And then it happens. You don’t feel so good. The zeal you began with is no longer there, the novel writing inspiration gone. And, worse, is this thing before you any good? Is it worth more and more effort, or would you be better off just trashing it?
What should you do?
We asked six well-published novelists. What’s novel “sickness” like for them? What do they do about it? What do they recommend? Are there any strategies you can employ? But beyond that, can getting sick of your novel pay off in some way by being a good learning experience, not only for the present but also for future novels?
Lost Novel Writing Inspiration: Diagnosing the Problem
What can make you sick of your novel? Is getting sick of a novel-in-progress something that can happen with any novel you write? Or does the problem depend mostly on the type of novel you’re writing, your mood at the time – or perhaps something else?
“The novel I’m working on now started out well until one day I got a sinking feeling in my gut,” says Erica Ferencik, award-winning novelist of literary thrillers. “For days, then weeks, the feeling intensified. I ignored it until I couldn’t any longer.
“I finally owned up to it: I was sick of my novel. Dreaded my writing time. Something just felt truly off. I know I’m not alone. I believe all novelists hit the wall, at some point, with their work.”
Tracy Gardner, an Edgar Award-nominated fiction writer, says, “I’ve worked on a few manuscripts that have, for one reason or another, made me want to toss them out the window.”
For Gardner, getting sick of a novel tends to occur about halfway through the process. Oftentimes, she says, it’s due to insufficient outlining, but the main reason is a lack of authenticity of “a plot element or character action.”
“Typically, I don’t get sick of a novel I’m working on,” says Heather Webb, bestselling author of eight historical novels, “unless it needs a much more intensive edit than my others.” If she’s facing a “strenuous deadline,” she can also feel like flagging. She did so temporarily on two out of the eight novels she’s published.
When Doubt Drains Your Writing Energy
Peter Selgin, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Fiction Award and prize-winning novelist, has also felt like bailing on his novel projects. His first novel, Life Goes to the Movies, took 15 years to write, his second, Duplicity, just one year. “In each case, there were times when I got sick of these novels and nearly abandoned them both.”
Life Goes to the Movies, an autobiographical book about the friendship of two men, challenged him to turn “the lead of autobiography into the gold of fiction.” To accomplish this, he needed to move beyond the level of character to a more abstract, symbolic level.
“I wanted to do for my friend what [Jack] Kerouac did for Neal Cassady and what [Nikos] Kazantzakis did for his friend Alexis Zorba, who through fictional alchemy became Zorba the Greek.” This, he found, was a daunting task, and he had to overcome his own doubts and the criticisms of others as well. All this contributed to his being sick of his novel. “There were times when the enterprise embarrassed me, when the novel’s autobiographical elements felt more like a crutch or a ball and chain than an inspiration or incentive.”
More generally, Selgin sees lost novel writing inspiration this way: “When something takes between six months and several years to complete, with no guarantee of success and – for most writers – no guarantee even that the result will see the light of day in print, what chance can there be that somewhere along the way said process won’t give rise to nausea, let alone doubt?”
When the Editing Process Turns into a Slog
You can grow sick of your novel at any point, even during the editorial process. This happened to Thrity Umrigar, author of nine works of fiction, on her recent novel, Honor. Her editor wanted substantial changes in the first half. She ended up rewriting the whole book. But at that point, the editor wasn’t certain this second version was an improvement over the first. Umrigar then did a third draft and moved on to line edits – at which point the pandemic hit.
This soon resulted in burdensome constraints. “My editor was not going into the office, obviously, and time was running short, so we did line edits in the most unusual way.” Her editor’s preferred method was to pencil in changes on a draft, which ordinarily wouldn’t have been an issue. But because she wasn’t able to use her office scanner and because Umrigar was anxious to get started on the line edits, “at one point, my editor was scanning 25 pages at a time on her phone and emailing those to me. So it was like editing blind – how do I accept or reject suggestions on page 25 when I don’t know what her suggestions on page 300 will be as it pertains to those earlier edits?”
She states, “It was a laborious, frustrating process, but I had full faith in my editor and wanted to make this work. I figured, we’re working during a once-in-a-generation pandemic, so we have to come up with new, unusual ways to get the job done.”
Managing Powerful Influences on Your Writing
Mark Wish, novelist, prize-winning short story writer, and publisher of Coolest American Stories, has a different take on this matter. He’s never been sick of a novel, “per se.” He’s been sick of ideas he’s worked over for particular novels, but once he starts writing, “it’s my baby, and that’s that.”
What he has grown sick of, he states, “is the people whom one can meet and interact with as one writes a novel.” According to Wish, there are a lot of people, mostly literary agents, you can end up working with who have more power than you – especially if you’re a beginning novelist – and some will tell you “what to do, how to write, how not to write, what not to write, who to hang around with, what to say, what not to say, and so forth.”
But if you don’t want to be discouraged by what others – regardless of their position or status – are trying to influence you to do, you’ve got to have faith in your novel, says Wish. “If you’ve chosen a novel to write that you know is, at its heart, a terrific story, with undying conflict and the potential for all manner of inevitable surprise, you won’t get sick of it.” You might wear yourself out in the writing process, he says, so that you need to take a good break, but “that’s just needing to get your strength up so you can return to the thing you love with the energy and full attention it deserves.”
Novel Writing Inspiration: The Long Haul
What’s the best way to deal with a novel you’re tired, weary – or downright sick of? When you feel zeroed out like that, how can you commit yourself to finishing it? Are there any strategies to you can employ?
“It’s taken me years to figure out how to move forward effectively in a novel that I’m dreading sitting down to work on,” says Gardner. She’s learned the hard way, she says, that if she forces herself to write, she often ends up deleting what she’s written.
What works for her is to get away from her novel, the longer the better. Taking a break can be problematic when there’s a deadline, though, she admits. “But if I commit to getting some distance from the work, and especially if I can somehow stop obsessing over it for a bit, tiny plot inconsistencies and glaring missteps begin to occur to me. When I finally see those flaws, it’s easy to dive back in and fix them.”
According to Webb, the best way to deal with your novel sickness is to “get to the heart of the problem.” You need to decide if you’re burned out and just need to take some time off from your project “to refill the creative well.” Or, she says, “perhaps it’s because you’re stressed, overworked, and pulled in a million directions.”
It’s possible, says Webb, that you’re not sick of your novel at all. “You’re just stuck because you haven’t done the sort of pre-writing you need to do, or you haven’t asked yourself deep enough questions about character and story arcs, so you can’t see a way forward.”
What’s the solution? Webb suggests first finding out why you’re suffering “manuscript fatigue,” then make what she calls “an action plan.” This plan helps her “feel in control of a very nebulous, magical and sometimes confounding process.”
To get out of a writing slump and restore your novel writing inspiration, Ferencik also advocates an action plan. For her, this plan consists of several strategies – among them:
4 Strategies to Recapture Novel Writing Inspiration
1) Look back to what originally sparked your interest in your novel idea. “What about it made you feel that this was a book-worthy idea?”
2) Make sure you’ve given your novel idea adequate time. “Good writing, which comes from complex thinking, takes time. No gimmicks are involved. No magic potions. Usable words on the page, words that will survive every draft until your final draft, are the end result of only one thing, and that thing is thinking.”
3) Get some solid feedback. “And I don’t mean a friend who will tell you nice things because they love you, but someone who will give you genuine feedback either because they love you, or you are paying them.”
4) Read novels that are dealing with a similar topic or approach. “If one book or movie resonates particularly strongly with you/your project, read it again, and analyze it, scene by scene, to understand in a deeper way why everything fits together and works so well.”
First & Foremost: Show Up to Write
Above all, says Ferencik, you need to commit to the long haul. Her advice: “Make writing a part of your day or week. Schedule it in, like the gym. And just show up.”
One solution to being sick of your novel is to “try something else,” says Selgin. “The other solution is to keep gnashing your teeth until you break through whatever doubts you’re having.” Whatever you do, don’t give up, he says. “Stop writing for a week or two, if you must. Let the horse throw you off, but then get back on and keep riding.”
It’s a matter of attitude, says Umrigar, “and that attitude has to be informed by two emotions – joy and gratitude. Joy that you get to be a writer and that anyone is interested in what you have to say. And also gratitude that you get to be a writer. No matter how hard the journey, if it gets you there, it’s worth it.”
Sustain Your Novel Writing Inspiration By Nailing Down Your Idea
Try to avoid such sickness in the first place, says Wish. For him, it’s always best to put off drafting “until you’re sure the story you’re going to write is a winner.” He’s a devoted plotter, not a pantser. Outlining, he believes, is the surest way to know if you have enough to carry a 300-or-more-page novel. “I mean, either there’s a great conflict and plenty of twists and turns and a climax and a great ending there in the outline, staring you in the face and saying, ‘write me, man’ – or there isn’t. And if there is, what better motivation can you have for writing one story for multiple years straight?”
Finishing Your Novel: Useful Lessons
Are there any useful lessons to be gained from getting sick of your novel but then sticking it out and finishing it? Will you profit in some way from these lessons in the present as well as in the future?
There are certainly payoffs for the present. According to Gardner, when she starts hating a novel-in-progress, she knows something’s amiss. “Most often, it’s that something isn’t feeling genuine within the work, but I’ve found it can also be a general pacing problem, or the story stagnating and needing more action, or a red flag that my stakes are low and boring and need to be amped up.”
Listen to Your Novel Writing Instincts
“Getting sick of your project is your gut’s way of telling you something is wrong,” says Ferencik. “This is a good thing. Pay attention now, or you will pay later: long rambling drafts, lackluster writing – you name it. Your writing ‘gut’ is very smart. Listen to it.”
Selgin agrees. Paying attention to that sickness in a positive way can be a real plus. When you start doubting your novel, you’re questioning if it’s any good. This is beneficial, he says, not bad. Doubts can free you up to spot “true weaknesses,” ones “that can and probably should be ameliorated.”
Don’t let doubts defeat you, says Selgin. Instead, let them lead you to discovering problems and coming up with solutions. Doing that will give you “a renewed sense of enthusiasm and excitement.” Doubts can be friends, not enemies – “or better still, collaborators.”
Feeling sick of your novel, and learning from this, can pay off not only in the present but also in the future. According to Gardner, “Every manuscript I’ve written has been a lesson for the next one. The reward for fighting the urge to throw in the towel is gaining the insight needed to avoid the same mistakes with future manuscripts.”
Improving your fictional craft is only one lesson learned. There are more. “Reignite your passion for your book,” says Ferencik. “Don’t despair. Going back and doing the deep dive to find the initial inspiration is something you have to do sometimes. Go find it, wrestle it back into your arms, open up that great present again, take the deep dive.”
If Novel Writing Were Easy, It Wouldn’t Be Worth It
Profit from that sickness as a lesson in persistence, says Umrigar. “It’s the same lesson that anyone who persists with a task knows – there’s fulfillment in doing a job well and getting it done. Marathon runners want to quit halfway through their run, I’m sure. Parents of newborns want to stay in bed and not tend to a wailing infant. If a task is easy, it’s probably not worth doing it.”
According to Webb, “There’s nothing quite like the pride you feel when you’ve conquered something really challenging that most people can’t do. It’s not just the completion – it’s being true to your desires and dreams.
“You’ve dreamed of this day, finishing your novel with the aim of putting it into readers’ hands. What’s the lesson? You can talk all day, all week, all of your life about doing something. It doesn’t get it done. Time is ticking, life is short. Do it or don’t, but getting a little sick of something never stopped the greats from hitting a home run. It’s your choice. Decide how much it means to you and do it.”
A Novel Writing Inspiration Strategy
Getting sick of a novel is something that many writers have faced. After all, it’s a huge project, and things can go awry, including your passion for the project. You can get into an emotional slump.
No worries. See this as part of the process. A positive, spirited approach can uncork some good strategies, useful to you when you get back to your novel – but also when you forge ahead to other novels.
Jack Smith is the author of six novels, four books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews.Originally Published