How to Rescue a Book in Danger of Dying


Some experts claim that as many as 82% of adults dream of writing a book. They have a story they are burning to tell or a message they are dying to convey. The advent of self-publishing has given all these people the opportunity to fulfill this dream – but first, they have to actually write the book, and writing a book that people actually want to read turns out to be a lot harder than it first seems.

The vast number of that 82% never get past the first few chapters. They may talk about writing a book, read books about writing a book, or attend conferences and courses about writing a book, but the work of sitting down and actually writing the book never happens.

You can tell if your book is in danger of dying if any of the following is true:

  • You talk about the book more than you write. You discuss craft and theory, you brainstorm about the next chapter, you compare your book to other people’s work – and you convince yourself that all that talking is somehow leading to progress.
  • You dread sitting down to write. It’s not fun, it brings you no joy, it’s an energy suck. You know you’re supposed to love it – this is what writers do, after all – and you love it in an abstract way but you don’t love the day-to-day doing of it.
  • The feedback you are getting whenever you dare to share your work is lukewarm at best, and so you just keep rewriting the same few pages, trying to get them “right” even though you aren’t really sure what that even means anymore.

If this describes you and your relationship to your book project, here are some steps to take to get out of the danger zone:

Courtesy: Pixabay

Step 1: Decide if you WANT to save it

Ask yourself:

  • Do I care about saving this book?
  • If your answer is, “Hell, yes,” then go to Step 2.
  • If the answer is that it would be a relief to let it go, then let yourself let it go, and find another dream to dream.
  • If the answer is neutral, consider letting the idea go for a period of time – say a month – and seeing how that feels. If you can stop writing, perhaps you should stop writing.

Step 2: Decide WHY you should save it.

Ask yourself:

  • Why exactly am I doing this? What are my goals and objectives for my book? Why am I writing it? Check all that apply:
    • To make money
    • To make a name for myself as an expert/authority
    • To influence/educate/illuminate/comfort/entertain people
    • To raise my voice/speak up/claim my story
    • To prove that I can do it, either to myself or others
    • Because I feel called to do it/I am burning to do it/I can’t rest until I do it
    • To leave a legacy for my family
    • Other: __________________________________________
  • Is it in my power to achieve my stated goals and objectives?
    • If the answer is yes, move to Step 3.
    • If the answer is no – if, for example, your goal is to make money, and money depends on a fickle public finding and liking your book—ask yourself: is it worth the risk to move forward with an uncertain outcome? Perhaps you can reframe your idea of success so that it is in your power to achieve it.

Step 3: Decide WHO you should save it for

Ask yourself:

  • Who else will care about what you’re writing? Be very specific about your ideal reader. Describe him/her in two sentences. Think in terms of what keeps them up at night, what they are afraid of, what they most want in the world.
  • Now write down how your book gives them what you need – is it entertainment, escape, solace, information, inspiration?
  • Write these answers on a Post-It note to keep on your desktop: “I am writing this book because I believe (target readers) desperately need (deeply held value).”
  • Don’t write forward until you can answer this question, because writers need readers. It’s how we close the creative loop.

Step 5: Define your POINT

Ask yourself:

  • What’s my point? What am I trying to say? (And yes, fiction and memoir must make a point, too. If you are having trouble wrapping your mind around this, think of your favorite books and the points they make…) 

Step 6: Make sure you’re STARTING in the right place

Print out the first chapter of your book – or if you don’t yet have a complete first chapter, print out whatever you have. Go sit somewhere comfortable like a couch or a happy reading chair. Read your pages straight through as if you have never seen them before.

For fiction, memoir and narrative non-fiction, ask yourself:

  • Does the reader know EXACTLY who to root for and EXACTLY what’s at stake? Not in a vague way but in a super clear way – clear enough that if asked, they could say, “I am rooting for X person to achieve Y thing.” (In memoir, X person is you, who is both the narrator and the protagonist.)
  • Does the reader know EXACTLY what would happen if this person doesn’t get what they want?

For self-help/how-to, ask yourself:

  • Does the reader know EXACTLY what they are going to learn how to do and why?
  • Is the path to success crystal clear?

For any genre, if the answers are no, odds are good that you are not starting in the right place. You are probably gearing up, ramping up, warming up. You want to start in the place where it’s crystal clear what’s happening (or what the problem is for self-help/ how-to) and why it matters. Rewrite your opening so that you can answer yes to these questions.

Courtesy: Pixabay

Step 7: Make sure you know where it’s all LEADING

Ask yourself:

  • Where does my book end?
  • Write this out in relation to the point you defined above and the place where the book begins. Think of the beginning and the end as a frame for the point you are trying to make.
    • For fiction and memoir: does the character get what they want or not?
    • For self-help/how-to: does the reader have what they need to achieve success?

Step 8: Lock in effective writing HABITS

Ask yourself:

  • Are the people I’m sharing my work with actually supporting my forward progress and helping me become a better writer? If not, find new writing friends.
  • Do I have the (physical/psychological) space I need to write well? If not, find it. Ditch the kitchen table for the library, save up for noise cancelling headphones for the coffee shop, use Internet-blocking software, start training your family to leave you alone after 9 pm three nights a week.
  • What am I willing to give up to finish this book? Commitment takes sacrifice. What can you let go of in your life to make room for this project?
  • How can I measure my success? Give yourself deadlines and find someone to share them with so they can hold you accountable.

Step 9: Be GENTLE with yourself

Writing is hard work – far harder than most people realize. Don’t beat yourself up if it’s not going the way you would like it to go. Keep at it – and remind yourself that if it were easy, 82% of all adults would be authors, and writing a book would not be the deeply satisfying achievement it is.

jennie-nash_framedJennie has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. An instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years, she is also the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers affordable, customized book coaching so you can write your best book. Find out more about Jennie here, visit her blog, discover the resources and coaching available at her Author Accelerator website, and connect online.

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Rosemary Gemmell
3 years ago

Thanks for sharing those excellent points, Jennie – I recognise myself in some of them! I did go on to rescue and publish one of my novel and realised that laziness/procrastination was holding me back. No problem starting – it’s finishing that gets me every time and it’s why I love the editing stage when all is complete!

3 years ago

Was there supposed to be a step 4?
Your points are good ones to keep in mind when plotting or facing writer’s block

Jennie Nash
Jennie Nash
3 years ago
Reply to  Janet

LOL — um, yes. Didn’t catch that numbering problem! Sorry!

3 years ago

This is something I think every writer struggles with from time to time: not only HOW to finish, but IF. For various reasons, we all have stories in our drawers that will never be published or even finished. Thanks for giving us the honest questions to help figure out what to do when it’s hard to finish!

Jennie Nash
Jennie Nash
3 years ago

My pleasure!

Glynis Jolly
3 years ago

There are times when I question my reasons for writing seeing that most of my adult life I have worked with numbers [financial patient rep.]. Although some of your questions are a little hard to answer, I am able to answer them and like my answers. I need to get myself a cork board for those little notes.

Jennie Nash
Jennie Nash
3 years ago
Reply to  Glynis Jolly

I’m so glad it helped, Glynis! Just being ALIVE makes you an expert in story. Keep the faith!

3 years ago

Valuable tips. The hardest part of writing any novel is just finishing it. Once it’s finished the editing and cleanup work begins, but at least the story is down on paper.

Jennie Nash
Jennie Nash
3 years ago
Reply to  LM

Thank you, LM.

Victoria Marie Lees
3 years ago

I agree with Angela, Jennie. Thanks for sharing your expertise with writers. All best to you both.

3 years ago

Terrific advice, Jennie! I get so many emails and messages from people who struggle with getting past the middle, or finishing a book. They become chronic revisers, convinced if they can get what they have perfect, it will break the block that is allowing them to finish.

I think this is why programs like NaNoWriMo can be so valuable. If you can tie into the group mentality that it is about getting the words down, not perfection, that self-permission happens and a person is finally able to get the story out. Weak writing is fixable, but if it never makes it to the page, there’s nothing to fix.

Thanks so much for sharing your brain today! 🙂

Rebecca Vance
3 years ago

My problem is actually getting started. I have tried a few times and then end up changing my mind, scrapping it and starting over. This time, I’m not sure where to start. I have no problem sitting down and writing a short story, so it isn’t writing in general. I think it is writing a novel-length work. I think about it all the time and I’m not sure of all the characters or the ending. I know parts of it, but I am having trouble with plotting. I’m sure you figured it out by now, I am a very green newbie working on my first novel. Any suggestions?

Jennie Nash
Jennie Nash
3 years ago
Reply to  Rebecca Vance

Hi Rebecca,

I would suggest that you START by making sure you know your characters and your ending. THAT’S the place to begin. Who is this person? What CHANGE is she going to go through? What are we going to watch her learn/become/understand? If you can answer those questions, you have your beginning, your ending, and a sense of what happens in the middle.

Rebecca Vance
3 years ago
Reply to  Jennie Nash

Thanks, Jennie. I have so many people tell me to just sit down and start writing. I don’t know what to write about until I know where I’m going. This makes sense. I seem to have a grasp on my protagonist, but no one else. I’ll do further work on this. 🙂