I always wanted to be a writer. Almost always. First, I wanted to be a painter, but that came to a quick and crashing halt when I discovered I has zero artistic ability and absolutely no desire to embark on any type of training. Then there was a short stint of wanting to be a firefighter, but the whole “I’m hot” issue put that just out of reach. 

That’s when I switched to being a writer. I armed myself with a degree in Language Arts, Writing & Editing from NC State and then promptly took a 30-year hiatus from writing my book. As it turned out, writing a book was harder than it sounded.

I’m excited to report that Lily Barlow, The Mystery of Jane Dough, is finally finished. And, thanks to Lifestyle Entrepreneurs Press, there’s an Advance Reader Copy, which looks like an actual book instead of a big stack of copy paper. Now when friends and family refer to it, they don’t roll their eyes or use air quotes when they ask me how the “book” is coming.

I’ve been thinking about my process, not because I’m especially reflective, but because some people have asked. I set aside the trifecta of 1) having a background in writing, 2) getting an opportunity to take a year off teaching to write, and 3) lucking into the perfect publisher. Those things aside, I teased out the following steps I took to finish the book. 

1. The Buddy System Still Applies

I’ve heard it called a writing partner or a critique partner, but basically it’s a buddy, a buddy who also wants to write. Find one. You can connect with other like-minded people through the chapters of various writer’s organizations. You can also find groups through online services like Meetup.com, and from there, find that one person who makes you a better writer. That’s your new buddy.

I had a built-in buddy who was already a friend and already a writer. She encouraged me to spend a couple days a week at her house where she was working from home. She set up two identical work spaces in her living room, and that’s where the magic happened. When you make it a job, and set hours, and have a specific place to do it, and a co-worker who holds you accountable, it’s amazing that work actually gets accomplished. Yes. Writing is work.

2. Buy a Cup

A designated cup is important because it represents ritual or routine, and I found that piece was key in my process. I didn’t even know I needed a cup until my writing partner surprised me with one. She had it specially designed and gave it to me when we first started working together. It’s emblazoned with a little pep talk that is still exactly what I need to hear each time I sit down and face a blank computer screen. It says: 

Sherpy, YOU are a brilliant writer.

Seriously, you are the freaking queen of story. 

When you approach your computer, the keyboard trembles, just the tiniest bit, because it knows something awesome is coming. 

That is how much you rock.

Now get back to work. You got this.

Each day I came over to write, I’d fix a coffee in my cup. That was like the opening ceremony. Cup in hand, she and I would recap our stories and anything we did the last time we worked on our books. We would use these few minutes to help each other solve hairy plot problems, analyze whether or not the dialogue rang true, even pick names for characters.

3. Decide on a Number

Set a goal for how many words you plan to write that day, and also set a stretch goal. The stretch goal was my husband’s idea, and it’s brilliant because when you set it, more times than not you will reach it. Words on the page, baby. 

Be realistic with all goals, though. There were times when we literally worked for seven hours straight, and I only got 250 words out. That’s because I do a lot of editing and rewriting as I go. Many, many way more talented people advise against this, but this is my process.

It is rare for me, even at my most prolific, to produce more than 1,000 words in a day. So reaching a stretch goal of 1,000, when it happened, was very satisfying. Most days, that wasn’t realistic. I usually had a sense going into each day what was realistic. If I already knew that a scene didn’t feel right or it needed more support, then that day would be a low word-count day, because I may take out as much as I put in. 

4. Enter a Contest

This was my writing partner’s idea, and like my husband’s stretch goal, it was brilliant. Find the trade organization that closely aligns with what you write and see if they host any contests. Entering a competition did a few things for me. For one, it motivated me to produce a complete chapter. It also gave me feedback from judges to help me correct the parts that weren’t working.

I didn’t win any of the contests I entered. After about three rounds of entering, I had enough data to move my story forward, so I stopped entering contests and focused on developing my storyline.

5. Get Judgmental  

Another way to get good info is by volunteering to be a judge in a writing contest. You should know before you get involved that it’s a time commitment, which means time away from writing your own story, but I found this to be a valuable investment. It became really clear to me what bothered me in other peoples’ writing, so I worked to purge that from my own. For example, I hate it when words are repeated too frequently. When I noticed it in the entries I judged, I started catching it in my own work. 

6. Write

There’s no way around the fact that, if you want to write a book, you have to write. You have to write when you don’t feel like it, when it sounds stupid, when the story is stuck. If it was easy, I would have done it 30 years ago. 

7. Toughen Up, Buttercup

I’m my own biggest fan. Translation—I think everything I write is freakin’ amazing. That level of self adulation is both good and bad. On the one hand, it’s important I have confidence in myself. On the other hand, not everything I write is, in fact, freakin’ amazing. 

There will be times when you have to cut what could possibly be the single best paragraph that has ever been written in all of recorded human history. Channel whatever image you need here—Jedi with a light saber, cartoon coyote with a box of dynamite, John Snow with a great big sword. If it doesn’t advance the story, if it doesn’t fit, if it creates a problem somewhere else, it needs to go. Cut it.

Don’t just delete it, though. Put the passage in a file of things you might use later. You’ll feel better that you still own this little masterpiece, but it won’t be getting in the way of your great American novel. I’ve resurrected nuggets from this file that just needed careful placement somewhere else in the book.

Those are my seven tips on how to finish a book. It’s not important that you use these same tips. What’s important is that you nail down your own process. Now go. Write.