5 tips to finish writing your book

After a year of writing on and off, here’s how I finished my book

Writing from Byron Bay, Australia. Said “no” to a day at the beach, because I had said “yes” to my book deadline. Original photo by Bernadette Cay.

Writing from Byron Bay, Australia. Said “no” to a day at the beach, because I had said “yes” to my book deadline. Original photo by Bernadette Cay.

1. How do books get written? With deadlines

The most powerful catalyst to finishing my book was a simple line I found via Smiley Poswolsky: “Deadlines = books.”

Before I picked a launch date, it was as if my book and I were dating on and off. Picking a launch date was like picking a wedding date–something you do when you’re ready to commit. (More on this in Tip #4.)

Having a deadline gave me the momentum I needed to finish the book. It was the antidote to perfectionism. I put on hold anything that was non-urgent. Saying “no” to any other projects or meetings that came up was straightforward, now that I had said “yes” to finishing the book.

Since I was self-publishing, it was up to me to pick a launch date. I picked a date that felt right, given how far along I was with the project and my own journey. I booked the venue and sent out a Facebook event invite. It was beautiful to see so many people from different parts of my life come together to celebrate this creative offering.

2. Ask for help

If I could have done anything differently, I would have asked for more help.

a. Build a team

I was self-publishing and I was wearing too many hats–from author, illustrator, and layout designer, to project manager, marketing manager, social media manager, quality assurance, fulfillment manager, and more.

Thankfully I had the support of an amazing editor, design mentor, and event planner. But doing so much of this all alone gave me an unrealistic sense of what needed to be done. I had less discipline because I was doing everything anyway. I had fewer opportunities for feedback. I would have built out more of a team earlier on, to help me with these things.

b. Work with an editor sooner rather than later

Work with an editor sooner rather than later, as soon as you have a critical mass of writing. Don’t be afraid to show your draft to someone who can help you. If you’re self-publishing, find a freelance editor. “Date around” until you find someone who understands you and your book and can challenge you to take your draft to the next level.

Based on my editor’s feedback, I made a major change to the direction of the book. This happened just a few months before my deadline, so I didn’t have time to flesh out a whole other draft before sending it back to my editor for feedback. I needed a different strategy.

My editor had advised me to start writing in scenes, like I was making a movie. I wrote scene after scene and grouped the files into folders. It was like I was making a quilt and each scene was a square. Each folder was like a Ziploc bag of squares. My editor helped me decides which squares were most compelling to keep, and she then taught me how to weave the remaining squares together. I only expanded on the remaining squares we had selected.

If I had waited until I had created a perfect draft to send to her, because I feared criticism, I would have spent a lot of time expanding on all those extraneous squares. I would probably still be working on the book today.

You may eventually work with multiple editors throughout the course of your project. I found my editor through a mutual friend. Writing centers are another good place to start looking for editors, as the instructors are sometimes freelance editors as well.

c. Build your emotional support system

I would have appreciated the support and accountability of other authors who were in a similar stage of writing their books. I sought stories of other people who were writing books. I wanted to see how they faced the challenges I was facing, and if what I was going through was “normal.”

Writing is healing, especially if your book is autobiographical. Most of the time I was writing about experiences I had already processed. However, sometimes the process challenged me to bring up for the first time past painful experiences that I had previously driven deep into my subconscious. I am so thankful to have the support of a coach and various communities as I was writing. Please seek the help that you need (such as working with a therapist, counselor, coach or any other helping professional).

3. Take care of your body

Your body is your most important team member and your soul’s writing instrument, so take care of it.

Each morning, I needed a clear mind to write. So I did everything I could to keep my body happy. I tried my best to sleep well, eat well, and get enough exercise. I sequenced my food and caffeine intake to prevent brain fog. I napped, went for a walk, or took a bath as needed.

I felt like was on a road trip: I would “drive” for about ninety minutes at a time, take a break or have a meal, and keep driving. On the best days, I could hit a flow state two or three times a day. I would let the draft rest overnight, then do it all again the next day. Short sessions of writing with a clear mind was more effective than spending many hours straight. Writing with low energy or brain fog would only introduce problems to the draft that I’d have to address later on.

4. Commit, then be patient

Deadlines are powerful. That being said, it takes time for the work of the soul to unfold. In the year between starting to write my book and committing to finish it, I continued on my journey. I had no idea at the time that the transformational experiences I was having would become the second half of my book.

One author I spoke with described how it took her numerous writing workshops, therapy sessions, evenings, personal vacation time over ten yearsto write her memoir. The resulting book is stunning. She had committed to sharing her story, so year after year she patiently did the inner and outer work to bring her book to life.

Finding your voice may also take time. I sent an earlier draft to my editor and to two friends. All three of them gave the same feedback: it didn’t sound like me. At the time, I had no idea what they were talking about. It already feels so vulnerable. What else could they possibly want? I let the draft lie fallow, while I worked on other projects.

A month later, I opened the files and saw very clearly what they meant. I had confused content with voice. The content (the “what”) was fine, but I needed to hone my voice (the “how” I shared the content with the reader). For example, how might I write as if I were talking to a friend, instead of writing a research paper? How might I describe specific feelings so that the reader could feel them too? And so on. Understanding their feedback took time, but once I did, it made all the difference.

Ask yourself: What is holding me back from finishing the book? Is it fear of putting myself out there? Or has the book not yet reached a point of gestation to “induce labor” with a deadline? It’s up to each of us to discern.

Commit to sharing your story and to showing up to write, then be patient. There’s a time to speed things up, there’s a time to slow things down, and there’s a time to sit with the unsexy discomfort of just writing. Listen for what feels right.

5. Be clear on your “why”

Why are you writing your book?

Day after day, I opened up each outline, let it loosen, and massaged it out until the first draft of each chapter emerged. Section after section, I felt like moving through prayer beads–committed to finishing yet patient at each step. There were plenty of times I wanted to quit. Being clear on my “why” pulled me to the finish line.

I enjoy writing. As a polymath, I was curious about the book-making process. My book was the completion of the daily drawing project I had done, as well as a fitting bookend (pun intended) to this phase of my life. It was a personal challenge too: I wanted to prove to myself that I could complete a multi-quarter creative project, so I could take on bigger creative projects one day.

Most of all, I wrote the book with a specific friend in mind: one of my best friends from college who is now a lawyer. She had studied English literature and had always wanted to be a writer. When my inner critic, perfectionism, and competing priorities came up over and over again as I wrote, remembering her helped me to keep on going.

“We are connected to one another through time by our creations, works, images, thoughts and writings. We communicate to future generations what we are, what we have been, hopefully influencing for the better what we will become.” –Maya Lin