Creative Process

Finishing a Book is a Skill

By January 12, 2016 24 Comments
Millie Ho Finishing A Book Cat Doodle

My cat doodle for jump starting self-introspection.

It hit me recently that out of all the writing skills I have, actually finishing a book is my least developed.

Compared to other skills such as character development, world building, or plotting, which I improved on a lot in 2015, it’s very rare for me to finish a final draft of a book. This means a solid Chapter One that continued to The End. This is understandable given my problems with writing perfectionism, but now that I’m no longer ripping up every draft when something doesn’t work because I’m approaching the writing process differently, I’m still noticing something in the way.

To give you some stats, I have only finished four novel-length final drafts in my entire life.

Compared to the nearly thirty drafts I started, revised, and then deleted/shelved away somewhere, that’s a pretty sharp contrast.

Many of these four drafts (averaging 70,000 words) were completed when I was much younger. For example, one was completed when I was fourteen, and another was when I was finishing high school. I think the great advantage of being younger was how confident you were. Every word was gold and you were writing for fun, not for publication.

Originally, I planned to show the final revised draft of the Long-Suffering Manuscript to beta readers in November of last year, but as of January 12, 2016, it’s still not where I want it to be. If I’m asking people to spend time on my work, it better be my best effort, something to slap a smile on their faces or make them recoil in shock.

This is not perfectionism speaking. This is my lack of experience with finishing a book.

That’s why I’m having trouble tying together some subplots and loose ends. That’s why I’m making notes upon notes of revisions, reading How To guides online and in book form, because those four final drafts ain’t enough to take me where I need to go.

Which brings me to a question:

Why did no one tell me that finishing a book is a skill I had to learn?

In writing classes during university, everybody emphasized characters and themes and pacing, but nobody reminded me that the key to any writing success is to simply finish the damn thing.

And finish another, and another, and another.

Perhaps it was too obvious. Perhaps the very idea is too broad or general.

Either way, if finishing a book is not my strongest suit, learning from my mistakes is.

My goal for 2016 is to simply finish more drafts so I can get stronger where I am weak. The advantage of having total creative freedom is also its disadvantage. I have tons of ideas floating around in my head that actively try to distract me from the Long-Suffering Manuscript, but now I see a good way of channeling them, by writing them into new drafts, and finishing them.

Beta readers, I apologize for the delay. I will finish the draft by early March.

Now, I’m off to exercise my finishing a book muscles.

Millie’s Note: What are your New Year’s resolutions?


Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • I have trouble finishing also. I brought this up at my writer’s group nervously. But I’m glad I did because now I know that I am accountable to them to finish.

    I finally entered a poetry collection December 31. That is my first attempt at publishing since I was a teenager. (My kids are grown now)

    Let’s both finish one of our novel’s this year-

    • Millie Ho says:

      I had a similar experience when I was enrolled in a creative writing program. We were on rotation to a) present our own work and b) write something for the group to critique every week, and this sped up the writing process significantly.

      Good luck with the poetry and novel-writing! Not that you’ll be needing any of it.

      • Thank you for your good wishes…..oh I need lots and lots of luck, clear head, coffee, focus…etc

        All best to you with finishing what you want to this year. You have helped me a great deal, and I’d love to read your work

  • Lichtbild says:

    I have some similar problems with a “Long-Suffering Manuscript” 😀 What worked for me was to look for getting criticized… and set deadlines for completion simple act as if it were a commission from a client. I’m sure you already knew that… Best Regards ;P

    • Millie Ho says:

      Setting deadlines does work wonders. I did something like that in the past, but it made my perfectionism (at the time) worse. I’m glad it worked well for you. Perhaps I should take a cue from you and start doing this again now that I’ve got it under control. Thanks for reading!

  • aetherhouse says:

    I am very much hoping that my next books will go more smoothly than this first one. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way that cost me months of reworks and 50-100k words of rewrites. If only I spent more time editing my outline in the beginning – not simply outlining alone, but maybe even spreading that outline to beta readers for their thoughts, comparing it to rise/fall plot diagrams, ensuring proper character motivations, and ultimately editing the damn thing as much as I would edit my actual drafts – I probably could have saved a YEAR. That’s my biggest takeaway from it all. Make sure you are 100% in love with the story before you set down to write it. Don’t handwave things that you think you’ll fix later because that only creates more work for yourself.

    And sure, we all get tangents in the middle that we’ll want to chase instead of the outline, which will force rewrites. But so many of my tangents could have been triggered earlier had I not worked in such isolation and murkiness during the early stages.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Outlining is so important. I haven’t thought of sending an outline to people before. I wonder if that would be beneficial or if it would distract you from the story you want to tell. Then again, everything is a balance of both worlds, and you get the final say in the end.

      Those tangents in the middle definitely tripped me up when writing the current draft. I saw more layers and those were not addressed by the original outline. The story and progression of events are the same as dictated in the outline, but it’s the nuances—i.e.: new character subplots and small details—that are harder to tie together. These were new things that popped up during the writing process. In the future I should address them upfront, in the original outline.

      I think another takeaway for both of us is realizing we’re plotters, first and foremost. Now that we know this, it’s just a matter of refining the writing process.

  • It’s fitting that you asked about New Year’s Resolutions on a post about finishing drafts, because my resolution is to… finish my draft. 🙂

  • Steve Myers says:

    Hi Millie. I was captured by the idea of the title, finishing as the ultimate. I have no stats or evidence based research to prove this, only the euphoria of finishing a project and knowing the obstacles are suddenly gone, replaced by an attraction to a new project.

    • Millie Ho says:

      It’s good to hear your perspective, Steve, since occasionally I have the exact opposite reaction. There’s a sense of loss now that the work is complete. But it makes sense to focus on a new project instead of bemoaning the loss of an old one. I’ll focus more on that going forward. Thanks for reading. Hope your 2016 is off to a good start!

      • Steve Myers says:

        Well, I guess it depends on the experience. I don’t have many when it comes to completion, but with the few that I do have, my mind and heart says good riddance! What a relief! I admire anyone who cranks out stories or music or paints or sculpts in one sitting. But it ain’t me. Nothing comes easy, but that’s why I do it. Inspires devotion and gets me lost in whatever I’m doing, but I won’t lie. I hate getting out of a hot shower or having to go to bed when I’m enjoying a good drunk, separation anxiety of it all I guess.

  • kvennarad says:

    Resolution: To try and not feel guilty about the sabbatical I’m taking [i.e. ‘The Deptford Bear’ remains unfinished].

  • anandpasi says:

    There must be a proper end to a story. I agree with you

  • That’s four more drafts than most people ever finish, Millie. And setting your goal is a very important step. I have gotten a second wind, and am plowing through what I hope to be one of the final drafts of a novel. Gonna be a bulldog, and not let go until it’s over. Best of luck, Millie! Keep us posted on your progress.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks, Naomi! I made more progress this week and am working at tying things together. Hope you’re enjoying the process of finishing the final drafts. Give me a tip or two sometime! 🙂

      • That’s great news, Millie. I’m about halfway through my revision. I’m in The Zone, which is a little like falling in love, where I’m thinking about the characters even when I’m not writing, and looking forward to the next chance I get to write. Best advice I can give is something you already know. Keep going. Just keep going on! Best wishes, Millie!

  • elmediat says:

    I think the old writers from the pulp era had small advantage in time management and training. They could hone their craft writing for magazines in a number of genres and lengths. Word count was everything, since they were paid by the word. Deadlines meant cheques in the mail. They could move up to novellas and short novels as they mastered their writing & creative skills.

    I recall reading a small segment of King’s Dark Tower as a short story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He was already well established as a writer.

    Young writers today must jump into the deep end with a novel without developing the training. Further more, they do so without establishing a name for themselves, as a marketable writer and having a following.

    Don’t know if you have access to a short story market to wet your feet. It may give you a chance to publish a portion of your work or use the setting and some characters in a short piece. 🙂

    • Millie Ho says:

      You’re absolutely right. That’s why Philip K. Dick was so prolific. It was a necessity and he literally needed to write to live. I might’ve taken the shortcut route because I only ever saw myself as a long-form writer/novelist, with some poetry thrown in. I’ll take your advice and see if I can get into any short story or flash fiction publications. Thanks for your insights!

  • theryanlanz says:

    Hi Millie! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured as a guest post on AWP on Sept 3rd. As usual, it has your credit/bio/link. Thanks!

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