A lot of people talk about writing books, but very few finish them. I've seen the pattern so many times it's become something of a ritual.
Someone gets a great idea for a book. They tell everyone, “I'm going to write a book! Here's my idea! Isn't it great?” They write the first chapter, start the second. They stay strong for a few days or even a few weeks.
But then something happens.
They have plans and have to take the night off. Or they miss their alarm and sleep through their morning writing session. Now that the momentum is broken, everything gets so much harder. They lose the train of their plot and forget a few of their amazing ideas. They read back on earlier sections and lament that the writing is so bad, so unlike what they had in their imaginations.
Before long, they've moved on to other, more interesting projects (like the next season of The Walking Dead), and when people ask about their book, they say, “Oh, I'm taking a break. Want to hear my idea for a new TV series?”
I know this pattern intimately because I've lived it.
Again and again.
Yes, I've written four books. I would like to think I can write a book if I want to. But even now I'm vulnerable to this pattern, even now I have a hard time finishing the books I start.
How do you avoid this pattern? How do you finally finish a book?
The System For Writing and Finish a Book
In 2014, I started teaching a small group of writers how to write a book. They had one assignment: by the end of the class, they had to have written a book.
They didn't have to write a great book—certainly not a perfect book—although they would get a lot of feedback on how to make their books better. They just had to finish a book.
The first semester, I only had five students. Not a huge number, but at least there was low pressure if I failed.
The whole semester, I was waiting for the students to do what most people who want to write a book do. I kept expecting them to miss deadlines, to get flaky and make excuses, to quit.
But didn't quit.
They didn't miss a single deadline. That first semester all of them finished a book.
The second semester I had five more students. Again I waited for them to quit. Instead, all five of them finished a book.
Summer 2015 we had just two students. Each of them finished their book.
In one year, this small group of writers has written twelve of twelve books. We have a 100 percent success rate.
I can't praise myself. These amazing writers did the (very hard) work. However, when I tell my author, editor, and publishing friends this, they're always amazed because they know just how hard writing a book is and how unlikely it is that any program could have a 100 percent success rate.
This is the system I want to teach you.
How To Finish a Book
It's not enough to start a book. Everyone starts writing a book.
Very few finish.
What, then, is the system to finish a book? You need to do three things:
- First, come up with a plan.
- Then, get a team.
- Finally, get a writing rhythm.
Today, I want to focus especially on how to create your book plan, and by the end of the lesson, I will give you an assignment to actually start a your plan.
How To Create a Book Plan
I believe one of the biggest reasons my students are so successful at finishing their books is because they start with a plan.
In the first two weeks of my class, we create a book proposal, which is basically a holistic attack plan for a book.
There are two reasons why creating a book plan is so helpful:
1. Plans are worthless, but planning is essential. Creating a plan for your book gives you the opportunity to think through your book from beginning to end.
There is no better way to get your mind warmed up for the writing process.
If planning and outlining make you uncomfortable, keep in mind you don’t create a book plan so you can slavishly follow your outline and remove all the space for serendipity. A book plan isn’t a leash. It’s a resource.
2. Make a map for when you get lost.
I think this is the best reason to create a book plan. Getting lost is inevitable when you're writing a book, especially if you can't write every day. It's so easy to lose sense of where you are in your book and what you need to be writing next.
But a book plan can act as a simple reminder for what your book is about and where you need to go.
Components of a Good Book Plan
How then do you create a book plan? Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, there are three main components (with some bonus components if you’re feeling ambitious):
A two to three sentence description of your plot or core argument. You already did this, and if you haven't go back to lesson one to work on your proposal.
The USP, or unique selling proposition, is a weird marketing term, but it’s purpose is to define what will make your book unique and worth reading.
While thinking about the marketplace feels uncomfortable for some writers, this piece of the plan will help you dive into what will make your book unique.
A brief outline of your book is your first chance to think through what your book is going to be about. Think one-page for fiction writers, one to three pages for nonfiction writers.
(HINT: Good stories are about problems. Do what Randy Ingermanson suggests and in your outline “end each paragraph in disaster.”)
Bonus Components to Your Book Plan
You can get by without these, but they’re so helpful I would highly recommend them.
Who is your audience?
One of the reasons J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit was so successful is because he had a perfectly clear picture of his audience: his three sons. He knew what they liked and what they didn't, and he attuned his story directly to them. No wonder it's such a great book!
I find that having a clear picture of my audience is also an effective way to stay motivated. As I imagine how my writing will affect my ideal reader, it helps me stay focused on getting my book to them as soon as I can.
The competition section in a book plan lists three other books that are similar to yours, preferably ones that are successful in the marketplace. It then explains both what is similar about your book and what is different.
While you might think, “My book is completely unique,” this is actually a bad attitude to have. If your book is totally different from any other book, then people probably aren’t going to know why they should read it.
While you don't need to have already read the books when they show up on your list, you absolutely need to have read them by the time you start writing.
(In other words, now is the time research and read other books similar to yours.)
How To Outline Your Book
Great books are about problems.
I recently read a 7,000 page novel that dramatically simplified my view of storytelling. Not once in those 7,000 pages did I get bored.
How did the author keep me engaged for so long? He threw rocks.
When you're outlining your book, use this century-old writing advice as your guide.
In the first act get your principal character up a tree; in the second act, throw stones at him; in the third, get him down gracefully.
The stones are problems. And you need a lot of them.
I like what Randy Ingermanson, the novelist and creator of the Snowflake Method, says. In a good one-page outline, “all but the last paragraph should end in a disaster.”
The outlining process is your chance to start looking for stones to throw.
Non-Fiction Books Are About Problems Too
This is true for nonfiction books as well.
You might think nonfiction books are about solutions, not problems, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
Most inexperienced nonfiction and How-To writers want to jump straight to how they can solve your problems. But giving a solution without setting up the problem is one of the worst things you can do.
In every non-fiction article I write (including this one), I follow this guideline:
- Introduce the Problem, e.g. So you struggle with writing a book?
- Make the Problem Worse, e.g. ME TOO! Why is writing a book so hard?!
- Offer a Solution, e.g. If you create an outline, you will have a much better chance at finishing your book.
- Show How the Solution Works, e.g. here are 7 outlines for books.
- Conclude by Reiterating the Problem, e.g. Writing is really hard, but that doesn't mean you can't do it!
You can find this structure in almost every bestselling nonfiction book, and I guarantee it will help you write a better book.
To help you create a plan for your book, we have put together a short guide of the seven story archetypes that author Christopher Booker explains in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write.
Here's your assignment
- Scan the seven story archetypes to find the archetype that most closely matches your story.
- Study your archetype, looking at each stage in the story carefully. Does your book follow the stages? Where does it have holes?
- Write a one-page outline of your story, combining what you learned about your story’s archetype with your initial idea. Don't forget to end each paragraph in your outline in disaster.
- Share your outline in the Becoming Writer forum to get feedback.
- Give feedback to at least three other writers in the comments (try to give feedback on outlines that don't already have comments).
Two Other Hints to Write a Book
While we could talk for days about how to finish your book, here are two more hints I've learned:
1. Be Specific
I read a lot of writing by amateur writers, and I’ve found that there’s one, single piece of advice I give most often:
Go ahead and write that on a post-it note and tape it to your computer screen.
Vague writing creates no emotional response in the reader. Vague writing is boring writing, a waste of your reader's time.
I'll sometimes read a chapter by one of my students that's just a stream of consciousness description of their day-to-day life.
I told one student recently, “You think you're being vulnerable and telling us the hardest parts of your story, but your hiding under vague statements and clichés.”
Never say, “It was really hard.” Tell the story. Describe the scene. Use dialogue. Don't talk about your feelings. Let us feel the things you or your character felt by telling the story in such vividness we feel like we're right there too.
For more on how to be specific in your writing, check out our guide How To Become a Better Writer in One, Simple Step.
2. If You Get Stuck…
Start by writing what you want. If you ever get stuck, write what you want, what you think will be cool.
When you can't think of what you should write next, stop thinking in terms of should and think instead about what you want to write next.
There's a tension between writing for others and writing for yourself. Every artist throughout history has dealt with this tension, from Michelangelo to George Eliot to Tolstoy to The Beatles to J.K. Rowling.
If you want to write something important, you have to engage with this tension. Saying, just write whatever you want is narcissistic and ultimately sabotaging. Saying, just write whatever will sell the most copies is selling out and ultimately a path to losing your voice.
Great artists find their place in the middle of that tension. The best artists use that tension to create their best work.
But if you ever get stuck, start by asking what you want to write. And then write it.
For more on how to create a book plan and outline your book, here are a few other resources I recommend:
- Save the Cat: The Last Screenwriting Book You'll Need by Blake Snyder (also helpful, Blake Snyder's 10 Genres)
- Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne (also helpful, The Five Elements of Genre and An Editor's Six Core Questions)
- The 36 Dramatic Situations
- The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson (also helpful Ten Steps to Design Your Novel Using the Snowflake Method)