Ask the editor: Help! I can’t seem to finish my book

Q : Everyone says I need to wrap up my manuscript and stop writing already. But I’m really stuck.  Any advice?

A : This isn’t unusual. You may have taken a wrong turn early in the story as a result of poor planning. Or you may have painted yourself into a corner. Or you could be suffering from avoidance, procrastination, and other writer’s blocks.

Structural problems and solutions

The inability to finish up a book can often be traced back to a lack of adequate initial planning.  Have you considered the narrative arc and characterizations? The balance of dialogue, visual description and background material?

It’s crucial to define at the outset what the book is about and where you ultimately want to go with it.  That’s why I strongly recommend creating an outline.  The finest writers I’ve worked with, including best selling literary stars, begin with a clear chapter-by-chapter structure that gives them a preliminary map of the steps along the way towards climax and closure.

Ouch. I can hear some of you wincing already. You may have not used an outline since high school. How stifling, how pedantic, you might be thinking. But believe me, an outline is a very useful tool. It’s never carved in stone, however, as things usually do shift and change as you go along and the book develops a life of its own.

But that original map can be your best friend.  It’s a frame of reference that leads to an ending developed organically from everything that has come before.

Reaching emotional closure

The lack of a plan providing a clear progressive structure and a purposeful conclusion leads some writers to resist ending at all, ever.

In one case, an author sent in 3,200 pages that he envisioned as a three-volume boxed set. “I have to publish all of them at once,” he said. “It’s all or nothing at all.”

Another writer couldn’t reach the finish line because he refused to let go of the story. “It’s impossible to know what happens,” he said. “I can’t stop these people from living on and on in my head. ”

OK. Real life can’t always be tied up neatly in a bow. Problems don’t evaporate, decisions don’t usually remain static or final. That’s why reading a good book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, gives us the chance to return to an alternate universe whenever we pick up the book during the day.  We get to use our imaginations to allow these characters to live on beyond what’s just on the page.

Nevertheless, as a finite object and hopefully a work of creative art, your book needs to reach some emotional finality, a sense of closure, a plateau of events that is emotionally satisfying and allows the reader to take away some sense of ultimate inspiration or enlightenment.

How an editor can help

Here’s an example. I worked recently with a writer whose  story reached a climactic turning point about 400 pages into the manuscript that required the wife, who was pregnant, to leave her husband and strike out on her own.

As the developmental editor, I didn’t think writing another 200 pages to resolve all the loose ends was the best solution, so I suggested flashing forward to a short epilogue about the baby’s first birthday. That showed us everything we needed to know about how the characters resolved their relationships and issues about working and co-parenting.

In another case, a true-crime writer traveled to a distant city to interview a serial killer in prison. He was unable, however, to get past the prison regulations to interview the inmate. To meet our contractual deadline, the author tried to write an alternate ending about how he was forced to stay in town for weeks, about the people he stayed with, the local culture, weather, and sports.

As the publisher, I rejected that ending and suggested instead that he interview everyone else involved with the case.  We ended up replacing the last fifty pages of the book with commentary, transcripts and documents from the trial. This technique ultimately worked just as well as an actual interview and may actually have been more accurate.

Don’t let it come to this!

One writer who had enormous trouble meeting publishing deadlines was my old friend and nemesis, Hunter S. Thompson. Shortly after his initial success he began to fear that he couldn’t sustain the quality of his earlier work, or satisfy the legions of fans who had idealized his persona as a bad boy rebel, a kind of literary James Dean or Marlon Brando. It was a hard act to keep up, requiring all kinds of bad habits and damaging his personal and professional relationships.

In that case, drastic intervention was required that included extracting the text word by word, in a difficult and painful process I recommend only when the end result is really worth it. You can read more about my adventures editing Hunter Thompson here.

Here’s what you can do

Acting out isn’t uncommon in the process of doing the hard work of writing. A fear of failure can lead to psychological depression, anxiety and paralysis. Therefore, as the end of your book approaches, check out how successful writers maintain their self-confidence, also take a look at these habits of well-known writers, and keep the following suggestions in mind.

5 tips for finishing your book

1.  Accept endgame writer’s block as normal and common, something that happens on occasion to all authors, even the best and most experienced.

2.  Reconsider your core idea, your starting-out concept and see if it fulfills your original outline. If you didn’t have an outline to begin with, make one now.

3.  Get help. That’s what editors are for.  Successful writers seek out and listen to professional feedback — from their publisher if they have one, or from a well-qualified trustworthy independent developmental editor.

4.  Dig deep. Be willing to listen to others about your self-defeating behavior. Friends and family, editors, publishers, or on occasion, psychological professionals, can be the source of honest and supportive feedback.

5.  Be patient. Wait it out. The outline and revisions take time. Sometimes this process needs to play out at its own pace to develop traction, take hold, and stick.

Send in your own stories of how you overcame problems finishing your book. I’ll bet you have some great examples and solutions waiting to be told.

20 Responses to Ask the editor: Help! I can’t seem to finish my book

  1. Victoria Mixon

    Thank you for your sensible advice and consolation, M.r Rinzler.

    I’ve mentioned Dramatic Overwhelm on my professional blog on the craft of fiction. I’d be very pleased if you had an opinion on today’s post on the subject.

    I love your blog—particularly your audio critiques of book proposals. You’re an extraordinarily insightful and KIND editor.

    best,
    Victoria

  2. Shane Durgee

    Painting yourself into a corner is one of the best things that can happen to a writer because it forces one to be clever.

    I had started my novel with the end. The entire impetus of me writing the story stemmed from an idea that could only materialize at the conclusion of the novel, so I wrote the last chapter first. And then I decided on where this story should begin and I wrote the first chapter.

    So I had A and C, but no idea how to write B, particularly in a way that would seamlessly connect A and C. I wrote blindly hoping the two ends would meet, but after two years of persistence, those ends hadn’t met. They weren’t even in the same solar system.

    It wasn’t until another year of letting the book simmer, with an occasional rewrite here and there, that I had a eureka moment (while walking mind you- writers should walk a lot when they’re stuck). By simply switching one secondary character for another in that last chapter I not only got through the wall I’d made, but I’d suddenly opened other doors of possibilities, all which seemed to make the story stronger. If I hadn’t written myself into a tough spot I would have never thought to change out the characters. It caused me to rewrite the end entirely (something I’d resisted because the end had been the whole reason for writing the damn thing) but it elevated the story and added a whole new thematic layer to it.

  3. lunch hour links for writers – week of 8/25/09 « helluo librorum

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  4. Anjuelle Floyd

    This is a wonderful article.

    I also like the one from January 2009 on 7 techniques for a dynamic plot.

  5. Josephine Damian

    I’ve been shouting from the rooftops about how much easier writing is when you outline. Of course, no one listens. Hopefully they’ll listen to you.

  6. David Wetzel

    I’m sorry to hear that you will be ending your series of audio critiques. As one of the lucky authors who learned from them, I enjoyed a more personal evaluation from your audio than I was ever able to get in the short comments by agents to whom I’d sent my proposal. It was like sitting across the table from an agent or editor. But, beyond that, your voice adds immeasurably to the points you make. So I’m disappointed–but I’m sure that the new directions you plan to take will be of great service to writers. Only…if you ever long to hit the airwaves again, please do!

  7. bc

    Just wondering… Is there a substantial difference in the costs of developmental editing between a work that lies basically in an initial outline form and a work that is nearly finished that needs substantial developmental editing?

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  9. Joseph Lane

    So much useful information in this. I haven’t put any work into my manuscript for over a year now and my fingers are itching. I reached an integral part of the plot which requires a real-life experience on my part in order to write genuinely. This year long year long quest should be coming to “fruition” within the week so I’ll be able to get back on track after a brief period of reflection. Still, the things you’ve written for us here should help me along the way if I become stuck again. Something I’ve found that helps is this: Just write it. Write something – anything – and if you don’t like it you can always change it later.

  10. Mimm Patterson

    Perfect timing! I’m in procrastination mode…putting off the ending while I fiddle with earlier chapters…ugh…so NOT the way to get things done! Thank you for the great advice and for motivating me to get back to the real job of writing.

  11. Alan Rinzler

    Hi bc,

    A finished manuscript that needs substantial editing is likely to be more expensive. And the earlier a writer begins working with a developmental editor, the better.

    -Alan

  12. Susan Cross

    I’m finishing a memoir of a semi-famous musician who played with Ray Charles. Unfortunately, when we started, he was 78 and spoke in stream of consciousness so there was no outline and I was afraid to interrupt his memories with questions. I thought that if I did, he would lose his train of thought and I might miss something important. Now the editing has been overwhelming, putting events into some kind of sensible order without losing some of the funny stories that aren’t related to the key events. Very challenging. I’m almost done but I fear that my first book (this one) won’t be good enough. Good enough for whom? Mostly for me. I’m my own worst critic.

  13. RT

    I’ll admit to having ending-block. I completed my first book, and then wrote 95% of four more. What I finally realized (with some help) was that my own fear was getting in the way of finishing.

    My beloved first book, the story I was sure would be an instant best seller and make me millions (no naiveté involved of course), turned out to be crap. I hadn’t seen it coming. I’d believed in the story, the characters, the writing (the writing being the crappiest part). Being hit with the truth caused me huge anxiety. I felt like I couldn’t trust my own instincts. Now, I’m afraid of finishing because I’m afraid of facing that truth again.

    The solution for me? I’ve had to work through the fear by talking and journaling. I’ve also sought out opportunities for feedback and rejection so as to build up my tolerance (and improve my craft). It will always hurt, but I suppose taking the risk is part of being an adult. Book number six is right at the 95% mark and I continue to plug away at it.

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  15. pk

    Don’t listen to any advice, that’s what I’d say. Write only what you want to write. Please yourself. YOU are the genius, they’re not. Especially don’t listen to people (such as publishers) who think that you need to write what readers say they want. Readers don’t always know what they want. I don’t know what I want to read until I go into a bookshop and look around at the books other people have written, and the books I enjoy reading most are books I would never in a million years have thought of myself. So the only thing you need to do is forget about pleasing other people, and aim to please yourself alone.

  16. Livia Blackburne

    Just digging through your old posts. These are really great! I’m going to have to spend some time here.

  17. Aline deWinter

    I am still working on my Gothic Horror novel that was called The Golden Stairs but is now called The Roses of the Moon.I have been rewriting it for a couple of months. First I had cut the book in half and re-outlined it ( I love outlines and I do story boards ) and firmed up the backstories. I added 2 new characters, a romance that wasn’t there before, and beefed up three antagonists. Because I cut it in half I had to change the ending.
    I think I came up with some great solutions and the novel has all this texture because of all the work I did on he subplots and backstories. At the same time, between the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3-where the subplots collide, I lost the plot.
    I got hold of Robert Ray The Weekend Novelist Rewites the Book and he talks about strengthening subplots. it works. It works so well I am amazed. He also gives these rather clinical tools for how to get unstuck right at that 2-3rd Act transition. I haven’t got there yet — the problems involve the the need for new scenes with the new characters. I have gone back to the beginning and will plow through sticking exactly to my outline. The outline is solid and I am so glad I have it to guide me back to the path.The I will use Robert Ray’s tools to make sure they don’t get tangled up again.
    Sometimes La Muse is capricious and must be restrained.

    Trouble with me is my stories keep going cosmic. That means the story doesn’t want to gel until its taken into account the workings of the universe which means the story isn’t ready until the Gods have spoken or something. I wonder what its like to write about ordinary things.

  18. Ann

    Hi,
    I tend to write short stories.
    Every time i start a story i am ready to finish it.
    I seem to not have the patience to be more descriptive.

    lazyness, impatience….I get easily discouraged.

  19. Jessica

    I’m writing book called, Living the “PHAT” life, and so far everyone likes it but I’m not that far and I stuck on what to say next. Need help bad

  20. bob griffith

    I wrote 80 pages many years ago – science fiction – and I need to find a person
    to read it and tell me if it is any good and posibly finish it for me. Right
    now its a blank for me.

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