Jane Friedman

Troubleshooting for Writers: 7 Questions to Ask When You Lose Desire to Finish Your Book

Today’s guest post is excerpted from Story Sparks, copyright © 2017 by Denise Jaden (@denisejaden), published with permission from New World Library.


Desire drives our energy. Ideally, we’d have all the creativity and energy and desire we need to write amazing stories. However, the truth is, sometimes we hit roadblocks while following through. Here are some of the most common roadblocks and how you might solve them.

1. Do You Have Writer’s Block?

Claiming to have “writer’s block” is taking the easy way out. It treats a lack of productivity as an ailment. Because it’s one of those inarguable diagnoses, it acts like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Except, in the end, it is jail. It justifies spending an endless amount of time making zero progress on writing. Writer’s block is not usually the inability to write, but rather just a fear of not writing well. Or at least not well enough.

2. Is Your Idea Too Big?

When you think about your story, does it feel overwhelming? Perhaps you’re working on a story with multiple narrators and timelines, and suddenly you’re doubting your ability to bring it to completion. I’ve been there. In the last few years, I started working on my first series. As a stand-alone book author, I had no idea how much brainpower was involved in keeping the characters and settings and motives and outcomes straight from book to book!

I encourage you to try not to let yourself be intimidated by a big project. Break it down into tiny parts if you need to, and only have a look at the bigger picture on days when you feel up to the task. Work on only one aspect at a time, rather than allowing yourself to get inundated by the larger scope. If you are excited about writing a particular scene you’ve envisioned, but you’re not to that point in the story yet, feel free to jump ahead and write it now. Let yourself have fun and feed your excitement while writing. It doesn’t have to all be work.

3. Are You Being a Perfectionist?

Perfectionism equals high standards misdirected. It’s great to try to make your shoes match your purse when you’re going out or to take an extra thirty seconds to buff the hood of your car on a sunny day, but when making art, especially a first draft of art, you don’t want to lose the creative energy that births new ideas. Perfectionism can create too much pressure. It can be difficult to see gold nuggets before they’re polished, unless you’re willing to sort rocks.

Here is my method for when I feel like I’m battling perfectionism: Start before you feel ready. If you wait until all of your ideas are fully formed, you’ll be waiting forever. Waiting and doing nothing breeds perfectionism. Move forward with what you have. I think you’ll be surprised at how far you can go with it. In her book Get It Done, Sam Bennett asks this important question: “How is your desire to do the perfect thing getting in your way of doing anything?”

4. Do You Have Story Burnout?

What if you choose an idea, and you absolutely love it, but you get a hundred pages into writing your novel, and your idea loses steam? What then?

Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve asked myself that same question! The truth is, your ideas will lose steam, especially if you are working with novel-length fiction. Three hundred (or more) pages is a long time to stay motivated and to believe in your creativity! I haven’t worked on a single novel that has not brought me to a point of doubting either the ideas or my ability to bring them to life. Every author I have spoken with has faced this kind of self-doubt as well. I think the key is keeping this apparent steam-loss in perspective.

The first question to ask is: Why are you losing steam? Does it truly have to do with your story ideas?

Perhaps, but perhaps not. Maybe when you first conceptualized your idea, it was brilliant and shiny and reflected diamonds and rubies and million-dollar bills from its every surface, but the truth is, any and every idea comes with its own multitude of problems when you actually start to write it as a story. Even if you spend weeks considering the scenarios you may encounter, inevitably, something will not work out as planned or just not “feel right” once you’re actually writing.

Maybe you are so immersed in your story, you no longer have a clear perspective on it. Sometimes I’ll take a couple of weeks away from looking at or even thinking about the project. My other option, and this is the one I usually choose because I am impatient, is this: I keep moving forward, trusting that if I once thought my story ideas had some value, they probably do. I trust that past-Denise is smarter than present-Denise, and if she felt this would make a good story, it probably will.

5. Is Your Idea a Dud?

What if your idea is truly a dud? Okay, I won’t lie, it is possible. Initially, ideas can interest us for all sorts of reasons that don’t pan out. Perhaps it’s similar to something else we read and loved, but the more we develop our idea, the more we realize we’re telling the exact same story, and the original is the only way that works with this particular idea.

Maybe the story idea was appealing because it was so completely different than anything else, but delving into it, we realize why no one else has attempted this kind of story before. It’s a dud.

6. Has Your Story Already Been Done?

Has it ever happened that a book comes out that seems to have the exact same premise as the one you’re brainstorming or writing? It’s happened to me, and most writers I know have had it happen to them. My theory is that ideas float in the atmosphere, and they are fair game for anyone to grab and make use of. Call this a spiritual phenomenon, or a metaphysical one, but it happens too often to be an anomaly. The first lesson here is: Make use of your ideas, or somebody else will!

That said, if you have been diligently developing your idea, and suddenly another book releases with the same premise, please, please don’t immediately chuck your entire manuscript into the recycle bin! There is room in the marketplace for more than one story with a similar premise. Write that same premise, but differently, and by the time yours is written and polished, the market may be ready for a new take. There is always a new spin you can put on things, or a new combination of ideas.

7. Does the Story Have Unfixable Problems?

Put your unfixable problem into words. Pinpoint the problem. Is there no way out for your character? Upon further research, have you learned that the facts of your ideas don’t add up? Then investigate the problem from all angles. Interview an expert. Try to state it in three different ways and tell someone else about your problem. Sometimes simply the act of speaking a problem out loud will cause the correct solution to come to us. Give the problem to someone else and ask them to find a solution. Brainstorm a solution with a group of other writers or friends.

If all else fails and you are attached to your story, forget about the problems, at least for the time being, and move on. Keep writing your story. You’d be surprised at how many problems can fix themselves by the end of a draft.

Parting advice

The most important thing is not to force yourself to make every story idea work. If writing becomes a slog, and then stops, put aside what you’re doing and go back to brainstorming. Get back to play. The important thing is simply to keep writing and to harness your love for writing in a way that you’ll never let it go.