• Alissa Johnson
  • The Mindsets that Keep You From Starting (and Finishing) Your Book: Part II
The Mindsets that Keep You From Starting (and Finishing) Your Book: Part II
Written by
Alissa Johnson
October 2014
Written by
Alissa Johnson
October 2014

Last week we talked about the "I Don't Knows"—how the weight of everything you think you need to know before you write your book can keep you from starting. In reality, you can write your way to answers, replacing "I don't know" with "Let's figure it out." Once you've trained yourself to spot the I Don't Know mindset, overcoming it is simply a matter of practice.

But there's a second mindset that can bring your writing to a screeching halt, and it's sneaky because it masquerades as truth. Have you ever been convinced that you know exactly how a story will end, only to find out that getting it there is a struggle? That's the second mindset at work: the belief that you know what your book is about and how it's going to go.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine sent me an essay-in-progress. She has published two books and appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul; she knows what it takes to start and finish a book, but she still struggled.

"I know exactly how it's going to end, I just can't get it there," she said. It was a beautiful piece about returning to the small Wyoming town where she grew up, and the juxtaposition between being there with her infant son and helping a friend in need. The imagery took my breath away, and the language flowed. Each scene blended seamlessly into the next until two-thirds of the way through the piece, where, under the pressure of that phantom ending, things became less focused and fluid.

Sometimes as writers, we fall in love with our ideas. But as you might have experienced, the story can change once you start writing. As a writer, your job is to remember that you won't truly know what a piece is about until you write it. It's helpful to approach your work with an open mindset: Let's find out what this book is about.

If, as we learned in Part I, writing is an act of exploration, then with this new mindset, reading your work is an act of discovery.

The key is to look for what you wrote, not what you think you wrote.

The best way to do this? Walk away from your book. Resist the urge to keep the momentum going and revise right after you’ve written. Let sit while you go for a walk, cook a nice meal, or do yoga—whatever fills you up and rejuvenates you.

Resist the urge to spend that time doing chores or checking things off your to-do list. The goal is to return to your book refreshed. If you return to it depleted, you'll be less productive, less likely to see the story that's emerging, and less open to the changes that will make it stronger.

That's the goal, after all, of reading your work this way: to find the better ending, or the stronger beginning, or to simply catch a glimpse of what comes next. As my friend found with her essay, when you let go of the things you think you know, there's more space for the fresh ideas to grow.

Have you been struggling with your writing because you're trying to force it in a direction it doesn't want to go? If so, how will you open up to new ideas? (And join me next week for the final post in " The Mindsets that Keep You From Starting (and Finishing) Your Book." We'll talk about the mindset that can quickly negate all the time and energy you’ve put into finishing a book!)

Alissa is an award winning writer and writing coach who knows that the biggest hurdle to writing is showing up. As a writer’s confidante, she helps courageous, creative writers work through the doubt and fear that keep them from writing. Visit WritingStrides.com for a free copy of her Inspired Writer Guide, which includes 12 writing prompts to help you break through from writer's block.

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Nina Angela McKissock

    Thank you. I truly needed to know this.

  • Valerie Deering

    Thank you!

  • Alissa Johnson

    Agreed! There's something to be said for surprise, having fun, and trust. Trust is a big one, especially when there's so much information out there about how to do things. It can be easy to read it all from the perspective of right and wrong, when really it's about what works for you.

  • Patricia Robertson

    I have a general idea in mind where I think a book will go but I allow the book to surprise me! That's what makes it fun. I can't wait to see what my characters are up to next.

  • Rebecca Ferrell Porter

    Thank you for making me feel better about my process. I've written two books and I've begun the third. In every creative writing course I've taken, I've been guided toward the OUTLINE. Book one, I had reverse engineered. I knew the end, but by writing it backward, I was able to keep the flow going, but that's a tough road. So I dutifully prepared my detailed outline for book two and proceeded to write a horrendous first draft. I was able to save it by throwing out the first third of the draft and much of the rest. 

    I don't want to know where I'm going. Sure I have ideas and even a general concept for the ending, but I will go where the words take me. Sure it's scary, but those sections that are complete blanks take me to places I would have been afraid to add to an outline. I trust the intimacy I feel for my characters. They lead me through the brambles. 

  • Alissa Johnson

    Pat, I love that you brought up detachment. So often writers come up against this question of time--if they spend time trying the wrong thing, isn't it a waste? And yet, when we detach from whether or not an approach will work or how many times we change course, we open up to a whole new world. You are so right that it brings the fun back to writing. Suddenly things become possible that we never would have imagined otherwise.

    And Laura,I'm so glad to hear it's a comfort and practical. It's so easy to approach our writing from a mindset of following rules,when really it's an experience. And while it can be tempting to think that we want to know every facet of an experience before we actually go through it, there's a depth and memorability that comes from experiencing the unknown. Best of luck with your book!!

  • Hi Alissa!

    Your approach is comforting and practical for those of us who are struggling and sweating through every page.  I daily have the same experience with my work as you did with your thesis. I start out with a concept, but the piece quite doggedly leads me in quite the opposite direction. It’s kind of funny actually. It’s like a veritable writer’s grab bag. One never knows what one will end up with! :) Now that I am trying to write my first book, I try to stay open minded, but it’s always especially helpful to hear this advice from professionals. Thanks so much!


  • Pat Roa-Perez

    I used to struggle trying to figure out what the book was going to be about. I knew what I wanted to write (topic), but my concern was about how to present it to the reader. Then, I learned to practice detachment and it all changed.

    In detachment there's freedom in that I become sort of a medium or vessel through which the book comes to life. It starts here, moves me in a certain direction, and then suddenly takes me somewhere else. Often it doesn't even make sense why and where it's taking me. It really doesn't matter, not anymore, as I have come to trust that wherever I'm heading is where I need to go.

    At this very moment I'm shifting gears. I had already created a tentative table of contents and written several pages, when suddenly, something emerged which is leading me in a new direction.

    Attachment creates stress, anxiety and takes the fun out of writing. To me, not knowing and being detached is exciting and keeps me writing.

    Thank you for such great content. I look forward to your next post.