I know about is how to get to the end of a story.

While writing all those stories, I’ve noticed an interesting thing – I have a regular emotional cycle which I go through without fail every time and with every book. Identifying this cycle has made the emotional journey of novel writing a little easier to cope with. Now when I absolutely cannot get myself to the page and I am considering offering to scrub my neighbours’ toilets rather than write, I at least have the comfort of knowing that feeling like this is part of my regular process.

Talking a thirty chapter novel, here’s how writing a novel goes for me, in terms of emotion and enjoyment:

1. Chapters One to Five

Ooh, this is fun! I really like my protag. There’s so much about this idea which is intriguing. I can’t wait to learn more. This is fantastic, and – you know what – I think I’m actually writing fairly well too. I love being a writer! I can’t wait to be back at the keyboard.

2. Chapters Five to Ten

I don’t know. Maybe I should have started with a different plot. Maybe this secondary character would have been better as the protag? I’ve written all the scenes from the wrong points of view, haven’t I? And no one wants to read a [whatever this novel is] I’d do a lot better to write that [guaranteed bestseller] instead.

This is your first point of danger. At this point, many writers do start again, reworking the book with a different protag, different plot points and/or different points of view. They may even decide to abandon this book and start a different one which will, of course, go better. If you do any of these things, the real result is that you end up back at step 1. And you will inevitably get to step 2 again with that project too.

What to do at this stage? Make a note of the ideas generated. If some are really good, incorporate them into this book from this point onwards. You can change the first few chapters to match after you’ve finished the book. But this is the first point where you have to deploy your mantra – which in my case is “you can’t stop until you’ve finished this book” – and push on regardless.

3. Chapters Ten to Twenty

Ugh. This is a lot like hard work, isn’t it? I have no motivation. I’m not exactly bored, but chewing my way through this is like being a woodworm having to chew their way through a church pew. There’s a certain satisfaction in having got the daily word-count done, but getting my butt in the chair to do it is like wrangling a reluctant mule. Work, work work. I thought being a writer was supposed to be more glamourous than this. Also I’m pretty sure I’m a hack. My writing is as dull as I feel. I really don’t want to do this any more.

This is the famous ‘slump in the middle.’ Your motivation’s gone, procrastination is through the roof. Nothing you’re writing seems really interesting any more. You can see all the ways in which your characters’ motivations don’t make sense, your story is a cliche, your sentences are ugly and there is nothing worthwhile about any of it.

It’s so hard not to believe this feeling. You don’t really want to write the book any more, so it’s almost a relief to allow yourself to believe you’re a terrible writer and you should just stop. But fortunately – if you’ve already finished a few novels, or if you take the word of someone who has – you know that this feeling is a lie. If you finish the book, you will find that it’s actually pretty good. You’ve just got to finish first.

What to do at this stage? This is the ‘nobody said it was going to be easy’ stage. Why should writing be less like work than digging a garden or making a road? No one lets a gardener or a road builder quit half way through because they’re bored and discouraged, so why should you? Deploy the mantra again – “You can’t stop until you’ve finished.” You might hate it, but go and do your daily wordcount anyway.

4. Chapters Twenty to Twenty five

Oh, I’m nearly at the end! Past the middle, at least. I can see the end from here. And, you know what? This is not bad, actually. A bit of sprucing up in the editing stage and it’ll be a good book. I’m totally glad I didn’t do that re-write in chapter five, because this is fine as it is! Exciting, isn’t it? I’m nearly there!

What to do at this stage? Enjoy it. But don’t be too disappointed when along comes…

5. Chapters Twenty Five to Thirty

I can’t do it. I just can’t. I don’t know why I’m sitting here obsessively refreshing Tumblr but I can’t get up and write. I don’t even know why not. I just can’t.

The end of novel road-block. Son of Slump. The mid book slump is back and he’s meaner than ever. I call this a road-block because it is very much like running into a wall. Sometimes, unlike the middle, there aren’t even any discouraging thoughts or emotions attached. You know you could finish it in two or three days. You know that a completed book is within your grasp, and that it’s not even going to be a bad one. But the will to write is just not there.

My theory is that your subconscious does not want to let go of this world in which you have spent so much time and energy. At a deep and inaccessible level, some part of you wants to keep these people you’ve come to love – and this expression of your own character – private, safe, all to yourself, and it knows that getting to the end is like the guillotine coming down. You will have to say goodbye, and you don’t want to.

What to do at this stage? It helps if you’ve established a regular writing routine. If you have a time of day where you always write, the habit can drive you into sitting down and writing anyway. I find that at this stage I’m often late to turn up. I’ll say ‘oh, I just don’t want to do it today,’ and then an hour into my writing time I’ll think, ‘I’ve only got an hour left! I should go and do something at least.”

It also helps – if you’re really struggling – to reduce your daily word count. ‘Oh, I’ll just go and do a thousand words,’ or ‘I’ll feel less crap about myself if I manage five hundred words, so let’s do that.’ As long as you don’t reduce your daily word count to zero, you’ll get there in the end.

If you absolutely cannot write, then you can take a day off. But make sure it’s only one! After your one day off, go into the next one determined that you’re refreshed and ready to do this, and write.

Writing is work. Sometimes it’s hard work. But we all suffer through parts of our work that we don’t like. We put our heads down, shoulder through and get there, weary but accomplished. At least we’re not out in the rain as we would be if we were building a road instead of a book. Soldier on through the rough parts until you get there, which you inevitably will. Because the real secret to finishing a book is genuinely as simple as this: If you don’t stop until you’ve finished it, you will finish it.


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