Finishing the Damn Book

Do you know that feeling when unfinished tasks plague you and you feel like you’re haunted by the things you haven’t completed?  Turns out there’s a scientific reason for that.  It’s called the Zeigarnik effect

Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noted that waiters could remember orders in incredible detail, but as soon as they completed the task (i.e. the customer paid) those memories were gone.  This effect is used in marketing to try to get people to do something by feeling like something has been left incomplete until they do.  It’s also part of the reason why so many of us have a hard time leaving a book unfinished or why binge-watching has become such a powerful trend.

The fact is unfinished things take up space in our brains.  How many times have you heard a writer say we have to write to get our characters’ voices out of our heads?  I can tell you the most minute details about the books I haven’t written yet – but thank goodness for series bibles, because I forget all the details of the books I’ve completed as soon as they are off my desk.  

But what happens when you get stuck and you feel like you can’t finish a book?  Like it’s just hanging over you?

Many years ago, I went to the Emerald City Writers’ Conference where I heard the brilliant and incredibly funny Cherry Adair tell us to “Finish the damn book!”  Each year she does her Finish the Damn Book Challenge and challenges writers to put their butts in the chair, their hands on their keyboards and Get. It. Done.  Whatever your book, whatever your dream, she commands you to sit down and do it.  And no one wants to disappoint Cherry!

I find the Ruby writing festival gives me the same kind of energy – onward!  Do this!  Woohoo! – but what happens when the festival ends or when you fall into a funk or when you start to doubt yourself even after you’ve written one book or three books or thirty?  What happens when you begin to wonder if you even can finish a book anymore?

I seem to be having this conversation a lot with my writing friends lately.  Maybe it’s just communal exhaustion, but from an unpublished BFF who can’t seem to get going again on her WIP to a multi-published award-winning author with deadline stress who can’t figure out why she is having so much trouble finishing this book, we all seem to be mired.  Sometimes it’s even harder when you’ve already written one and you remember that you used to be able to do this.  It used to be easy, dang it!  Didn’t it?  Or are we just forgetting the birthing pain because the end result was worth it?

Either way, whether our memories of smooth sailing are accurate or not, we can do it again.  We are amazing writers and we are not going to let these books defeat us!  We’ve got this.

Step one?  Stop beating yourself up for having a hard time.

Do not kick yourself for not being where you feel like you should be in your process, wherever that is.  Kicking yourself doesn’t accomplish anything.  Yes, I wanted to have my revision done before I got to my retreat last week – and yes, I had been spinning in circles for a month, accomplishing nothing, but the more I focused on what I wanted to have accomplished, the less I felt like I could accomplish anything moving forward.  If we are stuck in a destructive rut, we need to change that attitude.  Today is DAY ONE.  It’s not about the things we wish we’d managed to do before now, it’s about what we are going to do today.

And we’re going to start, by focusing on achievable goals.  I recently listened to one of the Creative Penn Podcasts, featuring Jessica Abel talking about Creative Focus.  In it, Abel mentions what she calls “altitudes.”  You have to be able to look at your project from the big picture level, but also to zoom in on what steps you need to take day-by-day to achieve that big picture goal.  I heard some similar advice from Ruby Addison Fox as well.  If you sit down thinking “I have to write (or revise) an entire book today,” it’s easy to become paralyzed by the overwhelming massiveness of your task.  But if you can focus on one task at time and break it into manageable chunks, you can move mountains.

It’s not about being J.K. Rowling, even if that is the dream.  Break it down into steps.  It’s about writing the sentence.  Which becomes writing the chapter.  Which becomes finishing the book.  Which becomes querying the book.  Which becomes selling the book.  Which becomes fame and fortune.  Or, perhaps more accurately, writing the next sentence, which will become the next book and build your brand.  

But the trick is to focus on what you can do each day to achieve your goal.  Even if it isn’t as much as you once did or think you ought to be able to do.  Focus on the tasks you need to check off, one by one.  

Finishing a little thing can give you that sense of accomplishment and get you moving, and then before you know it you’ll be finishing the big thing and that it huge.  It opens up all that lovely space in your brain so you can get energized by the next idea.  

There can be benefits to procrastination – as was discussed in this “Slowing Down” podcast – it can give us time to brainstorm and research and develop the ideas we want to explore in our work… but it can also cripple us.  Are you stalled because you’re gathering ideas for your book?  Or are you stopped for another reason?  

Fear of failure?  Fear of success?  Fear of the next step?  Self-doubt?  Imposter syndrome?  Don’t let that stop you from achieving your dreams.  You are badass!  You can do this!  Push on through to the end and then you get that high.  That moment when you can forget how painful it was and just be proud of what you did.

27 responses to “Finishing the Damn Book”

  1. Heather McCollum says:

    Love this post, Vivi! And I’m right there with you at the forgetting thing. It’s so embarrassing when a reader is talking to me and I can’t remember the hero’s name!! Bloody hell – I wrote the dang book! But once it’s down, my brain shoves the details aside so I can fill it with the next story. I’ll just have to say, “sorry, my Zeigarnik cleaning is spot on.”

    Yes, those fears can be crippling. Thanks for the badass reminder. I think I need to make “I’m a badass, fabulous writer” positive affirmation sticky to keep in front of me every day!

    • We all need a sticker like that! You are a badass, fabulous writer and don’t you forget it!

      And I’m so glad I’m not alone in feeling ridiculous when a reader starts talking about one of my characters and I draw a blank. 🙂

  2. Vivi/Lizzie,

    I needed this post so much. I’m stuck in the I-don’t-know-what-to-do-nexts. I’m even thinking of giving up writing. I hate feeling stuck.

    • Oh, Katie, sending hugs. I love, love, love your writing – your voice is so bright and funny and I know those doldrums can suck out our will to write, but you are BRILLIANT. You can do this. If I can bang my head against the wall on this stupid book forever and finally break through, I know you can do too. I hope something shakes loose for you soon. Let me know if you need someone to brainstorm with or vent to.

    • Don’t you DARE give up, Katie! I love your books. I’m right here in Austin anytime you want to do lunch and brainstorm!

  3. Elizabeth Essex says:

    So glad that the brain sweep that happens after I’ve finished a book has a name! But unhelpful in that the sweep seems to include every last bit of my confidence that I can write another book, too!

    At least now I know why I feel like I am starting from scratch every time!

    Thank you for this thought-provoking, but encouraging post, Vivi!

  4. Lille says:

    Vivi/Lizzie….thanks so much for this post! I finished my very first (really crappy) draft during the WWF and now I am trying to get to the next step. I’m so confused. I’ve been working on it little by little but I feel I am that dog running in circles chasing his tail.
    Katie….I so feel your pain! Good Luck!

    • That next step can be daunting, but you’ve got this! Do you have a writing buddy or CP who can give you another pair of eyes? Sometimes that’s invaluable when it comes to getting perspective during revisions. Their reactions can show you where you might need to tweak – and having someone to bounce ideas off of who knows you book can really help.

      Most important – trust your instincts. Good luck, Lille!

      • Lille says:

        Thanks Vivi… very dear husband (did I mention how very dear he is?) has been going over it and I could maybe ask a friend or two. VDH has been giving me some good feedback.

        Question….what is a CP? Co Partner?


  5. sarah andre says:

    Boy, did I need to hear THIS today! Thank you for the bonk on the head. It is interesting that so many of us are collectively feeling this way–something about all the ‘world drama’ must be exhausting us creatively.

  6. Fascinating that this has a name! (And such a fun name. LOL Honestly, Zeigarnik sounds like the alien that invades my brain and sucks out the memories of the book.)

    I’ve been working a lot on separating long term and short term (and really short term, daily goals). I’m someone who loves to plan. Loves filling up an empty calendar. But the day-to-day grind? Not so much. So I’m working on focusing more on the daily goals, and the lower altitudes. 😉 And you know what? I looked up a couple weeks later and I’ve suddenly got half a book. Amazing!

    Thank you for the links to those podcasts. Going to have to check them out!

    • You might really like some of Jessica Abel’s stuff, Anne Marie. She’s got a book called “Growing Gills” about fostering creativity and one of the things she talked about in her podcast was scheduling creative time. I found it really interesting.

      Good luck squeezing in those hours – and CONGRATS on half a book! WOOT!

  7. Addison Fox says:

    Vivi – YOU are a badass!!!

    I LOVE that Zeigarnik has solved the weirdness of our brains. (And I really love that I now understand why things absolutely vanish once a book is done!)


    Thank you for the lovely shout out. That was information that had been passed on to me by a fellow chapter member years ago and I’m so glad it can continue on! 🙂

    • Right?! It was a total lightbulb moment for me – the mystery of the vanishing backlist books solved!

      And good advice never goes out of style! It definitely bears passing on. Thank you for sharing it in the first place! 🙂

  8. Zeigarnik effect, just wait until I drop that in my next sentence. Definitely feeling it today. Wrote two sentences in that many hours. But after reading your blog, I can persuade myself that it is progress. And I understand the feeling a little bit more too. Thanks, Vivi.

  9. Gwyn says:

    Guess who just got done lambasting her cousin for neglecting details written in the previous book? Yep. This gal. I guess, since it’s a thing, I should apologize–maybe. 🙂

    Thanks for this, Vivi. I’m so adrift, some days I fear I’ll just float into the ether and never come back. But Vivi says, “Fear Not!” and I’ll not gainsay her vibrant wisdom. Off to find an anchor!

  10. Amazing post, Vivi/Lizzie. Since I’m nearing the finish line, this was inspiring. Thanks for the encouragement.

  11. Yes. This.

    That mix of frustration and guilt can really short-circuit creativity and forward motion, something I’d been ramming into head-first for weeks.

  12. Elisa Beatty says:

    Zeigarnik effect….that explains so much!

    Awesome post, Vivi!!


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