When Your Novel Is Just Not Working: An Author’s Take

I recently suffered a writer’s crisis.

It was bad. Like, slam-the-laptop-closed try-not-to-scream bad.

Thankfully, it wasn’t writer’s block, but I’m starting to wonder which is worse: not being able to write at all, or being stuck in a vicious loop of writing stuff you hate. What do you do when you find yourself so far off track that you’re left staring blankly at the computer screen, seething with self-loathing, ugly thoughts of throwing everything away and starting from scratch gnawing at your brain?

I started writing my fourth novel during the last week of July. By the first week of August, I’d racked up over 50k words. Throughout those two weeks, I was starting to get a nagging sensation that I was trying to do too much in a single book. The warning signs were clear, but I chose to ignore them. Let me be the first to tell you, if you have nearly forty pages of character backstory, outlines, rough synopses, sketched out blueprints of houses, town maps, and whatever else, you’re over-preparing. I’m sure some authors will argue that there’s no such thing and being too prepared, but I’m not so sure anymore.

Collecting all that data lent me confidence before I started my project, but after I threw myself into it, I almost immediately started feeling bogged down. I’d crammed so much story into those forty pages of prep, I found myself not knowing where to start, where to go, what to focus on and what to forget entirely. I had so many story arcs (five!) that the damn things got tangled in a hopeless knot, and I was left pulling my hair out at the mess I’d gotten myself into.

“Sometimes powering through is more

destructive than it is productive.”

So I did something I once blogged about never doing. I sat down with my husband… and I vented. And after I vomited all of this writerly anxiety out, my hubs posed a damn good question: “Why are you making it so complicated?”

We writers are fans of making things more difficult than they are. We love drama, we love abusing our characters, and to a point, we love torturing ourselves. If we’re not bitching and moaning about how hard it is to be a writer, we’re obviously doing it wrong. But all of that complexity can easily become our downfall. In my case, I had woven a spiderweb that, at first, was easy enough to maneuver through; but the further I got into the story, the thicker that webbing became until, seemingly out of nowhere, there was a wall in front of me. A wall covered in giant, hairy spiders.

Once upon a time (not so long ago), I believed that as long as you pushed through to the end of a story, you’d be okay. You’d have a story. You’d be able to say “hell yeah, my novel is DONE!” But recently, during my moment of crisis, I started scouring the internet for other writers in my position, because what do you do if you’re 50k words into your novel and it’s just. not. working? How do you walk away from that? Do  you walk away from that? I found an article (which, of course, I didn’t bookmark) that made a great analogy. Picture yourself driving a box truck. You’re coming up on a freeway underpass. And then you lurch to a sudden stop because your truck is too tall, the underpass is too low. What do you do? Do you back up, or do you say “screw it” and lay your foot on the gas? If you back up, you’ll save the truck and the contents inside. If you power through, you’ll peel the top off of that truck like the lid off a can of sardines… and while you can continue on in that fashion, you’ll hardly have a truck in the end. Sometimes powering through is more destructive than it is productive.

“Life is hard. Writing a good story is quite possibly harder.”

So, what happened with my crisis? I let my husband play the “what if” game. I let my idea of what the story was supposed to be go, and I listened to his ideas instead. And you know what happened? I got excited again. It was just what I needed: a fresh, new perspective. The main character was still there, the setting was the same, the major concept of the story I started writing in the first place was still in tact, but the story was suddenly stripped down, gloriously simplified.

What do you do if you’re knee-deep in your novel and getting that nagging, hopeless feeling?

  • Reevaluate — what is your story about? Sum it up in one sentence, focus on that.
  • Write it out — jot down a quick character list starting with your main character, then define the relationship between your main character and everyone else on the list. Do you have any unnecessary characters? Cut them out of the story.
  • Count your story arcs — how many do you have? Are they necessary or just filler? Cut out the filler, and the characters who come with it.

“But if I cut out characters and story arcs, I’ll have to go back to the beginning!” Life is hard. Writing a good story is quite possibly harder. Don’t be afraid to rewrite, but don’t ditch all the stuff you’ve slaved over either. You’ve got some gems in your manuscript–you very well may be able to salvage nearly everything you’ve written with a few tweaks here and there. Start reading your first draft, start making adjustments and see where it takes you. Don’t delete what you have–move it around instead. Have it work for you, not against you. (Inevitably, you WILL delete scenes, but don’t sweat it. That’s the nature of the beast.) Some of the stuff you already have will fit seamlessly into your simplified, reevaluated plot. The stuff that won’t will remind you of where you don’t want to end up again.

Take a day or two–use the time you’d usually spend writing reevaluating instead and count it as time spent on your story. Talk it out with someone you trust. And then go back and start reading while you adjust and rewrite. Back up the truck and try a new route. It may take a little longer to get to your destination, but at least you’ll make it in one piece.

(Images via Writing Happiness and Mindful)
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6 thoughts on “When Your Novel Is Just Not Working: An Author’s Take

  1. I really like how you’ve pulled this apart here. (No pun intended.) I’m struggling with some editing projects and this feels like a fresh lens through which to view them. Thanks.

  2. In combat tactics what you were doing is called pushing a bad position. If the other guy has a machine gun, mines and a sniper to your front then the time to reevaluate your frontal assault is not after you’ve been pinned down by the sniper, in the middle of the minefield, with half your company blown up or cut down by the machine gun. You either find a way to defeat the three obstacles before the assault or you go around, but you make that decision before you go over the top, not back at the start line when you’re telling the surviviors, “We’ll get ’em next time, boys.”

  3. It is tricky to know when to leave a piece alone. When I got to the edit stage of my first book, I had 150,000 words! So cutting almost a third out of it – when I’d poured so much time and effort into all of it! But it made the finished work so much tighter and ultimately better. I couldn’t bring myself to delete it all though, I kept it in a separate folder – just in case… :0)
    Tony

  4. Totally relate. For myself, I walk away from it for a while. I also tend to keep world-building type of things in a separated file and use it as a reference for story. That kept me from getting bogged down, at least – but walking away and coming back – allowed me to see where I had too much. I usually cut stuff like out and save it for something else 😀

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