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5 Tips For Finishing Your First Manuscript

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Finishing your first manuscript is a rite of passage for any aspiring novelist. It is the end of the beginning. It is a threshold beyond which “someday” is no longer a vague notion, but a tangible moment. And, at times, it seems impossible. Finish a whole book? No way. It’s too much. Too big. But if there’s one thing we’ve all learned from Yoda, it’s that “size matters not.” Here are 5 tools to help you raise your own X-Wing out of the swamp.

Make A Schedule

I write 6 days a week. On Sundays I sleep in until seven or eight, then get behind the keyboard until about noon–then, on weekdays, I get up and write from 4 to 6 AM before I go to work. I used to write in the evenings, but I found that I was less productive with a brain already wiped out from an 8 hour work day and 2 hours in the car. But you may prefer writing after work. Maybe you stop at a Starbucks on the way home, or maybe you’re a night owl and prefer the 10PM-midnight shift. Or, you might discover that Monday and Wednesday afternoons are the only weekdays that work, but you like to plug in eight hours during the weekend. Whatever works for you will work for your manuscript–but PUT IT IN YOUR CALENDAR. DEFEND that time. Don’t sacrifice your writing time for housework or social activities or television. Set your schedule and show up for it like you show up for your day job.

Set Goals

Once you’ve figured out your schedule, it’s time to set a goal. The folks at NaNoWriMo suggest you write your first novel in one month. If that idea fires you up, go for it! I don’t regret slogging through 1,667 words a day for 30 days, nor the vomitous manuscript that resulted–because it led me to write three more. But if that kind of pace intimidates you, go for 1,000 words per day. Or 5,000 words per week. Set a goal that is achievable, yet still pushes you–and then keep track of it. I recommend keeping a notebook and logging your daily word count –a sort of “mileage log” for your novel. You won’t believe how inspiring it is to watch that cumulative total grow!

Hold Your Idea Loosely

Creating a novel requires you to channel ideas and inspiration from somewhere unseen. Whether you call it God or The Muse or The Subconscious, it’s clear that what makes good art good is your commitment to discovery–not your rigid devotion to a single idea. Hold your idea loosely. Even if you love outlines and plot diagrams and chapter matrices, use your pre-writing as a compass rather than a template. My epic fantasy manuscript was a horrid, bloated, unpublishable thing–but the YA Sci-Fi that emerged during the rewrite landed me an agent. If I had been unwilling to relinquish my death grip on that original idea, I would have failed to discover the gem underneath.

Celebrate Milestones

People respond to positive reinforcement–and writers are almost like people! So, when you hit milestones, CELEBRATE THEM. I treat myself a fine micro-brew and a movie. You may be all about inhaling an entire package of Oreos and watching an entire season of Game of Thrones. As Will Hunting says, “Whatever blows your hair back.” Some writers reward themselves when they hit word count benchmarks, and that works well. I’m a big fan of the three-act structure, so I prefer to reward myself when my protagonist crosses a threshold. You know, to amplify the metaphorical resonance.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

Some days, you will write fewer words than you intend to. Some days, you may fail to write at all. Don’t beat yourself up. Your ongoing commitment is more important than any one page or day of writing. We all fall off the habit wagon–the important thing is that you pick yourself up and climb aboard again. And, even on the days you do achieve your word goal, you might write something that sucks. LET IT GO. Sucking happens. As Chuck Wendig says, “You can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank one.”

 (Originally posted here on

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Jeff Garvin

Author of SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN and THE LIGHTNESS OF HANDS. Cohost of THE HERO'S JOURNEY podcast. Rock musician, D&D geek, aspiring revolutionary.

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