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,, 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:

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 11.46.48

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 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 Should You Be Best Friends with a Writer, Daahling? 

59 thoughts on “HOW To Finish Your Damn Book

  1. MRSH says:

    Hi! I was going add to your slush pile of emails, but I read the bullet points and didn’t want to induce the angry dinosaur face. I’ve been following your blog since I was an ambitious teenager and thought I might want to write a novel and wrote a wordpress blog where I waxed melodramatic about books and the like. Anyways, your blog is basically irrelevant to my life at the moment, but your writing is so captivating that I read most of your posts when they find themselves in my inbox anyways! I also love the website update, it looks LOVELY. Just thought I’d pop my nose in to say you’re awesome!

  2. Lene says:

    Love the new site design!

    And thank you, thank you, thank you! I needed this. I finished my first damn book two years ago and have been procrastinating writing the second damn book in the series since (it’s amazing how much you can get done while avoiding something). I finished Book 1 by being disciplined and creating a habit of writing. Did it at a slower pace – I have chronic pain and writing in prolonged bursts is just not possible. I had a plan, didn’t edit, and focused on one chapter at a a time – it made it more doable than if I’d looked at the entire book. Which is partly my problem now. Writing 70,000 words is so much harder than writing a chapter. This post helped. Some great reminders and a few new tricks. Thanks!

  3. Elle Knowles says:

    No Catherine, I haven’t finished my damn book! I feel really bad because it’s a sequel to my first – ‘Crossing The Line” – which could stand alone, but I’ve advertised I’m writing the sequel. I’ve put it on my blog, on Facebook, on Twitter! Been writing it for two years now and I just can’t seem to finish! Will people think bad of me if I never do? I wonder. After reading this post I think I may be writing the WRONG book because I have a lot more ideas I would rather work on! HELP! What advice do you have? ~Elle

  4. rjrugroden says:

    I would say that if the book isn’t entertaining the writer, then something’s wrong is true only most of the time, not all of the time. I currently have a friend who is writing a breathtaking novel and whom we are all bugging to finish it so we can read it, but she hates it and doesn’t want to write it anymore. There does come a point where the writer is too overworked in a story and needs to consider that their perspective is no longer viable, and they need to turn to others.

  5. Jon says:

    I like what you said here

    “When I’m not at work, I’m overwhelmed by the exhaustion of recovering from having been there, and then by the dread of having to go back to it soon.”

    I think that is the biggest thing for me. When I’m not working on a novel. ( I have 4 done, one on the way) I am a freelancer writing copy for clients. Sometimes ( more often than not I a knackered at the end of the day)

    I try to do my writing before my work, sometimes after. Day’s off aren’t much better. I find myself spacing out like that scene in the movie ADAPTATION where he’s staring at a blank page in his typewriter and thinking about muffins and coffee 🙂

    Good to know we all face this kind of stuff.

    I approach it like a mountain, I know it’s tough but if I keep plodding along I will get there eventually.

  6. Dan Perry says:

    Great advice, especially on editing as you go. That’s something I do way too much of. Thanks for the motivation.

    PS – The new website design is simple and professional, so I like it. But what happened to your side bar? It had captivating images with links to your writing. You have plenty of screen real estate to keep it (at least on big screens), and I don’t think your site looked busy before. Did you change to a different theme?

  7. Susan Lee Kerr says:

    First of all the new blogsite design, oooo, took my breath away. Catherine now looks like skinny latte, sleek and elegant. Glad to have the same tone in the text — I love funny, helpful Catherine; please don’t get too grown up!
    Second, yes, yes, yes to finishing book suggestions. The biggest breakthrough for me was similar to CRH’s language thing. I just had to get over my many tries at being ‘creative’ and literary and just tell the story. After some 10 years I finished (okay, apologies, this will sound like a plug) The Extraordinary Dr Epstein last June. It’s a biographical novel about my astonishing great grandfather (end of plug). V grateful to Mslexia through whom I discovered Catherine Ryan Howard (go on, take a bow) who ever since June became my guru (blogs archive and both old and new editions of Sane). Much work to get here, but right now at last Big Thanks — the book is CreateSpace & Kindle published. Still referring to CRH re rolling out publicity.

  8. Charlotte Cyprus says:

    Basically my initial plan is to just get everything finished. I outline the main points and write whatever I can to fill in the space in between, even though sometimes it’s dreadful filler. It’s during editing the first few drafts that the plot really falls into place, where I can see if a plot point was ineffective and what else I need to get to that point. I figure that 60% of my book is through writing that first draft and 40% is through stuff changed through editing.

  9. Jon Chaisson says:

    I came to the realization that I’d been writing the wrong book at least twice last year. One was a lit fic story that was boring the hell out of me (I’m not a big lit fic fan to begin with) and the other was a combination memoir and music bio about college radio that was going in way too many directions at once. The former has been trunked and the other is simmering on the backburner for now, until I decide how to best rework it.

    My new project is doing well so far…I’m not entirely sure where it’s going (writingwise I’m a pantser), but I’ve got a destination in mind. My trick for this one is to be conscious of forward movement–I always have it moving at the speed it needs to be in, and if it’s starting to lag, time to pick up speed again. Oh–also, this is the first draft and I’m writing longhand, so I’m just letting myself riff without rewriting or revising, at least not at this point in time! 🙂

  10. Bentley Bryce Finley says:

    There is very much good advice in here. I always read your advice and sometimes even try to follow it. I think even non-fiction types such as myself could use some of this method.

    Yes, I finished my book. I have written four previous books and completed the non-fiction “Finishing Year” (about going on a student exchange overseas – at age 48 – to finish my first university degree). When you are finished at Trinity, you will probably want to write a similar tale.

    It still took about a year to write it, although I had none of the work a fiction author would face. Where you say “write the best chapters you possibly can – but in terms of what happens in them, not necessarily the line-by-line language,” I feel your pain, but (as a non-fiction author) I get to spend all my time concentrating on that language, because the story is complete – at least, chronologically or event-wise, it writes itself. The incidents happened to me, or I caused them to happen, through my unintentional bumbling or my insatiable desire for a life filled with adventure, take your pick. This is truly the wonderful benefit, for a writer, of not having to make things up.

    I write screenplays and find this to be much tougher. The only way to get through those is to do absolutely nothing else at the time, as you mention concerning NANWRIMO. You have to do it. Who cares if you do not shave during this time? Who is going to see it anyhow?

    Still, I had not written a book for quite a few years, and I felt like it was quite a task. It should have gone easier. The thing is, I worked as a journalist for several years at the beginning of my career, and followed that up with years of marketing writing. So the writing chore is perhaps not so much of a burden for me as it might be for others, but I still found it like rolling a rock uphill, at least at times.

    The other thing you note, “print out your book as you go,” is golden. It is one thing I learned to do right at the start of this new book and will do for all the ones that follow: write them on a typewriter. In case you are not too familiar, a typewriter is a device that works like your computer keyboard attached to your printer. You write and voilà, the device instantly prints your pages. I pile the pages in an old, wooden artist’s paint box, which equally suits North American or European standard paper sizes (try it). And (as you say in your self-printed guide), I figure out the word count/finished book length simply by typing a few pages from someone’s finished book, the size and layout of which impresses me as being about what I am aiming for in my self-printed form, and each page I complete equals almost exactly a page of final, printed book. This helps you know when enough is enough.

    The greatest thing is that, after all this (and after you shave), you have a product, you sell it, and you make someone’s day brighter, possibly even your own.

  11. Tiffany Parry says:

    Great, great advice. Made me think of the quote “methods are many, principles are few. Methods always change, but principles never do.” We all have our own methods, but like you said the basic principles have to be there to finish the darn thing. 🙂 Thank you!!

  12. pecsbowen says:

    I finished my book and it comes out in mid June and I am quite nervous about it.
    Great post btw, number 5 has so much truth – I didn’t read much of what I wrote till the end.

  13. ChristineR says:

    Great advice Catherine. I find it really hard to stop fiddling and your suggestions make sense. I love reading about writing so I’ve downloaded Rachael Aaron’s pep talk. I came here from a reblog and I had to check the top to see if I was following you because the name seemed familiar. The penny only dropped when you mentioned caffeinated. 😮 It’s an attractive theme.

  14. chandlerkristen22 says:

    Reblogged this on Life is Crazy Deal With it and commented:
    I need to finish my own book that I have been dabbling with for years. I love the story and plot line I have planned but I am so bad at making the time to sit and write. This article gives some great tips about motivating yourself to complete whatever writing project you have been muddling over too.

  15. KLMcCarty says:

    I love this post! It is funny to consider that so many minds can think alike. I have not managed to finish my first damn book, but then again I just began it 3 weeks ago. And in 3 weeks, I managed only a hand full of hours to write, so you can imagine that there is a lot of management of time that needs to happen. I did create my blog in hopes of keeping myself accountable, and shared it with all of my friends and family. My name is also Katherine, and I am amazed that coffee seems to be a potent stimulus for me when I have never really liked it before–and yet after a Latte yesterday I wrote for 2 hours straight. I automatically thought of this blog and therefore read this funny educational post. I’d love any input on my own process, as you may enjoy my trials as a first time novelist (I am sure you can relate!).

  16. KLMcCarty says:

    Reblogged this on something more british and commented:
    I read this article and thought—OK, I am not as lost as I thought, having many things in the works that she said would be helpful in writing a novel. Mainly and most importantly, write something you want to read yourself, that you feel passion for–which I am happy to conclude that I do in fact desire to read already what I have written. And secondly, I love the idea of making milestones, such as chapters, and after a chapter is finished, print it out. Do not edit as you go, but see it stack on itself. More importantly, reading this I am truly ASHAMED at how little time I am allotting to this goal of writing a novel! This is a passion, so time to get passionate!!!

  17. TymberDalton says:

    I use Scrivener to write in, and I’m mostly a pantster. I don’t outline so much as I know the “mile-marker posts” I need to hit in my story. (Like beats in Save the Cat – yes, I LOVE that book, too.)

    Since this is my full-time gig, and I don’t get paid if I don’t write, looking at my bank account in relation to my bills is usually enough motivation to get my ass in the chair every day. (Or at least in front of the laptop, sometimes with my fibro I’m writing in bed or on the couch.) Also, deadlines from my publisher means I do have my own personal Nano going every month. LOL

    My self-pubbed stuff takes longer for me to write because I can sit there and work on it more slowly. I’m trying to get better about that.

    And yes to the “boring” parts–if it bores you, it WILL bore your reader, so it needs to go. (Likewise pages and pages of backstory/filler info that just because you know it and researched the holy heck out of it, doesn’t mean it needs to go IN the book, so drop the sad puppeh face. LOL)

    I have written on my whiteboard in my office FREE TIME IS FOR CLOSERS. (Yes, a nod to Glengarry Glen Ross.) I do not allow myself “free” time if I didn’t get the work done. Whether that means watching a TV show I wanted to see or taking time for pleasure reading. I have to be my own boss, looking over my shoulder and keeping productivity up. If I don’t, no one else will, until my bank calls wanting to know why I haven’t paid my mortgage that month. I don’t have a safety net of a day job — this IS my day job. And yes, it’s panic-inducing on some days (all hail Xanax).

    It doesn’t hurt that I’m a touch-speed typist with a caffeine addiction. I can thank my home county’s school system that they gave me a semester of typing way back in *mumbles* when I was in 7th grade, when I’d requested band.

    Phhttpp. They did me a HUGE favor and I didn’t even appreciate it until I was older.

    I also STRONGLY recommend anyone who hasn’t yet? Learn how to touch type. It will SOOOO improve your productivity, because not only can you type faster, your fingers will have an easier time keeping up with your brain instead of you having to slow your thoughts down so you don’t lose anything. The only time I write longhand anymore is when I’m stuck and need to brainstorm and want the tactile feel of my *precious* colored gel pens in my hands.

    It didn’t hurt that I worked several years writing columns and in journalism. Editors trying to fill column inches generally don’t react well when you tell them you have writer’s block. So between the touch typing and the deadlines and the need to write? Yeah, I’ve’ kind of evolved into a bit of a writing monster in some ways. I get twitchy if I’m NOT working, which in a way is good. It means I’m eager to get back to writing when I do allow myself the free time I feel I’ve “earned.” And that means I’m more productive, which means I can give myself free time, which means I want to go back to work, which means…

    (Which means I need serious help, but that’s another story.)

    You can always go back and edit later. Get it out of your brain and on the screen, now, and finish the book. Quit whining that it’s not good enough. Quit obsessing over every verb choice.

    Finish it, and then go back and edit it. Because you can’t do bubkis with an unfinished book except whine that you wished you’d finished it.

  18. Charlotte says:

    Ah! Thank you so much for this! I’m not going to lie and say it’s much use to me at the moment (perhaps a post on writers block would be more appropriate!) but you never fail to make me laugh with your witty yet incredibly talented blog posts! You write with passion and your words are laced with an aura of sophistication- this gurrrrl knows her stuff, damn! So thank you for putting a smile on my face! I don’t suppose you’d be interested in joining my ‘book club’?! Hop on over to my blog to read more about it, or drop me an email ( If you don’t, no worries. Enjoy today, live for tomorrow- best wishes being sent your way! 🙂

  19. ocjarman1 says:

    Wow, Catherine, thank you for the ‘kick in the tushie’ I needed to continue writing my WIP–I’m closing in on the end of Act 1. I’m astounded by the energy a great writers have, including yourself; attending college classes, writing a novel, plus other writing–whee, that all wipes me out just thinking of all that!! My most challenging aspect of my life is overpowering the one [of two] problematic chronic illnesses I live with. With a lot of prayer, I do pretty good.

  20. Kat says:

    No, I’ve not yet finished my book — only nearing the 2,000 word point at the moment — but I’m feeling a lot more confident with this idea than my previous failed attempts. Publishing isn’t something I’m looking for, rather this novel is practice and experience; still, these points are all things I have to deal with (especially #5, ugh), but this’ll be a damn book I probably, and hopefully, will finish. Great poster, a reminder too. In a good way, of course.

  21. theepowerofgood says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’m not a writer… well, I write all day but a humanitarian grant application is a little different from a novel (grant applications tend to be longer for one thing.)

    Anyway, your tips have been motivating and it has been fun to read something with an Irish turn of phrase. I’m an Irish Australian living in Sai Gon, Viet Nam and I miss having Irish voices and perspectives around. The place is lousy with Aussies though, so that is something, I guess.

  22. Silmarien says:

    I’m in your same situation (well, at least where you were before finished your book): I’m class 1981, go to University (for the second time after years!) and I work, all week! And then you have an house to clean, a man to stay with and the hobbies, and the many tales to write… so: when do you finish to write your damn book?
    But you’re right about everything! And your story gave me courage, so thanks!
    Just a question: did you have “just” one book to finish?
    I have many, how do I do??? T_T

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