Monday, March 3, 2014

Five Tips for Finishing Your Novel

By Ellen Meister

If you’ve ever started a novel, chances are you know this feeling: You hit the ground running with a great idea. You’re in love with your concept, your main characters, your minor characters, your setting and the direction of your story arc. Everything is go go go.

And then one day … it stops.

 It’s not even a screeching halt, but a soft, quiet nothing. You stare at the page—okay, screen—waiting. Your cursor blinks in mute judgment. But your mojo is a no-show. What’s a writer to do?

 It’s not the time to give up, but to change gears. Here are five tips to restart your engine.

 1. Make notes 
This is my secret weapon for defeating writer’s block, which I believe is nothing more than reaching a point in your story where you need to make some new decisions. Indeed, I think writer’s block is simply the mistake of believing the answers are going to be handed down to you from some magical benevolent muse. Trust me, it doesn’t happen like that. At least not for most of us.

So here’s what I recommend: open up a Word document and go at it. Write down where you are in the story and why you can’t move forward. Write down every possible direction the story can go in and what the ramifications are. Go on for pages and pages if you have to. You are essentially thinking on paper. Don’t make the mistake of believing that daydreaming in the shower or on your morning walk is just as good. It isn’t. Writing it down forces you to focus, and employs a different part of your brain. I promise you that this method will work and you will find the answers. Remember the quote from artist Chuck Close: Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.

2. Set weekly goals 
Many writers have daily word count goals, and that’s fine. God knows I’ve done it myself. But I find that weekly goals can work better. First, you have to decide on a realistic page/word count. For example, let’s say you can comfortably write ten pages (roughly 2500 words) per week. Make that an absolute rule for yourself. And here’s a tip for making sure you stick with it—use your calendar to set expectations. Let’s say, for instance, you’re stuck at page 60. Decide that you’ll be at page 70 by Friday, and write that number down on your calendar. Write 80 on the following Friday, and so on, until you reach the approximate number of pages your novel will be upon completion. This will do wonders for helping you stay on track.

3. Set deadlines 
There’s nothing like the pressure of a looming deadline to force you past your writer’s block. So if you’re not writing under contract with a do-or-die date hanging over you, create your own. Using the method above, decide on a realistic date for finishing the book and mark it on your calendar with a fat red pen. Go to sleep each night thinking about that date, and how glorious it will be to have a finished book by then.

4. Get a critique pal 
If you can find another writer whose judgment you trust, trading chapters for critique can be helpful not just for feedback, but for keeping you on track. You and your partner will be eager to send off those pages for feedback. There’s a lot to be said for having someone to answer to.

 5. Read 
Nothing opens your mind to inspiration like reading. And yes, I believe you should be reading even while you’re in the middle of working on your own book. Maybe even especially when you’re working on your own book. Your mind will be so receptive to learning that you’ll get something out of every book you read. It might be a small lesson, like how to handle a certain kind of transition in time, or a major epiphany, like realizing you need a significant turning point in the middle of your book. Reading is your best teacher.


Ellen Meister is the author of four novels, including Farewell, Dorothy Parker and The Other Life. She teaches creative writing at Hofstra University Continuing Education, and runs a popular Dorothy Parker page on Facebook. For more information visit her website at


  1. I just started using weekly word counts a few months ago. It is working beautifully for me.
    Great advice!

  2. Great tips, Ellen. #1 is my go-to weapon. I agree, I might think about my book while I'm walking, etc.. but it's not the same as focusing on the tangible. I have a 99-cent composition book that I keep for each ms. When I'm stuck, I start to make lists, where can we go from here... what might happen next. Interesting, I can't do the same thing on a computer screen; it's much more effective when I'm forced to write it in pen... or blood, whichever. :) Great post!

  3. Setting those goals and deadlines is a great idea.

  4. Love these great and practical ideas. I agree with them all, especially Rule #1. A writer writes! The best part of committing ideas to paper is that we're not judging the words, only the emotional pull. Great post as always!!

  5. Yep. All good. If only I could remember to follow through and look at my calendar! But seat of the pants to seat of the chair. It's a must. And the writing about the helpful. Thanks for the good post..

  6. I've a plan for write a novel and your entire novel concerning tips are most valuable and knowledgeable to me like buy essay. Which helps me a lot to write my novel successfully.