Anybody who has ever written a novel will, at some point during the process, find themselves hating their creation, feeling weary, sick and despairing, overwhelmed by the sense that they have wasted their time and effort, and certain that if they are ever going to write a successful book, then this will not be it.
It is possible that there are exceptions to this rule, that there are people who sail through the process untroubled by doubt, fatigue and existential terror. I have never met any of them, and frankly don’t want to; the jealousy would be unbearable.
For the rest of us, these feelings are an inevitable part of writing. If you only have one such crisis per book, you can consider yourself lucky. The crucial issue is correctly to diagnose the problem. Is it a temporary loss of confidence, to be overcome by gritted teeth and persistence, or a warning from your subconscious that something has gone horribly wrong? Here is Doctor Andy’s pathological analysis of writing breakdown.
Diagnosis: The Fear
Symptoms: This is the most common form of writing problem, and features to some extent as a complication of nearly all the others. It is however powerful enough on its own to kill a book if not tackled quickly. The Fear takes on many disguises, appears in many forms. At heart though it is a simple lack of confidence in your own ability to do it, and in the quality of your work. I suspect this never goes away; however successful you may become, there will always be the lurking anxiety that you will lose the ability to do it.
Treatment: Recognising The Fear for what it is is the vital first step to overcoming it. It will often pretend to be one of the other problems listed below, particularly Project Disorder. The main treatment is simply to keep going, and don’t look back. Whatever is worrying you about what you’ve already done, let it go. You can always fix it in revision, this is only a first draft, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be written. Move your story on, find out what happens next, make the next scene as good as it can be. Don’t re-read, don’t analyse, and don’t imagine that other people find it easy. If you feel The Fear, it means you’re doing something right.
Symptoms: Writing is hard, and so is life. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a break. The problem is that The Fear loves to masquerade as Exhaustion, because then it achieves its goal of stopping you writing. How, then, to tell the difference? The biggest clue lies in how it’s been going immediately prior to the problem arising. If you’ve been putting a lot of hours in, it’s been pouring out of you, and you just feel spent, like you have drained your well of ideas too dry, then it’s Exhaustion. If you’ve been finding it difficult, have been away from your writing because other stuff has been getting in the way, and you feel sick at the very thought of sitting down to your story, then a break will be disastrous. The only answer is to write through.
Treatment: Genuine exhaustion requires a break, doing something restorative. You shouldn’t think about your story unless you feel like it- let your subconscious brew it for a while. However, the break must be pre-defined, like a holiday from a work. Make yourself an appointment to return to your writing, and keep it, however you feel when that time comes round.
Diagnosis: Constipated story
Symptoms: You just can’t think what happens next. The characters are staring at you from the page, asking what their motivation is, what they should be doing and why, but you have no answers. You have a lurking sense that the story took a wrong turn at some point. As you stare at the blank page, The Fear creeps in and begins to tell you that the whole project is useless, and that you should just give up.
Treatment: Sometimes it is beneficial to have a rest, but you need to be careful that The Fear does not take root and kill your book while you’re not looking. If you do take a break from your novel, it is often a good idea to work on something else instead, just to keep your writing muscles limber. Occasionally it helps to take a couple of steps back in the narrative: find the last point you were happy with it, scrap everything afterwards (keeping a copy just in case, of course!) and start again from there. However the most effective way of loosening a constipated story is to challenge your assumptions. If you’ve written yourself into a corner, then the walls are all of your own making, and equally are yours to knock down. Think about the things you have taken as given: do they have to be that way? Like a picture of a vase becoming two faces, you’ll find yourself suddenly seeing your invented world differently, and the solution will have been blindingly obvious all along. This is one of the best feelings in writing, and is worth hanging in there for.
Diagnosis: Project disorder
Symptoms: You develop an overwhelming sense that the story you are working on is a waste of time, and that you should abandon it and start on the new idea that has been exciting you. This is almost never a good thing. If you are more than a few pages in, you have already made a commitment, so at some point the idea seemed worthwhile to you. It is much less likely that you were wrong then than it is that you are now, while you are experiencing The Fear, Exhaustion and so on. The new idea can only benefit from a bit of composting time, and you will do a better job of it when you have the experience of completing a novel. When you come to write it, you will have a much stronger sense of what it’s all about and how to do it justice.
What is usually going on, though, is that the new idea is like the unattainable fantasy figure we might obsess over when a long-term relationship is going through a difficult patch. If the fantasy ever becomes reality, it rapidly loses its shine, until another idea wanders past and catches our eye. This leads only to a string of incomplete stories, chasing perfection and achieving nothing. The simple truth is that the idea itself is nowhere near as important as the act of finishing it.
Treatment: Nearly always it’s best to keep going.
Diagnosis: Career dislocation
Symptoms: You find yourself thinking that this writing lark is not all it’s cracked up to be. You’ve been working on your novel for ages, but don’t seem to making any real progress. It’s boring, it’s lonely, and it’s really hard work. Reading is no fun any more, you miss your social life, your gardening, your chilled out evenings in front of the telly…
Treatment: You need to give serious consideration as to whether writing is really for you. There’s no shame in recognising that it’s not your vocation. Our culture bafflingly nurtures the idea that writing is easy, that “everybody has a novel in them,” and there’s an industry grown up around encouraging people in this folly. If you’re finding writing difficult and tedious, that’s because it is. The satisfaction comes from overcoming the challenges and finishing your story. Writing a novel, like running a marathon, is on many people’s “bucket lists”; but if you can’t face putting in the hours and keeping going through the pain, then you’re better off going skydiving or bungee jumping instead.