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How Can I Stay Motivated to Finish My Book?

Don’t get down on yourself if you’re struggling to finish your book.

7
minute read
Published on
April 29, 2024
Finishing your book requires more than just establishing good habits. You must develop trust in yourself and the creative process.

You’re at a party, innocently spooning a seven-layer dip onto your plate, when the friend you’ve been trying to avoid all night taps you on the shoulder.

“How’s your book going?”

Ah, the question many authors dread hearing.

It’s not going at all, thank you very much. I haven’t touched it in months. I may never finish it. Thanks for asking.

“It’s going great,” you say. “Hey, did you hear the news about the…”

After you successfully redirect the conversation, you opt for the Irish goodbye and slip out the back door before anyone else asks you about your book.

The deadlines you set when you started writing have long gone, along with your enthusiasm for the project.

Other authors who started their books around the same time are lapping you.

And you’re starting to wonder if you should just toss your unfinished manuscript into a burn pile and be done with it.

The last thing you need to hear is someone’s not-so-helpful advice. “Didn’t so-and-so finish their book in 30 days with that fill-in-the-blank book thing? You should try that.”

The often-quoted statistics about how many people start but never complete their books are based on unreliable surveys and specific to genre, but they are all in the range of 80%-97%. In my nearly 20 years in publishing and more than 30 years working as a professional writer, I’d say those sad numbers are likely true.

Most first-time authors don’t finish their books.

Heck, plenty of established authors sometimes never finish their books. Fans of Game of Thrones have been waiting more than 13 years for George R. R. Martin to finish the sixth installment in the series, since he started writing it in 2010. He feels plenty bad about it, too. Real “dark night of the soul” stuff.

In 2020 Martin informed readers who planned to attend the World Science Fiction Convention that year, “If I don’t have The Winds of Winter in hand when I arrive in New Zealand, you have here my formal written permission to imprison me in a small cabin on White Island, overlooking that lake of sulfuric acid, until I’m done.”

As of this writing, he’s still not finished. In other words, newbie author or not, if you have been struggling with finishing your book, you’re in good company. And at least you know you can cross imprisoning yourself on an island next to a lake of sulfuric acid off your “strategies to finish my book” list. 

You’re stuck. Now what?  

I don’t know what’s up with Mr. Martin, but with so much at stake for him, I imagine he’s tried most of the recommended approaches to completing drafts, such as:

Establish a Writing Practice – I’m a big believer in setting aside a regular time to write, whether that's at 5 a.m. every day, on Sunday afternoons, or whatever time, day, and frequency works for you. Showing up consistently for this appointment with your book keeps it top of mind. When you’re not writing, your brain is still working on it—recalling stories, making connections, and solving problems.

Write in Community – Writing can be lonely. It is also often a frustrating slog. For these reasons, we need other writers. When you write in community, over Zoom or in person, it helps you to stay accountable to your goals. It also helps you manage all the messy emotions that inevitably come up when we create something from nothing.

Set Incremental Goals – Writing a “whole book” can be daunting. You’ll find it’s much easier to set daily or weekly word count goals rather than write to a looming deadline far in the future. Focusing on word count rather than the quality of your writing also helps you combat that inner critic that says mean stuff and convinces you to ditch your writing plan and binge-watch Ted Lasso instead.

These strategies do work. I follow them and I recommend them to authors. But if these common writing approaches work, why don’t more authors stick with them?

If these techniques haven’t worked for you, you’re not alone. 

Maybe you’ve tried one or all these approaches and you still can’t seem to stay on track with your book. You’re not alone there, either.

James Clear, author of the famed book, Atomic Habits, also struggled to finish his manuscript. Even though he wrote about habits and the power of consistency, when it came to writing his book, he had a hard time following his own advice. In a post on his blog titled, “Thoughts on Struggling to Finish My First Book,” Clear wrote:

“I’m really struggling to tame this beast and make progress. I haven’t written consistently on the book for weeks and lately it feels like the project is always in the same place today as it was 10 days ago.”

See? It’s not just you. Even the habits guy had a hard time finishing his book. When he was struggling, he probably avoided certain people at parties, too.

Clear got there in the end, of course. As of this writing, Atomic Habits has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

So what’s the problem?  

Why don’t more authors finish their books?

The truth is authors don’t finish because they don’t trust that their writing will result in a good book.

I’m not referring to the inner critic or even Resistance, the term coined by Steven Pressfield in his classic book, The War of Art.

I’m talking about trust. Specifically, trust in the creative process.

After decades of writing—and finishing—big writing projects, here’s what I know for sure: I will get there in the end. I trust that my scribbles and my sloppy sentences will eventually become something useful, something beautiful, something worth reading.

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Trust the creative process. 

Why do I trust that my writing will eventually become a good book?

Because I know how a mess of words becomes a book.

And I know that because I’ve written many books, and edited many more. My confidence in the creative process is rooted in my knowledge and experience. 

I often tell first-time authors, “Writing a book is hard for you because you’re learning how to write it while you’re writing it.”

You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know how long it should take. You don’t know what is acceptable to turn into an editor. You don't know how to work with an editor.

Are your chapters too long? Should you include exercises? Should your chapters have the same format?

You don’t know if it’s okay to change your outline, change your story, change your framework. 

You wonder how many stories you need, how much research you should include. You wonder if you can move on from a chapter or if you should keep working on it until it’s just right. 

And because you don’t know the answers to these and many other questions, you also wonder if you have what it takes to write a good book. (You do.) And you wonder if you’ll ever be done. (You will.)

To add complexity to the problem, there is so much misinformation and disinformation about authorship, it can be difficult to navigate on the planet that is publishing. Lore about your odds for this or that outcome and tales of disappointment and rejection serve as evidence that you were kidding yourself. 

You don’t trust the process because you don’t know enough about it and because you haven’t lived it yet.

And because you don’t trust the process, you don’t trust yourself.

And when you don’t trust yourself, you give up. (Please, don’t give up!)

Build trust in yourself and your book.

Here we have what seems like a chicken-and-egg paradox. You learn to trust yourself through experience, but you can’t get that experience if you don’t finish.

Except you can develop trust that your book should be good.

Here are three ways:

Educate Yourself – The more you know about the evolution of a book from idea to publication, the easier it will be for you to trust that you, too, will get there in the end.

Avoid shortcuts and templates. Learn from teachers and mentors who have deep experience in publishing and in your book’s genre.

Practice – The more willing you are to try to get better at writing, the more you will begin to trust yourself to make good decisions.

Avoid assigning significance to how many drafts you’ve written so far. Allow yourself the time to realize your vision.

Test Your Content – The more feedback you get about your ideas, your messaging, and your framework, the more you will trust that your book is worth writing.

Avoid sharing your ideas and drafts with family members and friends. Test your content with your ideal readers, the people who need your book.

Over time, through learning, practicing, and testing, you’ll understand how a great book comes together. And you’ll become more comfortable with the near constant uncertainty that is writing a first draft. 

In a 1979 interview she gave while meeting with students at Bryn Mawr College, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison said, “I write what’s there, what I know is there. If I have to rewrite it or change it, I’m not fearful about that anymore.” 

Thank goodness Morrison wasn’t too fearful to try to write, or to finish. We would have missed out on important contributions to American literature.

We don’t want to miss out on your book.

Write what’s there, what you know is there.

Keep going.

Soon enough, you’ll write the two sweetest words in the English language:

The End.

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Trust the creative process. 

Why do I trust that my writing will eventually become a good book?

Because I know how a mess of words becomes a book.

And I know that because I’ve written many books, and edited many more. My confidence in the creative process is rooted in my knowledge and experience. 

I often tell first-time authors, “Writing a book is hard for you because you’re learning how to write it while you’re writing it.”

You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know how long it should take. You don’t know what is acceptable to turn into an editor. You don't know how to work with an editor.

Are your chapters too long? Should you include exercises? Should your chapters have the same format?

You don’t know if it’s okay to change your outline, change your story, change your framework. 

You wonder how many stories you need, how much research you should include. You wonder if you can move on from a chapter or if you should keep working on it until it’s just right. 

And because you don’t know the answers to these and many other questions, you also wonder if you have what it takes to write a good book. (You do.) And you wonder if you’ll ever be done. (You will.)

To add complexity to the problem, there is so much misinformation and disinformation about authorship, it can be difficult to navigate on the planet that is publishing. Lore about your odds for this or that outcome and tales of disappointment and rejection serve as evidence that you were kidding yourself. 

You don’t trust the process because you don’t know enough about it and because you haven’t lived it yet.

And because you don’t trust the process, you don’t trust yourself.

And when you don’t trust yourself, you give up. (Please, don’t give up!)

Build trust in yourself and your book.

Here we have what seems like a chicken-and-egg paradox. You learn to trust yourself through experience, but you can’t get that experience if you don’t finish.

Except you can develop trust that your book should be good.

Here are three ways:

Educate Yourself – The more you know about the evolution of a book from idea to publication, the easier it will be for you to trust that you, too, will get there in the end.

Avoid shortcuts and templates. Learn from teachers and mentors who have deep experience in publishing and in your book’s genre.

Practice – The more willing you are to try to get better at writing, the more you will begin to trust yourself to make good decisions.

Avoid assigning significance to how many drafts you’ve written so far. Allow yourself the time to realize your vision.

Test Your Content – The more feedback you get about your ideas, your messaging, and your framework, the more you will trust that your book is worth writing.

Avoid sharing your ideas and drafts with family members and friends. Test your content with your ideal readers, the people who need your book.

Over time, through learning, practicing, and testing, you’ll understand how a great book comes together. And you’ll become more comfortable with the near constant uncertainty that is writing a first draft. 

In a 1979 interview she gave while meeting with students at Bryn Mawr College, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison said, “I write what’s there, what I know is there. If I have to rewrite it or change it, I’m not fearful about that anymore.” 

Thank goodness Morrison wasn’t too fearful to try to write, or to finish. We would have missed out on important contributions to American literature.

We don’t want to miss out on your book.

Write what’s there, what you know is there.

Keep going.

Soon enough, you’ll write the two sweetest words in the English language:

The End.

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