Why You’ve (Probably) Never Finished Writing a Book, and How to Fix That

There’s nothing wrong with you. You can fix this.

Are you an aspiring writer who has tried more than once to finish writing a book with no luck?

You’re certainly not alone. There are a lot of barriers to creativity out there, and every writer seems to struggle with something different.

What I can say for sure, however, is that just because you’ve never finished writing a book before doesn’t mean you never can. When it comes to writing, there is no such thing as “too late” or “too slow.” Everyone works at their own pace, and if you still want to finish what you started, you can.

It’s going to take some work. But I believe you can do it. Do you?

What stops people from finishing the books they start — and how do you overcome these barriers? Let’s dive in.

The tips I’ve provided below are for those who really have their hearts set on finishing the books they start writing. It’s OK to casually work your way through a story at your own pace without worrying about whether or not you finish what you start, but if that’s the case, this post may not be for you.

You haven’t learned good “idea management.” There’s time management, there’s project management, and then there’s something I call “idea management.” The problem with being a creatively inclined human is that the most random events can spark some of your biggest ideas. I’ve been “idea slammed” in the middle of performing onstage, during work meetings, and while washing dishes. It’s comical, really.

This in itself is not a bad thing. The struggle is what happens after the new idea arrives: You realize there’s this cool new shiny thing in front of you and, in comparison, your work in progress just can’t compare. You start to question if it’s even worth finishing at all. And this is where many writers do the unthinkable: They abandon their old projects in favor of new ones. Often times, it becomes a cycle that just keeps on repeating.

Thus, “idea management” — the practice of figuring out how to handle the jumbled mess of ideas in your head and pick out the ones that are most important.

LET’S FIX THIS: Have a new idea trying to come between you and your work in progress? Here’s how I handle it. All I do is go to my “random ideas” document — it’s literally named “random ideas” on my computer — and add a new entry. It’s usually something along the lines of, “A book about vampires but the vampire doesn’t want to be a vampire, he wants to be human, chaos.” I don’t have to title the idea or know much else about it. I write down one or two sentences and close out the document.

I don’t forget about the idea, but I’ve given myself a sort of “focus point.” I think about those sentences waiting for me and I know once I finish what I’m currently working on, I can give my vampire story some attention. (For the record, I’m not nor have I ever written about vampires, it’s just an example.)

You’re letting your feelings block instead of fuel you. Writing is often associated with good feelings — excitement! Relief! Pure unquenchable joy! But it doesn’t happen without the bad feelings: Disappointment. Fear. Crippling, unyielding anxiety.

You can’t expect writing to be all fun all the time. Even if it’s just a side hobby, you’re going to hit rough patches. That comes with deciding to tell a story. There’s resistance because writing good stories isn’t supposed to be easy, if it were, everyone would be a bestselling author.

In all honesty, not every writer is plagued with feelings of self-doubt or self-consciousness. But if you’re struggling to finish what you start — especially something as big as a book — don’t rule your feelings out as a possible option. Fear is powerful. It doesn’t just lead to the dark side, it also leads to a simple inability to look at your work in progress without feeling overwhelmed by dread. It’s a real problem, and it’s also fixable.

LET’S FIX THIS: Let’s just say, as an example, you’re struggling to finish your book because you’re afraid of what will happen if you can’t get it published. This is a very real fear for many aspiring writers.

When it comes to things like this, what you really have to do is refocus your attention, as much as you can, on what’s most important right now: Finishing the story. Much easier said than done, I know. But the truth is — whether you want to hear it or not — if you want to succeed, you can’t let things like fear stand in your way. You just can’t. You have to actively choose to say, “Ha, well yeah I’m terrified this is going to be all for nothing but let’s keep writing anyway because IT’S MY BOOK AND I DO WHAT I WANT.”

And this is coming from someone with capital A Anxiety. If I can do it, you can do it. However you might go about that. I don’t know you.

You’re not being honest about your time. I mentioned time management very briefly a few points above, and I want to be careful not to dive into the cliches of “time management” advice. While managing your time is an extremely important part of getting work done, you need to come at it from a slightly different angle.

Instead of “I need to give up a whole bunch of things I like so I can write more,” maybe it’s better to ask yourself, “How much of a priority do I want to make this book? How much time can I really afford to spend on it, and how do I make sure to give it enough periodic attention that I don’t lose interest or start moving on to something else too soon?”

Because let’s be honest: Most of us can’t give up the things that are taking up our would-be writing time. We can’t quit our day jobs, we can’t get rid of our [fur] children (because we do love them, we do). So maybe “making more time” isn’t the best solution for everyone. Maybe it’s “figuring out how much time you have to give.”

LET’S FIX THIS: So you want to write a book. You want to finish your book by the end of the year, more specifically (see below). You know that if you just say, “I’ll work on my book every weekend until it’s done,” you MIGHT follow through … but you might not. Because as I always say, Life Happens. Things come up, usually things you can’t control. One weekend goes by, then two, then sixteen … yikes.

Realistically, how much time can you actually dedicate to working on your book every week? Twenty hours? Two? Twenty minutes? There are empty spaces in your daily routine. Sometimes, without completely rearranging your schedule, you have to learn when and how to squeeze writing time into those open spaces, even if it’s only for 15 minutes at a time. Be honest. Fifteen minutes is better than none.

You’re not breaking your big goal into small enough pieces. You say, “I want to write a book.” You might even go so far as saying, “I don’t just want to start writing a book, I want to finish one too.” What you might not realize, as you say these things, is that you may actually be setting yourself up for another DNF — “did not finish,” which applies to books as much as it does to races, I’m convinced.

Is telling yourself “I’m gonna write a book!” a bad thing? Of course not! But if you’re really set on actually finishing a book, you might need to downsize your goals a little bit — not changing the overall goal, but breaking it down into smaller parts to make it more manageable for yourself. Our brains get overwhelmed. You look at that blank page and you’re like, “I have to fill up 400 of these with words? I’m not sure I can …”

LET’S FIX THIS:  Don’t sit down today and tell yourself you’re going to write a book. Tell yourself you’re just going to write 500 words, and that’s it. No, that doesn’t seem like a lot — it might not even seem like enough. But honestly, it’s 500 more words than you would have written if you had just said, “Nah.” It’s an accomplishment, even if it’s a small accomplishment.

If you keep doing that — writing 500 words at a time — eventually you will write those 400 pages or however many pages your book ends up being by the end. Small progress is still progress, and if you tackle this thing in small pieces, you’re much less likely to give up because you feel overwhelmed or frustrated.

Is it the end of the world if you never finish the book you start writing? No. There are more unfinished novels in this world than there are published ones. It’s just how things go sometimes. If you don’t finish, you’re not a failure — you’ve just made a choice.

However, don’t be afraid to push yourself if this is something you really want to accomplish. We have to push ourselves a little bit if we want to grow. That’s how this works. You challenge yourself, you try your best, and no matter the outcome, you almost always emerge from it having learned something. That’s important. That matters.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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2 thoughts on “Why You’ve (Probably) Never Finished Writing a Book, and How to Fix That

  1. I also like to jot down random ideas.
    For the time being I maintain 2 documents. 1 is for small ideas, like “a relationship where a young child has quickly mastered a skill, and is now teaching a much older individual who still struggles with it.”
    The other is my “big ideas” document, for complex ideas that feel too large to be combined with others.

    I also firmly believe in segmenting a goal into more manageable units. If a person chooses to write a few hundred words a day, or a couple thousand a week, they will eventually complete the story.
    In many ways, it all comes back to recognizing what’s sustainable.

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