Just get on with it! How to finish your book

(You can also now listen to this or download it as a podcast! Fancy huh).

A few weeks ago I gave a talk to the London Writers’ Café (a great group, check them out!) about how to finish your book. I think this is an area that gets neglected sometimes. It’s easy to start, in a blaze of ideas and good intentions. You may even get as far as 30,000 words in with that initial burst, before running out of momentum. Before I managed to finish a book myself, I had countless false starts, where I would just give up on the book. I wish I’d known that it’s normal to run into problems at this stage– and also that these are very possible to fix.

I think the main reasons people don’t finish things are these:

  • Lack of time
  • Fear (of rejection, of hard work)
  • ‘Writer’s block’
  • Feeling ill, feeling tired, feeling uninspired
  • Laziness/Distraction
  • ‘I don’t know what happens next!
  • The book isn’t working

Most issues you’ll encounter can fit into one of these categories. But they can be fixed!

Dealing with lack of time

Try the following and see if they work:

Retreats-I’m always amazed by how much I can get done when I’m away, even for just a few days

Writing during lunches/After work/before work-I used to stay in my office for half an hour or so after work to write

Carving out time in your day– write in bed before you get up, at the gym, in a café, on the train…

Short bursts –can you make special arrangements for a month or so? For example free up other work, or get someone to look after your children

Pomodoro technique – this ‘fifteen minute’ approach, and other time management techniques, can really help to cut through distractions. Don’t feel you always need huge chunks of time to get things done. When I’m doing 1,000 words a day, I sometimes get this done in fifteen minutes. It may not be polished, but at least it’s there!


Some ways to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’:

Get rejected! After the first time you will quickly get used to it. I delayed sending my first book out for about six months for this very reason.

Have lots of things on the go-so you don’t have to worry so much about that one idea

Enter a competition with a closing date- it will focus the mind and help you get over your fear of submission

Join a class or writers’ group – get used to receiving feedback. The first time will probably be terrifying, but you’ll soon feel fine about it. Good preparation for those Amazon reviews that say, ‘this book came with too much packaging. One star’.

Afraid of edits or doing hard work on the novel? Sadly, there is no trick for this. The only way out is through…

Writers’ Block

Basically I don’t think this exists. What does exist is:

  • Writer’s laziness
  • Writer’s burn-out
  • Writer’s fear
  • Writer’s I-wrote-myself-into-a-corner
  • Writer’s I-hate-this-book
  • Writer’s I’m-not-really-a-writer (eg you don’t really get ideas, or you want to have written a book but don’t enjoy the process at all)

Work out if you’re suffering from one of these and figure out how to fix it.

How you feel

I think not enough attention is paid to the fact that creativity isn’t a tap you can turn on and off. It’s inextricably linked to how you feel in yourself, so it may be other factors that are affecting your writing. Why not try:

Get well- rest, eat well, have a break, exercise. Remember writing is still work, however fun it is.

Make time for thinking – staring out the window is fine. So is having a day off.

Recognise when you are burned out, versus when you are lazy. Sometimes you genuinely do need to take some time off.

Fall back in love with your idea (go back to the blurb and story)

Read The Artist’s Way and Writing Down the Bones and On Writing- all fantastic books about living as a writer

Take yourself seriously as a writer – have a desk, chair, etc all properly set up

Spend some money on your writing– a new laptop maybe, or a notebook, courses, books etc. It will help you see it as real work and remind yourself you’ve made a commitment to it.

Make the process pleasant. Have nice pens and paper, surround your desk with flowers and inspiring pictures, wear a ballgown at your desk…And of course always have good tea or coffee and biscuits!

Read the lives of great artists and writers and find yourself some mentors. I’m inspired by pictures of great writers being playful or silly, like in this great picture of Susan Sontag in a bear suit:

Read a briimages (12)lliant book

Read a terrible book- you’ll think, ‘I can do much better than this!’

Get obsessed with an idea (read newspapers? True crime?)

Go to events – meet other writers and realise you’re not alone!


Perhaps the biggest obstacle to getting on with things, and one that never gets any better I find! Still, there are some tricks you can learn to

Get away from your desk/house- I find I can’t write any new words in my flat. I don’t know why, but it’s true, and I can often do thousands of words if I just go out to a café. Worth the price of a latte!

Notebook writing- I always write my first drafts longhand. This allows me to see it more as sketching, so I don’t worry about making it perfect, and I can’t keep fiddling with the same bit. It’s also extremely portable and means I can do a bit anywhere

Turning off the internet-there are also apps like Freedom or Write or Die which will turn off your internet. If you need a real boost, you can set Write or Die so it starts to delete your work if you don’t type fast enough!

Interruptions – calls, other people, phone alerts. Try to eliminate these as much as possible. Even a text message can break my focus for a long time.

Essentially I think it’s a process of tricking and treating yourself into finishing, eg….

Daily word counts

Little rewards (like cake!)

Monthly/weekly goals

Working in cafes

Filling a notebook a month

The ‘off my desk’ 85% rule – basically this is that if I think I’ve done what I can for now, and a piece is 85% done, I’ll send it to someone else for feedback. It creates momentum and stops things stagnating on your hard drive while you fiddle endlessly.

Writing the end early on, or writing the fun bits if you have a day when you’re stuck. There’s no need to write chronologically. I often go back and fill in all the ‘connective tissue’ bits on a third draft.

Important things to remember:

  • It is totally normal to hate your book some of the time
  • It’s a process – you have to learn what’s normal for you

If you’re struggling with something, I suggest making a list of all the things that are stopping you from writing, both practical and emotional. Then write a list of the tricks and treats you are going to use to counter each one.

There is also the issue that something may be actually wrong with your book – next time I will talk about this more, and also about the different creative stages of writing a book. Good luck!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on toofulltowrite (I've started so I'll finish) and commented:
    An excellent collection of tips to help motivate you to finish your novel once you have started it from Crime Author Claire McGowan. I will certainly be taking note of these myself – hope you find them useful folks!

  2. I have finished books… and it turns out that my fear of rejection was not only well justified, but at least as bad as I imagined it would be… HA!

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