Okay, but do you want to finish your book though?
I ask because not every writer necessarily wants to write a full book. For years, I was happy just writing and publishing individual poems and stories.
But once the idea hit me that I might have enough pages to consider completing a book, I was completely hooked on the possibility.
On my Facebook page last week, I told the story of how I came to write my first book of poetry.
By the time I was writing my short story collection, I’d already published one book, so it didn’t seem quite so daunting to write the next one. (That kinda makes me laugh now, knowing how little one book has to do with the next!)
But let me back up:
I had been writing short stories for years before I published my first one. It was in a Canadian literary magazine called The New Quarterly, or TNQ. I was beyond excited – it’s a wonder I didn’t levitate with the power of the gratitude that was coursing through me when I received the email from their editor.
Also, they PAID ME CASH MONEY, enough for a large grocery haul. Reader, I wept. (Not kidding.)
But at first, I didn’t even send my stories out for publication. I just wrote them and kept them nice and safe in their fancy manuscript box in my closet. I’d pull them out and revise them yet again (and again), trying to get to the ever-elusive perfect short story before I published.
Full disclosure: all my lit mag publications, plus the books and even the luck of a few awards later, I still haven’t written the perfect short story. (I can point to you a few by other writers I think come pretty close though! Another post for another day: get your book budget ready.)
I was in a writing group by then and seeking out mentors via courses and workshops, doing anything I could think of to improve my grasp of story fundamentals. And then – just skipping past rejections for the moment — I had my second story published, and then another.
If you’re keeping count, yes that’s three. And that’s when I knew I could finish a full book – at story number three.
I had them printed out as I’d submitted them: double-spaced single-sided pages. And when I stacked all the pages together in their fancy-pants manuscript box, the pile of paper began to feel substantial to me – like the beginning of something, a kind of implicit commitment.
Those three stories suddenly felt like a book in the making, something special waiting to happen, a promise I now had to keep to myself.
Of course, I’d wanted to write a book of short stories for years – longer than I can remember wanting anything else in my life. But now it finally felt real.
Traditional publication in literary magazines was important to me, having spent so many years eagerly reading writers I admire in those same mags, but perhaps it isn’t for you. That’s totally fine – you get to make the decisions about your own writing life.
Here’s how I think you can tell if you’re really ready to finish your book:
You Dream About It
Maybe you’ve been dreaming of being an author your whole life, walking into the bookstore or library and seeing your book there on a shelf.
But I also mean that you may have been dreaming about the content of your book – your characters are taking over your thoughts during the day, or you’re dreaming up new short story ideas at night and waking up to make notes on the pad next to your bed, or you keep writing pages of lines or notes towards the idea of the book you’re holding in your heart.
You know it’s not a full book yet but it could be someday and so you’ve gone through periods of feeling completely obsessed with it in some way, shape or form.
“A book is a dream you hold in your hand.” – Neil Gaiman
You Doubt About It Too
It’s also entirely possible that when the thoughts of finishing your book has come across your mind, you’ve pushed it aside.
You’ve thought it would be too hard to do all on your own, or begun to doubt that you know enough to be able to finish.
The dream comes, and then hard on its heels, so does the doubt. That’s normal – it’s just the reality of being a writer. If you’ve had the dream, you’ve had the doubt. The trick is to acknowledge that you feel that way, and keep on writing anyway. Self-compassion goes a long way to overcoming doubt.
I consider doubt a sign that you’re really serious, because otherwise it wouldn’t matter quite so much to you and your brain wouldn’t be bothered to generate a fear response. Doubt is your brain’s way of signalling that your creative work means something to you. And if it means something to you, then you need to finish.
“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.” —Erica Jong
You Already Have Some Pages
Somewhere out there in the Wild West of the Internet, there are definitely people claiming that you can write a complete book this weekend. Or failing that, in just 30 days.
Some of these folks might be entirely well-meaning, but Sweetheart, they are leading you on.
Of course your book will take you longer to write than a weekend, or even a month. It will take months of work to write the number of pages you need to complete your first draft, and then more months to revise and edit so that your book is the best book it can possibly be.
That said, if you’ve ever heard that seductive whisper “hey, you should write a book” then chances are that you already have some pages written, yes?
You’ll know you’re ready to complete a full book if you’re not starting completely from scratch and already have some pages to provide the necessary starting point. (Even if those particular pages don’t end up surviving all the way to the published version of your book: hey, it happens!)
Your pages might be typed up and ordered in a file, on your computer or in your own special box in the closet. Or your pages might still be in your notebook or writing journal, not yet having migrated over. Either way: do not discount the powerful start of these pages already waiting for you.
If you’re writing poems, maybe you have 10-12 of the 45-50 poems that typically go into a first slim volume. And those don’t have to be published poems yet, just written – even drafts will do.
If you’re writing short stories, I think that 3 completed stories are a good progress marker towards the 10-12 stories it will eventually take you to complete a first short story collection. The same is true for essays. Yes, of course it can depend on page count but 3’s a nice round number to make you go “Hmmmm, is there possibly a book here?”
(Again, I’m not saying published here, just written. For sanity’s sake, let’s keep the art and its commercial expression separate, okay? That is some hard-won experience I am sharing with you there.)
If you’re working on a novella or novel, it will depend on the scope of your project…but if you’ve got 50-75 pages down now, then you can likely get to the 150-300+ it will take to finish.
The point I’m making is that you’re not just the person who says “well, someday I’d like to write a book,” you’ve already taken a deep breath and gotten yourself started. YAY YOU!
“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” –Toni Morrison
You’re Willing to Figure It Out
I’m not going to pretend it will always be easy to finish your book, but so what? You’ll have some good writing days, and some bad writing days. Welcome to the writing life: this is how it goes.
But the easiest way to tell if you are ready to finally finish writing your book is that you’re really just determined to figure it out as you go along.
If you’re not sure how to find more time to write this week, you’re going to sit down and make a plan.
Not certain about sub-plots? You can figure it out as you go along. Get the draft down and then come back in the revision to tie those plot lines together.
Wondering how much knowledge of historical surgical technique is needed for your Victorian doctor protagonist? Not a problem – you’ll convene a panel with Drs. Google and YouTube and then just give it a go. (Because you know you’ll probably be ripping the guts out of it anyway in revision!)
No book is a certainty: ask any author who’s already written their first one and now faces the blank pages of the next. But knowing it’s uncertain offers so much freedom! If you love books and you love playing around with language, think how much fun you can have as you finish your book.
If you dream about it…
If you doubt about it…
If you have some pages to start…
– and if you’re willing to figure it out as you go along—
then you, Dear Writer, can ABSOLUTELY finish your book.
So, what are you waiting for?