How to finish the damn thing.
Written by
Gemma Burgess
February 2013
Written by
Gemma Burgess
February 2013

Starting a novel is the fun part.

All you have to do is decide what your characters want, and the challenges they need to overcome to get it. The plot, in other words.

Then keep playing until it sounds real. Make the story and the voice so true that when you’re writing, you’re not being ‘creative’, you’re just reporting things that really happened to people you know inside and out, in the most compelling, interesting and charming way possible. You want people to read one page and think ‘I need to know what happens next’. Every line invites them in and makes them feel so comforted and understood that they’ll never want to leave. A good novel is the world’s best hostess.

Next, you have to finish it.

And that’s the tricky part.

Many of us stall about two-thirds of the way into our novels. Your characters have overcome their initial obstacle, but simply giving them their objective now seems too easy. You can’t give it to them and then give them a new, tougher objective, that’s silly. You can’t change their objective completely half way through the story, that’s confusing and unsatisfying to readers. But you need to do something.

So, because you don’t know what that something is, you’re avoiding your novel like an ex-boyfriend at a party. You’re looking out the window and thinking about how nice Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner seem. You’re trying out all those Nutella recipes everyone keeps talking about. You’re online shopping for a bikini for your next vacation. In eight months.

And you’re here, reading about writing.

Instead of actually, you know, writing.

My friends, I have the answer. Well, answers. It’s a two-part approach. (And just quickly, a caveat: this is just how I do it, and everyone is different, and no one really knows what they’re doing in writing or indeed in life, it’s all about intelligent intuition aka ‘winging it’. So do feel free to ignore me.)

Step 1. Astonish me.

A disaster. A fire. A flood. A storm. A car crash. A discovery. An affair. A hidden past. A secret child. An overdose. An inheritance. A bankruptcy. Throw something new into your manuscript, something dramatic, something surprising that shakes your story and your characters up.

Your characters, with everything else that you’ve thrown at them, will have to deal with that something, making their original objective seem very far away (the ‘all is lost!’ moment).

Then, after you’ve dealt with this event, you’ll find that their original stories and crises will get pushed along to just the right spot so you can – boom! – end it.

It’s tempting to introduce a new ‘central’ character to do something astonishing, but I’d recommend against it. It’s too confusing, and if that character ends up being very interesting and hilarious (and the ones you don’t want to be always are) they’ll take over the story and throw the manuscript off-balance completely.

So that’s the technical answer about what to do.

Now, the hard part: how to write when it feels like homework.

2. Sit down. 

Remind yourself, every day, that writing is not homework.

Writing is your job.

Even if you’re doing something else to earn money (I was a copywriter in advertising from 9am to 6pm while writing my first two novels), if you want to be a published author, then this is your job. You need to turn up every day, at the same time, and get to work. (Take a moment to high five yourself. You have an awesome job.)

Once you’re sitting down, don’t do anything else. Don’t tweet. Don’t blog. Don’t Pin. Don’t go on Facebook. Don’t read. Don’t watch TV. Don’t cook. Don’t make social plans. Just turn everything off, throw something unexpected into your manuscript and stay there till your characters have dealt with it.

I know, it’s hard. It’s exhausting, mentally and emotionally. It’s intense and all-consuming. You’ll be a hermit for at least a few hours every single day. (The only people I see during that stage are my husband and my baby, and the wonderful sitter who enables me to be a hermit without neglecting said baby.)

But it’s also joyful. When you’re excited about writing what happens next, you know you’re onto a good thing. Sometimes you’ll need to push and push your words, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, till you reach the moment when you can see, quite clearly, all the way to the end of the story. And then, like magic, finishing your novel will suddenly be… easy.

Afterwards you can go out for a walk and look at the blue sky and the sunshine and the people all around you, and think to yourself, I created a whole world in a book, all by myself. How about that.

Good luck. You can do it.


PS: I should tell you that I didn’t apply the Astonish Me approach in my first novel, The Dating Detox, which is a romantic comedy story about a girl avoiding love. I only managed to finish that novel, actually, because I had an enquiry from an agent after just three chapters and a vague synopsis. I was so scared of the agent forgetting me that I slept five hours a night, improvised the plot as I went along, and finished the entire thing in five weeks. So that’s another way to finish a novel: 3. Be Really Scared And Have a Deadline. However, I did apply the Astonish Me approach in my second novel, A Girl Like You, a romantic comedy in which the heroine discovers all kinds of nasty surprises in the third act. And I applied the Astonish Me approach in my upcoming New Adult novels, the BROOKLYN GIRLS series, out July 2013. If you’d like to win one of three copies of the galleys of BROOKLYN GIRLS - (before anyone else gets a copy! Even my mother!), courtesy of my publisher St Martins Press, just leave a comment here. (Be nice!) (Please.) We'll pick the three winners at random by Friday 22 February.


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  • Mel Robertson

    Great article.  Thank you for the reminder!  I'm in it right now!  Getting it done.  100 pages away from the first pass on my novel, Home and it feels sooo good.  Back to it! 

  • Maureen Dunphy

    I'd love to leave a comment that expresses my thanks for your great advice, Gemma, but I need to get to my job, to get writing . . . 

  • M. Kinnel

    Great advice! "Writing is your job!" 

  • PM Kester

    Thanks for this post! I am taking it to heart.

  • Joanna Syrokomla

    Gemma's writing is such gold. True, brash, heart warming, laughable, addictive characters are what makes her books so delicious. I cannot wait to read Brooklyn Girls. Over and over again.

  • Daniella

    As per usual, you deliver with the perfect advice Gemma. It's so easy to start pieces of work, wether it be a novel, review or an article, and just have the folders piling up on your computer and notebooks and never getting around to finishing them. And yes, I am like that. Your advice is brilliant, you're brilliant! Thank-you.

  • Sandie Colby

    Yea, I can start a novel (several times during NANOWRIMO), and it does stall and then I get bored with it and don't know what to do with it.  I have a novel on the back burner, but I can't seem to get to it.  

    I cook, I read, study crochet, do everything but write.  I love the advice!  I know because I've been there several times.  just need to go WRITE!

  • Avril Somerville

    I love it! Excellent advice. I'm going to check out your earlier novels as well. Any reco on the order I should read them? 

  • Patricia Woodside

    Astonish me.  I love this especially since I recently started working on a new story.  I'm a few chapters in and I thought, I can't do that, when something least expected for my hero popped into my head.  But then I thought, why not?  So I'm going with it.  Not sure where the story will go as a result, but it's definitely astonishing--to me and hopefully down the road to readers.

  • Connie Hummel Kornell

    Gemma,  Thank you for such great information.  Looking forward to your new series!

  • Amy Gallagher

    Looking forward to Brooklyn Girls!

  • Carole Spearin McCauley

    Dear Gemma, Glad to read your adventures with writing.  Hope to read Brooklyn Girls.  I've written 13 books (medical nonfiction, literary novels, mysteries, several represented by agents, others that I sold by myself) and much short work.  Yes, sometimes it does get hard to keep on keeping on.   Good wishes from Carole

  • Miss Poliana

    I love that feeling of what happens next...!!  Can't wait to read your "Brooklyn Girls"!!

  • Jeanne Nicholas

    Great read and any tip helps.  I'm at the finish it part and have no voice.  I'll try your astonish me idea to see what crops up.

  • Julie Seedorf

    I lose myself in my writing when I take time to write. You are absolutely right. I have let many things distract me when I write and I also have been letting my full time career give me the excuses of why I do not finish things I have started. Thank you for reminding me that writing is also actually a job and not a frivolous pastime.

    I will let myself have the joy of writing without guilt.

  • AngryCat

    I've got another one for you: 4. Remember the title of your book. Helps me every time to get the focus back. Love the Title "Brooklyn Girls", btw. Makes me curious.

  • Rowen Bridler

    Such good points - I love the bit about reminding yourself that being a writer is your job, so you need to show up to it at the same times regularly just like any other job. Someone once said that no-one's going to buy from a business whose opening hours are 5-6 one Friday then 2-3.30 one Saturday and sometimes on Monday mornings...But they will buy from a shop that's open 9-5 Saturdays and 10-14 on Mondays and Wednesdays.  Those are viable hours. So, I suppose it's all about keeping the same hours as that provides momentum and a routine that helps remind you that 'writing is your job'. (I'd love a copy of the book btw - that would be AMAZING!) Also, I like the point about 'taking a moment to high-five yourself'.  I think marking moments of achievement and acknowledging the various milestones along the way is really important too. Your boss would do this if you were employed, so if you're self-employed, you have to remember to do this for yourself just as much. 

  • Paulette Livers

    Thanks, Gemma. My favorite line here: " . . . you’re avoiding your novel like an ex-boyfriend at a party." I bet everyone who reads this post knows about that one! 

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    '"Throw something new into your manuscript, something dramatic, something surprising that shakes your story and your characters up." That's exactly what I'm doing in my current revision of a YA novel that was a bit too flat and cautious. I know it's more dramatic. I wonder how edgy I want to make it. 

  • Ester Benjamin Shifren

    Of course you're right on the money with your advice! Thank you. Long before I wrote and published my non-fiction book I once picked up a discounted book at Barnes and Noble—"I'd much rather be writing,"—and it listed all the stalling techniques we use to keep us out of our writer's chair. Stalling is how we spend too much time on the runway and no time in the air. I finally got really serious after I joined a small critique group and realized I had to pull my weight and produce twenty pages every fortnight. That's the best way to ensure  productivity and constant editing. The quality of the finished product shortens the time span of any further editing before publishing.

    Good luck with your new book.

  • J.A. Karam

    Congratulations on your latest success. I appreciate both the common sense reminders (they do get away from us less self-disciplined writers) as well as the Astonish Me tip. Really interesting. I just left a class where the teacher advised another writer similarly, except he said, "Throw a hand grenade into the story. Make something happen!" I think it surprised her as she is a very talented young writer but you elaborated on this so helpfully I immediately shared your piece with her. Hopefully, she will learn from you and also join SheWrites. Lucky for me, I am working on a nonfiction piece with naturally dramatic turns but I value your advice so much I am going to make a place on my overly crowded bulletin board and save it. I have a feeling this is evergreen and will serve again and again. Thanks so much.

  • Elizabeth Ann Childs

    Thanks for your helpful suggestions. Would like to know is an outline mandatory in writing, more so novels? When peers suggest, "Just write!" is this within an established outline? If do, what is the best form to do this?

  • Karen Carr

    Thank you Gemma. Succinct and right on the money advice for me today. I especially like the idea of treating the job of being a writer with the respect it deserves!!

  • Carrie Rogozinski

    I am definitely suffering from "can't finish-itis" :) i get bored so i do other pieces, other characters intrude and i forget about that half finished piece.

    Thanks for the tips

  • Kristen Elise

    I actually love getting to the end - it's the middle that drives me nuts.  I typically write a book with the ending already somewhat formulated, but somewhere between that exciting opening and the exciting finale, there needs to be an actual story :)