How to Finish Your Book

Hi all! I’m currently on a deadline with my publisher, so I find myself thinking a lot about productivity these days. My deadline is for a first draft, so my focus at the moment is on creating a quality draft without bogging down, getting off track, or falling behind schedule.

In the meantime, I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots of aspiring novelists in the past few months, and many have asked for advice on finishing their manuscript. A common issue raised to me is the challenge of getting to “The End” without shelving the draft as a failed attempt and starting over with something new.

As I compared the challenges involved in creating a quality first draft under contract (and turning it in on time!) with the challenges of seeing a first novel through to completion, I realized that my advice for both is a lot the same. So if you are pushing through a first draft and you fear you will never finish it–never type “The End” and be able to say you have completed a book–here are the tips that work for me:

  • Set daily and weekly wordcount goals. To help you set your deadline, ask yourself how many words you can average in a day. Maybe you can comfortably draft 500 words a day, maybe 1000, or maybe more. If you’re not sure, track your progress for a week and figure out the average number of words you add per day. If you average 500 words per day, set that as your daily goal. Then decide if you will write five, six, or seven days a week. I recommend setting a weekly goal that’s equal to five times your daily goal. That way if you miss your goal for a few days, you have a couple of days built in to catch up. Keeping to the 500 words per day example, your weekly goal would then be 2500 words.
  • Look at you daily and weekly goals, and give yourself a deadline to complete the draft. Writing with a deadline is one of the best ways I’ve found to boost productivity. Going back to our 500 words per day, 2500 words per week example, you could expect to complete the first draft of a 75,000 word novel in 30 weeks.
  • Write your deadline on the calendar. That’s the day you will type “The End,” so make sure you treat that deadline with respect.
  • Set up a tracking system. I use an Excel spreadsheet for each book, and I use different pages of the spreadsheet to track progress while I outline, draft, and revise. During the drafting stage, I enter a total for “words per day” and “total words.” (I also have a column for notes.) A tracking system is vital to ensuring I’m not falling behind, and when I see a pattern of a few days where I missed my daily goal, I know I need to make an adjustment to catch up. I love this system because I can go back and look at my progress on previous books I’ve completed, which helps me set realistic goals and expectations. It also feels great to go back and see that I actually have done it before, and I can do it again!
  • Don’t start a new project until this draft is done. If you are tempted to start something new, sketch out your new idea and set it aside. If you are dying to write that new idea as soon as possible, increase your daily wordcount goal and move your deadline up. But you can’t abandon this draft!
  • Don’t go back and edit while you’re drafting. You can make small changes as you go, but leave the real revising for the next pass. This is the first draft, not the final draft. Get the words down and trust yourself to fix them later.
  • Make time for writing. You are a writer, and writers write. If you miss your daily goal frequently, ask yourself if you need to decline a few invitations, convert some television time to writing time, get up an hour earlier, or stay up an hour later. I have done all these things and more to make my daily goals.

That’s it! It’s actually a simple system, but it gets you to the end of the draft. I have used this method for several manuscripts, with tweaks here and there, and it always works. It always gets me to “The End.”

Happy drafting! Do you have a method that helps you finish your manuscripts? Please share your thoughts in the comments!



13 Responses to How to Finish Your Book

  1. Nicki Mar 10 2017 at 8:53 am #

    Hi Julie! Thanks for the great article. I actually have a follow up question about your Excel sheets. You mention having different pages for outlining and revising…can you expand on that? I’ve always found those parts of my writing so tricky to keep track of, so any tips for how to do that would be great.

    Thanks so much!

    • Julie Mar 10 2017 at 9:27 am #

      Hi Nicki! I’m so glad you found this post helpful, and I love your question. I agree–tracking the outlining and revision processes is more subjective than simply tracking wordcount, and definitely requires more flexibility and reflection when setting the goals and expectations. For outlining, I generally just require a certain time commitment to the process each day until I have the story figured out. Once I have the story structured, I try to set an expectation of a certain number of chapters outlined per day, then add wordcount to those docs per day, etc, until it’s ready for drafting.
      For revision, I give myself deadlines for big picture type issues, like “figure out the intersection of the two main subplots” or “untangle and clarify the character arc for Character X.” Then I set a pace for revising the individual chapters, trying to balance a sense of urgency with a respect for the time it takes to do a chapter justice. As you say, it’s tricky, and I think it needs more flexibility because it’s more subjective.
      I hope this helps, and I think I may follow this up with a post on this topic! <3

    • Julie Apr 10 2017 at 8:55 am #

      Hi Nicki! I posted about this today here:
      Hope you find it helpful!

      • Nicki Apr 10 2017 at 9:05 am #

        Thank you Julie! Can’t wait to read 🙂

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Mar 10 2017 at 9:24 am #

    I write. (Never had a deadline, no publisher has ever contracted for a book I hadn’t already finished.) I have some idea of an endpoint in mind, and markers along the way, but i don’t expect any of them to be the same thing I thought of by the time I get there. I reread the text constantly, tweaking as I go, letting the flow of the story carry me on to the next page, and the next. If the characters suddenly start dawdling I reread, wondering where I went wrong from their character logic, or what element of the story logic I need or have forgotten. I undam the river (eventually, it could take a while to figure out what the dam is in the first place) and let it carry me forward.

    • Julie Mar 10 2017 at 9:34 am #

      Hi Marc! I love your metaphor of “undamming the river.” I also relate to what you say about what happens when the characters “suddenly start dawdling.” It sounds like I outline a lot more extensively than you do, but even with my outline, I find the characters will change the path of the story, and sometimes they dawdle and other times they race forward. Like you, I pause and reread at those places. Thanks for the comment–I love learning about other writers’ methods!

  3. Claire Mar 19 2017 at 7:53 pm #

    Thanks for the great post! It’s simple advice like this that I forget when I’m caught up in the ‘I’ll never finish this draft’ self-doubt spiral. I’ve held off setting myself a concrete final deadline in the past, but I think I’ve realised that’s exactly what I need to motivate myself to get those words down.

    I think telling other people (preferably writer friends/potential beta readers) about your deadline is a great way to keep yourself accountable as well. Better to have your commitment out there in the open and not just in your head, where it can so easily be pushed aside!

    • Julie Apr 12 2017 at 9:37 am #

      Hi Claire, Thanks for the comment! I appreciate what you say about letting people know about your deadline. It’s a great way to make it “real,” and what a good point about potential beta readers. I’m sure they will appreciate the heads-up if they will be asked to do a read! 🙂

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