... and not enough of this.

HOW To Finish Your Damn Book

At the beginning of this year I wrote a post for that treasure trove of writing and publishing information, Writing.ie, about why you should finish your damn book. You can read that post here. It proved really popular. So popular that it seems to me like a lot of you are in the same place I was until last summer: wanting nothing more than to have finished your book, but finding yourself doing everything but writing it.

It’s all well and good for me to tell you why you should finish your book (nutshell: a finished book is the one thing everyone who ever got published/successfully self-published has in common) but how do you do it? How do you overcome procrastination? How do you finish your damn book?

I only know what worked for me, but maybe you’ll find something in there that works for you. Let’s see…

1. Reality check: do you really WANT to write this book?

For about two years a few years ago, I was trying to write the book that I thought would get me published, not realizing that this was also the kind of book I didn’t want to read. I had plenty of ideas, a plot outline, a killer title – but every time I sat down to add to my word count, it was like getting blood from a stone. That’s okay, I told myself. Writing is supposed to be hard. When I finally realized I was trying to type my way up the wrong tree and switched to writing the kind of book I loved to read – a serial killer thriller – there was practically an audible click.

Writing the wrong book, I’d begin a chapter by thinking Okay: 1,500 words. What can happen here that will take that to unfold? I was stretching out my plot points, trying to fill the virtual white pages with “set pieces” that would take me from one event to the next. But writing the right book, that became Okay: 1,500 words. How am I going to squeeze everything that happens at this point into that? I always knew what was going to happen next and in writing it, it was a case of even more ideas popping up during the process, rather than having to milk the few I had for more than they were worth.

That’s not to say that the book [eye roll] “flowed out” of me, as I’ve heard other writers say/lie. There were still struggles, still many non-productive days. But nothing as bad as when I wasn’t writing the right book, when I wasn’t writing the book I wanted to read.

Before you commit to this, check you’re trying to finish the right damn book.


This doesn’t suit everyone, but I couldn’t even attempt a novel without having some sort of plan.  It doesn’t have to be detailed, but a few signposts along the way will take the pressure off. Think about it: how does it feel to have to work your way from 0 to 100,000 words (your beginning to your ending) compared to working your way from 0 to 25,000 words (your beginning to your break into Act II) or even 0 to 5,000 words (your beginning to your catalyst/inciting incident)?

(These word counts are just examples, by the way. You can put your plot points wherever you like.)

Making a plan also avoids having to cross the wasteland of the Dreaded Middle. When we get novel ideas, they usually come with a beginning and an end. But what happens in between? How do we ensure that our middle doesn’t sag, it being the place that’s most likely to? I think a few signposts or tentpoles will really help to lead the way and curtail any aimless wandering.

You could have, just for example:

  • Beginning
  • Set-up
  • Inciting incident (that sends main character off on journey)
  • Start of B story
  • Midpoint – what happens half-way through your story that changes everything and/or significantly ramps up the tension/raises the stakes? If you even just had this along with a beginning and an end, you’d make things so much easier for yourself
  • “Dark Night of the Soul” to use Snyder’s term (see below) – the lowest point for your character
  • Act III/finale
  • Ending

I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to everyone I know who writes commercial fiction. Yes, it’s a screenwriting book, but with a few tweaks it works wonders for commercial novel plotting too. Not only does it help you fill in the middle, but it shows you how to construct an incredibly satisfying story. It’s like Robert McKee’s Story, but a For Dummies version of it.

Are you shaking your head right now, dismayed at the notion of a storytelling formula? Get over yourself. This isn’t about formulae, but principles. You’d agree that every story has to have a beginning, middle and end, wouldn’t you? All that’s happening here is that we’re examining what happens between those three points. As Snyder says (and this is another paraphrase), when you know the principles of storytelling you have a framework that you can set down on top of your novel idea to check for holes. It’s not giving you a story or telling you how to make one up – it’s a stress test, a checklist that can determine whether or not the story you have has structural integrity and if it doesn’t, where the strengthening work needs to go.

Finishing your damn book will be a lot easier when you can break it up into smaller, manageable pieces.

3. the Entertainment Business

I had an epiphany while reading Rachel Aaron’s shot of motivation to the writer’s heart/e-book, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better and Writing More of What You Love (99p on Amazon): I’m in the entertainment business. What I’m trying to create is, above all else, entertainment.

I’m with Harlan Coben, quoted in The Guardian back in 2007:

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Aaron talks about how, reflecting on her process, writing seemed to be at its easiest and most enjoyable when she came to write the scenes she loved, the ones she’d conceived of first, the pieces of the book she wrote the rest of it to get to. When she got in the zone, writing her book became almost like reading it. She wondered: shouldn’t it be like that all the time? If your goal is to entertain readers, isn’t there something wrong if you, the writer, can’t keep yourself entertained with your own book? Shouldn’t a scene that’s a drudge for you to write sound an alarm bell?

Honestly, this idea freed me.

First of all I stopped worrying about fancy sentences and evocative language. (When I read my favourite scribe, Sir Michael Connelly, I never notice the language. It’s like a translucent membrane; I see through it to the story. It’s like the page and the words on it don’t exist, but Bosch and his LA do, fully. To me, that takes far more skill to produce than a certain literary writer who spends a whole day at his desk perfecting just the one sentence, writing it over and over until it’s good enough for him to turn around and type it into the computer on his other side…) From them on, I just had one goal: work out/get down the story. I could move much quicker this way.

Secondly, I stopped at the beginning of every chapter to ask myself how I could write it in the most entertaining way possible, a way that would be fun for me to create as well as keep any eventual reader turning the pages. I didn’t start until I could answer that and if I couldn’t, I scrapped the chapter altogether. This way, there were no “duds”. No chapters I had to trudge through to get Mr X from A to B.

I also got into the habit of ending each chapter with a line that (hopefully) forced the reader to push onto the next (the “just one more chapter” syndrome I suffer from as a reader, usually late at night), and deciding on that line at the beginning. This was really excellent motivation to finish the chapter sooner rather than later, because I knew where I was going and I was dying to get to that killer line, partly so I could slap the desk and say “BOOM!” which is what I like to do when I’m overly pleased with myself at the end of a chapter… (Don’t tell anyone.)

It’ll be easier to finish the damn book if you are enjoying the process. If you’re not entertained by your story, what are the chances readers will be?

4. stage your own NANOWRIMO

Early this year I discovered that it’s infinitely easier to commit to finishing a project by pulling out all the stops for a short, intense period of time than it is to say, commit to getting up at the crack of dawn every morning for a year so you can get 500 words down before your real life begins. It’s easier to sustain motivation, it’s easier to keep your novel in your head and when you are really going at it, writing whenever you can, after a few days you don’t even need motivation anymore because the book takes over.

I went from telling myself that there was no point in even starting anything because I only had a free hour to sitting down at my desk even if I only had ten minutes. (This from the girl who once upon a time believed that if you hadn’t started your writing day by 10:00am, you might as well wait until tomorrow.) It’s also easier to forgo socializing, appointments, human interaction, etc. for 4-6 weeks than it is to resist invitations to fun for months or years.

You will have to make sacrifices. This is something I don’t think I truly understood until I had six weeks earlier this year in which to re-write my novel, alongside being in university full-time and having freelance work to keep up so I could pay my rent too. For me, this meant doing nothing else except writing, working, being at university and sleeping – and I did a lot less sleeping than I usually do. It was hard and I had to push myself, but it was doable because I knew it was for a limited amount of time.

Be realistic about the phrase “I don’t have time.” Is that really true? You don’t have time to do the thing you want to do most in the world? You have to find it. Don’t be like the participant on a weight loss show that aired in Ireland last year who threw a strop at having to prepare healthy meals because it was sooooo time-consuming and she was sooooo busy – the same woman who, before she embarked on the programme, managed somehow to find the time to drink an entire bottle of red wine in front of the TV every night.

Practical tip: clean your entire house and cook up lots of things that can be frozen before you begin, so you have as few distractions as possible. It also helps to tell everyone what you’re doing. It makes it easier for you to say no to invitations, ignore phone calls and e-mails, etc. but it also gives you a bit of accountability.

It may be easier to press “pause” on life so you can finish your damn book in a matter of weeks, rather than trying to fit in and keep up a daily writing routine for months or years. 

5. Don’t read over what you’ve written

Again this may not work for everyone and I know there are those who like to edit as they go, but editing as you go was why I didn’t get past 10,000 words for more than a year. You just have to keep going. Stop mid-sentence so you can pick right up when you left off the next time you sit down at your desk. Resist the urge to edit. You’ll edit in the next draft.

At the same time, write the best chapters you possibly can – but in terms of what happens in them, not necessarily the line-by-line language. (If that makes sense.) Think of how professional editing works: it starts with structural things, and only then moves into the language. You should work the same way, I think,  especially if you are writing a first draft.

I really couldn’t resist this for a long time, until I hit upon an idea: print out your book as you go. Every time you get to the end of a scene or chapter, hit PRINT and then put the pages in a pile to one side. Far away enough so you can’t read it, but close enough so you can be reminded of your progress.

Speaking of progress, charts are your friend. Make a big one in which you can write the number of words you wrote per day, or use a calendar. Sometimes you’ll stay at your desk just because you can’t face writing ’29’ in the box for today, trust me.

It’s easier to keep moving forward when you don’t stop to look back. 

* * * * *

So there you go. Sorry this post is so long but I have my first lot of end of year exams coming up, so I just don’t have the time to blog as much as I’d like. A long post whenever I do hopefully makes up for this.

Also: look! I changed my blog. Catherine is still caffeinated but this pile of HTML bricks is just catherineryanhoward.com now, and the pink is more an accent colour than a drowning depth of candy floss. There’s been some reorganization too. What do you think?

Have you managed to finish your damn book? Tell us how you did it in the comments below.

You might also be interested in this post I recently wrote for Writing.ie: Should You Be Best Friends with a Writer, Daahling? 

My Favorite Plotting Book EVER* (*Contains Cats)

It was September 2006 and Ihad  just moved to Orlando, Florida. I didn’t have much money, no car and my job hadn’t commenced yet, so I basically knew no one. I spent most of my days wandering around Downtown Disney, tracing a path which always ended up in the Virgin Megastore on Westside (which is no longer there, sadly). Upstairs there were magazines, a bookstore, and a cafe: the perfect place for me. The bookstore wasn’t the kind where you could walk in with a book you wanted in mind and find it there on the shelf, though; this place was more of a let’s go in with an open mind and see what we find type of place.


One day I found Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Synder and started to flip through it. Not only did it make me laugh, standing there in the aisle, but it also explained story in a way I could understand, and used examples from movies I was familiar with to show that like it or not—and done consciously or not—all the movies that leave us feeling really satisfied, that have us walking back out into the light after seeing it in the movie theatre and saying to our friend, ‘That was really good, wasn’t it?”, adhere in some way to these principles.

Even though I shouldn’t have been spending any money at all, I just had to buy the book so I could take it back to my crappy little apartment and read the rest.

Disney 7656

Have I shown you this before? This was my crappy Orlando apartment (the one I shared with partying Russians who never locked the front door). I believe that’s called 80s Office Chic. 

Which is where I discovered that this screenwriting book is amazing for plotting commercial fiction.

It’s even more amazing if you’re asked for a chapter-by-chapter outline, as I once was, before I’d even written a word of the book.

Need a one-page synopsis? Or your entire book down pared down to just three paragraphs? Whip out Save the Cat!, flip to the beat sheet page (my copy now just falls open there) and fill in a sentence—one sentence—for each of the fifteen beats. Divide into three, jazz up a bit and there you go: your one-page synopsis.

And if you can’t fill in a sentence for each of those fifteen beats? Then your structure might have a weak spot. There’s room to improve.

Putting The Fun Back Into Story

If you’ve read Story by Robert McKee, Save the Cat! is like that only in a language you’ll understand and a length that won’t fry your brain. Save the Cat! is actually a fun read, and something you’ll return to again and again. The book isn’t that thick, even. Story is just too much for me. I can’t take it all in. It also seems to squeeze all the fun out of it, every last drop, until it just gets so technical and nit-bitty that it can only leave you feeling totally overwhelmed (I think).

Another thing I love about Snyder’s books is that he assumes you know what you’re doing. He takes it for granted that idea, characters, etc. are all already there. His beat sheet is more of a test, something you can lay down over the story you already have to check it for structural integrity, for weak spots and holes.

Now, yes, I am aware that I’m supposed to be writing books, not screenplays. But if you write commercial fiction, there is no real difference between you and a screenwriter in terms of the plot beats you should aim to hit. Only the novelist, I think, faces a much deeper, wider and darker chasm (100,000 words) than the screenwriter does (120 pages) and so if there’s help out there, why not take it? Especially when most of us have a great idea for a beginning, a vague idea for an end, a cast of characters and not much else.

How are you going to fill in the middle, eh?

‘Story Structure’ Does NOT Equal ‘Formula’

Let’s just take a moment here to address those of you whose teeth are already grinding and eyes are already a-rolling at the thought of doing anything to our work other than letting it run free and wild across the blank pages of Pretentious Meadow. A beat sheet isn’t about writing to a formula. This is about the elements of story which, if you’ll recall, is what all this is supposed to be about in the first place.

For example, let’s say that I came rushing up to you, breathless, and said, “Oh my god, you will not believe what’s just happened to me. I was sitting in traffic, right? Waiting for the light to turn red. Next thing I know this guy comes running up to my window and starts pounding on the glass!”

And then I abruptly stop talking.

What would be your reaction?

Wouldn’t it be to ask, “Yeah, and? What happened then?”

Because every story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and I clearly left out the ending of my traffic tale. Therefore, it doesn’t sit right with you. You know it’s missing something. You knew it as soon as you heard it, because you’re wired for story. So you have a natural, human reaction to hearing the beginning and middle of a story: you look for the end.

This is exactly what Save the Cat! and other “plotting” books, devices and advice is all about. The only difference is that they go much deeper than the basics of beginning, middle and end. For instance, Snyder can break a story into two halves (Opening Image <- Midpoint -> Final Image), four quarters (Act I, Act II Part 1, Act II Part 2, Act II) or fifteen by way of his famous beat sheet (see the first Save the Cat! book for this).

But you can just take what you want or need, and leave the rest. For example, when planning my current WIP I thought of the story like this:

  • Half way through is the “midpoint”, where the hero does something that means he can never return to his “Before” life, a point of no return
  • Act II up until the midpoint is all about the hero being proactive, moving into a new life (without committing to it)
  • Act II after the midpoint is all about the hero resisting the (inevitable and permanent) change that’s up ahead
  • Act I is the “Before” or Old World, where if the hero keeps doing what he’s doing, life will be pretty sucky
  • Act III is the hero deciding to move into his “After” or New World, and settling there
  • At each turn (end of Act I, midpoint, end of Act II) there’s a significant stakes raise, greater than the one before.

My constant re-reading of Save the Cat! helped me fill in all the other bits as I went along, but when you’re first faced with the question Is this idea enough for a novel?, being able to figure out if your story has a beginning, middle and end can save you a lot of staring-out-the-window time.

I’ve mentioned this book before, but I wanted to post about it again because I recently re-read the other two books in the series, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies and Save the Cat! Strikes Back, and remembered just how wonderful they are. Tragically Snyder passed away suddenly at the age of just 51 before Strikes Back had even hit the shelves, but not before he’d become famous (and appreciated!) in screenwriting circles and was traveling all over the world to help other writers with their scripts.

So if you’re struggling, give Save the Cat! a chance and see what it can do for you. At the very least, it’ll make you giggle.

Find Save the Cat! on Amazon and visit Blake Snyder’s website here.

#4: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Yesterday I began my countdown of My Top 5 How To Write Books Books with How Not To Write A Novel: 200 Common Mistakes to Avoid At All Costs If You Ever Want to Get Published by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark.

Today I’m going to tell you about No. 4 – Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder.

Before you all start screaming at me, yes I know it’s a book about screenwriting; I’m not as dumb as I look. But it is also the single most useful tool I have ever come across when it comes to that thorny little problem called plotting. Continue reading