Thursday, July 16, 2015

What does it take to finish a book?

When you start writing a book, it's really fun.

"Ooooh, I get to pick out names!"
"What cool setting should I choose?"
"OMG, my characters can be intelligent and witty and everything else I wish I could be!"

So you go along for a while, having fun, and then, you realize, you don't know what happens next. Your once chatty characters are suddenly silent as a sea bass.

You nudge and prod.


You write, delete, write, delete, and then stare out the window a while. You get up and do laundry, because of course, it needs to be done RIGHT NOW.

When you come back, you stare out the window some more. The tree in the front yard tells you that maybe what you need is a beautiful notebook to scribble ideas in, and surely that will help. Four hours later, and seven notebooks purchased from Etsy, because it's hard to choose and maybe you'll be so inspired you'll need more than one or two or three, you turn back to your document and stare at it.

"Snacks!" you think. "I just need a snack."

The carrots and hummus don't quite cut it, so you bring the bag of chocolate covered pretzels to your desk and as you eat one, two, three, twenty-three, thirty-nine, the characters are still not telling you what you need to know, dammit.

"I picked the wrong names," you think. So you go back to the baby name site and skip around for a couple of hours, and end up deciding to stick with the ones you originally picked.

And now the day is done and so you close the document and decide tomorrow is a new day and surely the words will come.

Except they don't.

But when the notebooks arrive, then you open one of them and scribble some thoughts and ideas, and you jar things a little bit, thankfully, and you're able to squeak out a couple of paragraphs. The only thing is, they suck. So you delete them. And then you read back through the pages you wrote when were all excited, and you decide those suck too, and as you throw the stupid notebooks across the room, you decide you are not cut out for a writer, and who the heck were you to think otherwise?

Writing a book is fun until it isn't. And then it just becomes work like so many other things in life. There is one thing above all else you must have to be a writer. I would argue it's more important than imagination or talent or a hundred other qualities it's great to have.

And that thing is grit.

They talked about grit at my son's college orientation this past week. That when it comes down to it, a student has to have sheer grit to get up, go to class, write the papers, study for exams and hang in there term after term after term.

And the same could be said about writing page after page after page. Yes, you need a plot. And yes, you should have an understanding of story structure as you write. Your characters should be interesting and three-dimensional. Your dialogue should be realistic (basically, nothing like season 2 of True Detective). But a lot of that you could fix during revisions if you need to as long as you get the bare bones of the story down. And in order for *that* to happen, we are back to grit.

Don't understand grit? How about determination? Or maybe stick-to-itness.

In other words, don't give up!

Every book I write, there comes a point, sometimes more than once, when I think the idea is the worst idea in the history of the world, a third grader could do a better job writing than I could, and I want to throw my notebooks across the room and eat my weight in chocolate covered pretzels. So I might take a break. Go for a walk. Watch a movie. Take a bath. Breathe. Tell myself it's okay and the only way out is through.

Honestly, for me, I hate *not* finishing so much, that that thing alone is pretty much what keeps me going. Once I've started and I have an idea that really does seem like a good one, I want to see it through. I want to see where the story takes me. Again and again I remind myself, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks as I write the first draft. It's not for anyone else but ME. This takes some of the pressure off, and that's really, really important.

Yes, I love notebooks. And I love good snacks. And I do think staring out the window is crucial to the creative process. But at the end of the day, what gets the words written? You have to be tenacious about it. You can't let your fears, your insecurities, your desire to clean and organize your pantry get the best of you.

I'm about to start writing a new book. I'm excited. A teensy bit terrified. But one thing I've learned that really helps to see it through it so keep a list of all of the things that excite me about the project. A love list, if you will. My love list for ALL WE HAVE IS NOW looks like this:

the city of Portland
a kiss at sunrise
the power of love
twin girls and a sweet dog
the Enchanted Forest

So make your list. In fancy notebooks or not. Then write. Eat snacks, but not too many. And write some more. All the way to the end.

That's how you finish a book.


  1. Could not have said this better myself, great post!

  2. This post could not have come at a better time. You've really captured what I've been struggling to articulate about the ups and downs of writing. The other night my husband asked me if I find writing fun, and my gut response was NO. Then I had to backtrack and try to explain all the different phases, from fun new ideas to the hard work and drudgery, and I kept saying, "but I love it, don't get me wrong! It's my dream job!" :-) Anyway, glad to come across this post today. It gave me a little "you're not alone! You can do this!" boost. Hugs to you, and I can't wait to hear more about your new project.

    Sarah Ockler

    1. It is a dream job, and like any job, there are going to be times we don't like it. And sometimes I have to remind myself of that - no job is perfect!

      YOU CAN DO IT, SARAH!! Now go eat a good snack and write those words, baby.

  3. I'm a big fan of the Love List, too - and the secret Pinterest boards that stay open in the background to remind myself of all the cool elements that made me want to write this book to begin with! (:

    1. Oooh, I need to try Pinterest for that. I have an account there but haven't done much with it. But that sounds fun!! :)

  4. So very very true, & inspiring words!!