Apr 26 2010 10:34am

Novel Disfunction

Almost eight years ago, when my son was a baby and I was a stay-at-home dad, I wrote a novel. I wrote whenever he slept. I got downright prolific and it felt great. I became convinced not only that I’d sell it in record time but also that I’d write that much every day for the rest of my life and be a frillionaire, on horseback sauntering—horses saunter, don’t they?—down a white Tahitian beach sipping the finest champagne from the platinum-coated skull of my 9th grade English teacher.

My novel is not yet published. My frillions have not yet been awarded. Neither makes me particularly upset; I keep trying. The part that really drives me crazy is my inability so far to write another novel.

Since completing the novel, I’ve started no fewer than 15 thrilling, brilliant stories all up in the cleverness. I have finished none of them. OK, to be fair, some of them died legitimate deaths. They simply weren’t strong enough ideas. So be it. But plenty of them have, I think, real potential. Or at least, they should.

Here’s what happens. I picture a scene. I get fired up. My mind goes yeehaw with the ideas. Characters bloom inside me like those cool Chinese tea-flower-thingies. I plot, sketch, plan, dream. Oh, the euphoria! It’s foreplay and a trip to Powell’s at once. I gather more and more momentum and I think, “This is it! At least! The spell is broken!” Then, around 8 to 12 thousand words along, psssssst…the steam flatulates away. My novel attempt suddenly looks like Eeyore’s balloon.

I say, just as the bowl of petunias thought as it fell, “Oh no, not again.” After that, life feels lousy until a new concept jumps up and gives me new hope and eventual disappointment.

I don’t mean to say I’ve written nothing. I’ve written plenty of poetry and short stories. I’ve written tons for the magazine I work for and of course I’ve written quite a bit here at But the lack of novel writing pains me. Looking online, I’ve seen mentions of “second novel syndrome” but this pertains to the pressures on an author following a successful first novel. If only that were my problem!

I have a full-time job and two kids and I guess I could use either as an excuse, but I think that’s crap. The vast majority of novelists never “quit their day jobs” nor must they take vows of celibacy. Anyhow, I am not writing this to lament or make excuses. I’m asking for help.

I will entertain pretty much any suggestion. Schedules, classes, rituals, unguents, surgery, hypnosis? Any old thing. (If your reaction is “You obviously aren’t cut out for it and you should stop writing,” please save yourself the effort because that is the one bit of advice I am guaranteed not to take. Giving up is no answer. Oh, and get bent. Sideways.)

There are plenty of great writers who frequent this site. Some very are accomplished, some starting out. Maybe some of you have had the same problem I have. But a whole lot of you seem to be more consistently prolific than I am.

Help a brother out?

When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.

1. SWS
Okay, weird being at top of comment list, as I'm close to being in the same leaky boat, but I gotta help a brother out. You need a different system, I think. I suggest exploring non-linear methods of completion. For example, I found The Weekend Novelist system works for me. After much outlining and plotting, the first draft starts with six key scenes: beginning, end, midpoint, and the ends of Acts 1 and 2. Its easier for me to keep going when I know where I am going. It hasn't resulted in a publishable novel yet, but it has resulted in a completed novel, which is the first step.

I think you also need to ask yourself - is it the concept of the novel that goes bad, or do you need to build up some callus and force yourself to write through that first draft?

Very interested to see what published folk have to say here myself.
2. reattmore
There's always the Chabon solution: Write a second novel about your inability to finish your second novel.
Marcus W
3. toryx
I'll be following the suggestions here pretty closely, because my problem (sans the issue of children) is pretty much the same.
4. Megaduck
I’ve found the hard part of writing isn’t when you have inspiration, it’s when you don’t have inspiration and need to get it back.

A few suggestions.

1. Write, and keep writing. No, I’m not being flippant. It’s easy to think ‘well, I don’t have inspiration I won’t write until I get It back.’ And then find out two weeks later you never wrote anything at all. So write in your novel. Set yourself a goal and stick to it. I generally set 500-1000 words a day. I find that inspiration comes as I’m thinking about it and writing stuff down. Even if you think what your writing is crap write it anyway, you can always go back and edit.

500 words a day 5 days a week adds up.

2. Find someone to talk to. Having someone who thinks your work is good and can give you ideas and to bounce ideas off of it a godsend. It keeps your energy up and gives you more ideas.

3. Find someone to critique you. Preferably someone who’s willing to shred your work but in helpful way. If you’re stuck in your own head then you won’t be able to write as well. You need feedback not only on what you did wrong, but what you did right as well. You don’t want the first person to tell you that you have problems to be the editor you submitted your work to. Find a critique site on the net, or a RL group, one that is honest and really willing to critique you and bounce your work off them.
Michael Lorenson
5. Mlorenson
I agree with Megaduck's third point.

Are you in a writing group? Sometimes I find that hanging out with other writers, reviewing each others work and bouncing ideas around not only gets ideas flowing, it also gives me a lot of motivation to write the ideas I've just come up with. Especially if you're just plain stuck, sometimes someone will ask you what seems like the dumbest question: "Why did this person do this?" or "Why did this happen?" and while you answer the question you open up the door to another room full of writing potential.
The hardest part of that is finding the right people to share with. It's extremely hard to find the people who can really help you out while you help them as well.
6. SWS
So who wants to start the Desperate Novelists writers group?
Jon Evans
7. rezendi
I once compared writing a novel to taking a long cross-country road trip in a balky car. Sometimes the engine is running, or you're going downhill, and the scenery is wonderful, and everything's great. That's how your trip inevitably starts.

But then one day you hit the Rockies, or the Appalachians, and then your engine gives out, or you run out of gas - and you have to push your car uphill - and then it starts to rain. And it's miserable. Especially if you've gone on a comparable trip before, and that one was a whole lot more fun.

But if you really want to get to the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or wherever you're going, you're just going to have to keep pushing the car over those mountains, and then maybe across the Great Plains, and then maybe across the mountains on the other side, even if in any given moment it feels like you're going nowhere for no good reason.

(Haruki Murakami, a far better writer than I, compares it to rock climbing in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a book that all would-be novelists should read, even though it isn't really, or at least not directly, about writing novels.)
Jer Brown
8. designguybrown
There is a time for inspiration & passion and there is a time for routine & slog. All complex adult novels must have both. Routine & slog are outlines; point-forming; increasing detail/resolution of each section (in the same way you watercolour - add layers and vague forms over large spaces, light to dark, vague to detail (how does one hold onto fluidity & spontaneity (good question)) -- NOT like oil painting where you start in one corner and make your way slowly-agonizingly down in 'final' detail); putting in the hours in a structured, logical way; and then going over-again the entire skeleton/ formwork/ structure to render in the detail, the turns-of-phrase, the polish (but its not really polish, just glowy undercoat). Novels are like rooms that need to painted and then mural-ized and then individual-ized - layers, layers, layers... All while keeping a glorious continuity and exciting story pace - good luck!

(obviously you can tell i am not a full-time writer - i just play the role of one in blogs ;)
Nina Lourie
9. supertailz
I love these ideas! I am often in the same boat:) The one thing that keeps me going is my friends. Whether it's going on a dunkin donuts run with my roommate (which is a 20 block walk) and hashing out plot details, or having my friends who also write im me and say POWER HOUR. Generally I find no matter how much I tell myself I'm going to write x amount of words a day, it doesn't work unless I have someone to report to. It's the single most useful thing that I think has come out of Nanowrimo (though I've never succeeded at Nano, it has helped me hugely anyway).

So! Join an online writers group that does online chats where you have to report in how much you've written over the course of the hour? Find a friend and do a one on one power hour? I tend to find it helps if you really care about these peoples opinions and you know they will shamelessly mock you if you fail, but I might just work best under threat of ritual humiliation:)
Jason Henninger
10. jasonhenninger
Thank you to everyone!

The two major threads I'm picking up here are a) perseverance (rezendi's travel image is one I will keep in mind) and b) constructive criticism/writing group.

I used to be in a writing group but it's been a while. I'm inspired to find one again. I've never looked into online groups before but I will check that out as well.
11. Dr Hoo
Well, I am not a novelist, but I do (mostly) write for a living so here are 2 suggestions that help when the muse deserts me...

1) I find that if I want to be writing, but I am not writing, then I am often doing something else that is not writing. And usually, I don't realize that I am doing whatever that is. So as soon as I realize that I am not writing, I analyze what I am actually doing (and if possible, why), and break the new pattern that has taken hold. Last week I realized I was compulsively checking my favorite websites instead of working on a particular manuscript; leaving the computer and writing on a pad in the garden gave me a quick 2000 words just by switching up my routine.

2) Most often when I can't write any more it is because I think I don't know what to write next, when really I have the problem you describe above where I am not sure of the overall scope of the project, and where the neat piece I just wrote really fits in. In these situations I find it helpful to zoom out to the big picture, and start an iterative process of outlining the whole manuscript in finer and finer detail. I start by trying to write 5 phrases or sentences that broadly encapsulate the entire work. I examine whether they are really what I want to say, and examine them in relation to each other. I then take one (usually containing whatever it was that I thought I couldn't write next), and break it down into 4 or 5 parts, and repeat the process. After doing this for a bit I usually have worked out what it was that was blocking me. Since this exercise is an entirely different process than the actual writing, I can do it during those times when I can't write, so they complement each other.

Good luck. I find that the "you need to just slog through it" sentiments seem to be a rational solution and I often tell myself to do exactly that, but it never really works for me. Changing things up and hitting it from a different angle is usually my solution.
Jason Denzel
12. JasonDenzel
I'm in a similar boat as you: 2 little kids, an an unfinished novel I thought I could finish a long time ago. The advice given in the comments so far sounds great. I don't have much to add other than consider checking out Brandon Sanderson's "Writing Excuses" podcast as well as the associated "Reading Excuses" online writing group.

Keep at it. I enjoy your writing here on You'll get there. Maybe I will to?
Gabriele Campbell
13. G-Campbell
Maybe you need some Experiment Time. I'm a aspiring writer myself and not in a situation to give any advice, but I can share my own experiences. I started writing a few years ago, totally out of the blue (I was supposed to work on my PhD), and the thing just ... grew. At some point I realised I had a book on my hands, albeit a crappy one with no plot and not much character development, either. But it was the moment I began to get more serious about the whole writing thing, joined an online forum, looked for information, and played around. I tried short stories, different genres, different styles .... and yes, I had my share of abandoned projects. But I learned a lot about myself and my way to write. I now know that I don't outline, that I have to accept the fact I edit while I go and that 'shitty first draft' is not a concept that works for me, that omniscient is my natural POV. I realised that I'm not much of a worldbuilder (I draw from history like GG Kay or Jacqueline Carey do), that I need more than one NiP at once, but not five. I also left that writer forum a few weeks ago because it no longer works for me; an important step. Don't get bogged down by the wrong surroundings.

But, most important of all, I learned to notice when an idea is truly a Gabriele Story. Not all ideas are, and those are the ones that ended up abandoned earlier - these days I don't start working on them in the first place. The Experiment Time gave me several good ideas, though, and I now work on an epic Fantasy (which draws a bit from that first novel) and a historical fiction novel about the Romans in Germany. I have some more projects in the drawer which are clearly books I want to write. The only thing I need to learn now is more discipline and a regular output in words (because I don't have kids to blame). :)

Good luck with your writing. Don't stress it too much but listen to your gut and find the Jason Stories among all those shiny ideas. They lurk somewhere, I'm sure.
Jennifer McBride
14. vegetathalas
I suspect your problem is the same as mine--writing beginnings is fun (fresh ideas are invigorating), but writing middles is boring and frightening, because once you're actually done with novel, you're going to have to go through the same painful rejection process you've been through once before. And you're not so in love with your idea any more, so it's harder to justify all the work.

But you can spend the rest of your life flitting from fun idea to fun idea, evading responsibility for actually doing anything. You'll never get it done if you do. There are entire books focused just on how to write middles--check one out and read it and see if anything appeals to you.

Having a bad second novel is better than having no second novel at all. Tell yourself you can write no more novel beginnings until you finish one of the novel beginnings you have...or the next one you start to write. Your brain may scream at you, but if you follow through, at the end, you'll have something. Something that will quite possibly be awful, but at least it will make it less traumatic to write the next one.

You're blaming your lack of novel-ness on the strength of your ideas. There are plenty of novels out there written with horrible ideas. It sounds like a bit of a cop-out to me. Are your ideas scribed on stone? Can't you change them to make them strong enough to support an entire book?

If you can't ever get past your block, oh well. After all, you derive pleasure from the process, don't you? Is there a law that all novels have to be finished and published before they're worth something? Maybe at this phase of your life, writing is a form of play and relaxation, and that's perfectly legitimate, in which case embrace that and don't worry about writing more than the beginning until you find the perfect idea that makes you want to write more. The risk with that approach is that you may never write a second novel and succeed at your dreams at becoming a frillionaire.

Alternatively, you might think about going back to that first novel and seeing what dragged you through it and try to replicate the same special something that kept you going. A certain character? an idea? an aspect of setting? You can bring whatever it is into the second novel with a slightly different twist. It's kind of like giving your second novel training wheels, but that's okay. The important thing now is to break your block.

I may sound harsh, but this is the same thing I told myself when I started five novels after my first one and didn't finish any of them. Then, one day, I did, and I shoved it at the bottom of my sock drawer and never thought about it again. And then I finished a third novel that was actually decent. And now I'm working on my fourth.

It's still work, it's still pain, but I do it.
Brit Mandelo
15. BritMandelo
That's a normal problem for me. The words between 20k and about 60k are always a struggle, because the spark of the beginning has faded and the ending seems so far away. Suddenly, it's not fun creating time, it's WORK. You have to make all the threads come together, make all the characters real, do all this narrative construction--and it just isn't that kind of fun.

But, really, it never will be. A book is never going to be fun to write the whole way through, and the Other Ideas in your head will always be seductive and try to steal your attention from the harder work at hand. The trick is to just sit down and use the ass-in-the-chair method for those middle 40k. It won't be as glorious or delightful, but it will give you a book, and the LAST 20k or so will be just as fun as the first. The euphoria will come back. You just have to not give up.
Kim B
16. Amaranthine
Everybody else has already given great advice, so I'm just going to second supertailz: check out Without NaNo, I know that I would never have gotten around to writing my first book; because of it, I've written two books in two years and continue to write the entire year long. It's well known for kick-starting aspiring writers into action.
17. KurtRoedeger
I made sure to bookmark this thread. I'm somewhat in the same boat myself with starting my first novel. Right now I'm just getting back to writing fiction (do a lot of technical writing; there's nothing exciting about 200k words of construction specifications) and I'm finding the pacing at odds with what I've been used to. So I'm forcing myself to stick with just short stories for a bit and slowly develop an outline for a novel while I build up my writing skills.

One thing that does help me with finishing things up is to keep a reward system. Like; I won't buy that nice fountain pen until I sell a short story. Or no tastykake butterscotch krimpets until I finish writing a story over 1500 words. Little things to keep me going yay when I finish it.
Agnes Kormendi
18. tapsi
I find that someone I can report to, someone who really cares about my work and is strict and demanding (but of course, not inflexible) is the greatest help. Writing groups are cool but sometimes people who don't write themselves can be very effective "slave drivers", partly because they read as readers do, not as writers. They notice different things. And writers and non-writers alike can provide the most important thing: curiosity and enthusiasm that can fuel you when you've temporaroly lost them.

Good luck with your second book! :)
Alex Brown
19. AlexBrown
You sound just like me this time last year. I had a thousand little ideas (2 of them I had actually turned into fully fledged screenplays), but most were half-completed or little more than notes scribbled on scraps of paper. I've 4 huge boxes full of notes, script ideas, the whole shebang, and a whole Google Docs login specifically for writing stuff. And then at the Nova Albion Steampunk Expo this year something happened, not like a light bulb turning on but like I was finally realizing it was already on and not only have I finally fleshed out a real novel (in 3rd draft no less), but several of the other half-baked ideas have coalesced themselves into a sort of series. I even have plans to revamp the screenplays into novels. And this is stuff I've been hammering away at for, oh, 10 years or so.

I can't remember who said it, but some writer said once to the effect of "every good writer will always go back to something they forgot, whether they intend to or not". Ideas never really die, they just sorta go into a coma until you find that right magic combination and poof, you can't stop.

The only advice I really have is to keep writing. Write anything and everything. When I had dry spells or just couldn't work my way around a hinky corner I stopped what I was working on and went back to something else. Read books similar to what you're keeps you in the mood, so to speak. I have one of those little "writer's block" books and used to refer to it regularly because even writing a 2 page little short based on some stupid idea was better than nothing. And a lot of those ideas - or the characters created therein - have crept their way into my other works without me even realizing it. Or write a music video, or a story based on a song. It doesn't have to be good, hell, you don't even have to proof it, just a distraction.

Everything for me starts with a scene, a slice of dialogue, and then the characters, story, locations all build from it. I hand-write everything in a Moleskin I carry everywhere with me. I find that the only way I can deal with B and C storylines is to do them out individually, writing self-contained scenes not in order but in whatever order they come to me. Then I simply rearrange the pieces to best serve the plot. Putting things on color-coded notecards and hanging them up on my wall (again, a screenwriting technique). I also write really well to music that fits the mood of whatever scene I'm writing (I also write in scenes and tend to arrange paragraphs in terms of shots), and like to break things into the 3 Acts...helps me keep track of what's happening and when. I don't even think about typing it up until I've got the story finalized on paper.

I also had to force myself to write every day at about the same time. Luckily I work in the evenings so I can write outside in the sun. Find a place that inspires you and write until you can't write there anymore, then find somewhere new.

Finally, I hate writing. I absolutely HATE writing. I felt such affinity for Douglas Adams when I found out he hated writing as much as I do. Coming up with the story is great, even sorting out the muck to form a 2nd and 3rd Act is fine with me. But sitting down to actually crank stuff out is tedious, awful, and brain-numbing. If I could just close my eyes and have it done with I'd be ecstatic. I love creating the story, but absolutely loathe actually developing creative and intriguing sentences. Hence where the forcing myself from the previous paragraph comes in.

Good luck with all your writing...really the only "good" advice is to keep at it. Find your rhythm, whatever it is, and hone in on it.
20. Kallisti Marie
Yet another One Of Us in the same boat; I want to blame my job & my kid, but it's not like I finished a thousand novels before they came along. (I've finished three, but never liked them enough to try publishing them. Now I'm finally on the cusp of finishing one that might be good enough, and wow if it isn't getting harder every. paragraph. closer. I get.)

I've found the Critters Workshop ( to be immensely helpful; the requirement to crit one short story a week is irksome, but it's precisely *because* it's irksome that it makes me all the more determined to finish my own (almost almost done I swear just five more coats of polish and--). One can also run novels through the group -- I decided to take on critting someone else's novel, and that's been a helpful experience too. I'm not sure if I'll submit my novel to them when it's done, since I have a pretty good chunk of individuals who've agreed to look at it. But I'll probably want Critters to check it out before I try publishing it, because the quality of comments I get from them is consistently high, and often harsher than what my friends will cop to. ;)

Good luck!!
Jon Evans
21. rezendi
For the record, I don't think much of either writers' groups or NaNoWriMo, because

a) If you can't force yourself to write without some kind of artificial/social incentive or schedule, then you're probably screwed to begin with;

b) both come with a long and worrying list of downsides that generally outweigh whatever benefit you might get from them.

(But I will grudgingly accept that reasonable people can disagree.)
Gabriele Campbell
22. G-Campbell
Milo, I have days like that. Sometimes I like writing pretty well, but on other days I want to snap my fingers and, abracadabra, have the perfect words for the scene I got in my mind, magically appear on the screen. ;)
Tudza White
23. tudzax1
So you can write many thousands of words that satisfy you but you are upset when you can't carry it to full novel length? Isn't this the realm of the short story?
Alison Sinclair
24. alixsin
When you mentioned that your ideas weren't strong enough to sustain a novel, I recalled reading an interview in which Gene Wolfe said he always combined ideas. Maybe if you combined several of your ideas ...

Nobody's mentioned characters. Once one or more of them gets under my skin, or I get into theirs, their novel will get finished, no matter how long it takes or how much of a quagmire the first draft turns into. (There's always a second draft, and sometimes a third, and a fourth.) ... Is it the ideas or the characters that aren't strong enough?
Alex Brown
25. AlexBrown
alixsin @ 24: I held off on characters since I wrote so much, but I just can't resist chiming in here. It's amazing at the trajectory characters take. I've done exactly what you and Gene Wolfe said, combined story ideas that worked with others that seemed to have dead ends, and a lot of that includes adding and swapping characters. Though the stories in which they originated may have changed or been put by the wayside, the character hasn't. The circumstances can be altered, but the overwhelming personality sticks with me and I just can't get rid of them, so I find a new or altered story to place them in.

In some cases it really sucks because I'll love a character so much but discover that the story they've moved into makes them a secondary character instead of the lead and I just have to suck it up and go with it.

I have honestly lost count as to how many drafts I've written. I chose to call my current draft my 3rd honestly only because I like the number 3. I've been rewriting and reworking my current novel since, really, 2008 and it has evolved more times than australopithecus.
Brady Allen
26. akabrady
Well I find it's not the first drafts that stop me but the rewrite. Now if someone has a way to make me enjoy rewrites, I'd camp out in your yard. (In a non creepy fashion, unless you like creepy...)

But my first advice is a paraphrase of Carl Dobsky about learning to be an artist, but it will work here.

"Make your lifestyle so that doing art (aka writing) is the most interesting thing to do."

If it means ditching the TV, Facebook, Blackberry, Movies, etc. You've got to do it. Unless you just don't care that much about writing/art/whatever.

And my own personal experience is once I know the beginning, I try to figure out the end, and once I have the end the middle takes care of itself.
27. Harry Connolly
I've published one novel Details here, for those who are curious with two more in the publishing pipeline, so here's some advice from a neo-pro.

First, there's the potential book and there's the actual book. The potential book will always be more appealing than the actual one, because it's all fantastic ideas and has no plot holes or awkward sentences.

As you go through the process of turning a potential book into an actual book, it's natural for it to become less attractive, and for other prettier potentials to appear on the horizon to draw your eye away. Keep working on the actual book, no matter what. Potential books are sirens that will wreck you. Want to publish a novel? First you have to write it.

Second, your characters will make sure your book goes all the way to novel length. Are you writing about the type of people who jump off the couch, run out the door and chase after the things they want? Do they have sufficient obstacles? That's the stuff fun plots are made of.

Third, you ever watch old martial arts movies? The student studies with the teacher for years and eventually they can kick down a wall, yeah? Well, if you go into a dojo now, they have belts. Lots and lots of belts of different colors.

Because it's all about short-term goals. They don't want you thinking about fighting Chuck Norris. That's years and years away. They want you focused on the next belt, and what you have to do to achieve it.

Writing has the same thing. Don't worry about writing a whole book, not write away. Worry about today's goal. When you feel your interest flagging, stop and focus on those charge-out-the-door characters of yours. What situation are they in? What are they trying to achieve right now? What makes that difficult? What resources do they have access to? What limits do they put on their own behavior?

Every scene is a situation. Focus on each situation, write it out, and watch an entire novel accrete. As long as the main action follows the character's goals, you'll wind up with a plot.

Fourth, tell yourself that the problem you're having is a common one. Every book will feel like Eeyore's balloon. Some will be Eeyore's balloon. But you'll never get past that point without finishing a few books.

Good luck.
28. t0kengirl
Thanks for this!

Not got much to add in ways of keeping going - I'm currently in the midst of my first novel. At the moment it's a very long list of bullet points of what needs to happen between the scenes I've actually written but all this is helping me turn the bullet points into actual writing!

Good luck!

BTW if anyone knows of any writing groups in the UK?
Sounds like a great idea for me.
29. David Alton Dodd
I don't know your process. Every writer has one, most I know go front to back. Tom Robbins writes one full page per day. Others have some magic word count. In case none of the above suggestions work out, or in case you want to try something new, I'll share what I do.

First, the story already has to be written in your head. Writers (good ones, anyway), are storytellers, and so, the story is already written, right? Otherwise, you wouldn't even begin in the first place. Taking that for what it is, change your process.

Someone in here suggested that starting a book is the part that's the most fun. Then don't start at the beginning. Every book has a turning point (unless you're Kafka, in which case ignore this), so start there, at that point on your story where the protagonist has some sort of an epihpany or gets zapped by the bad guys, or whatever. Then, build around that point.

The story is already in your head, so think of the story as a bunch of different sized blocks. You're not building a tower, you're simply fitting the blocks together. There's no rule that says you have to start at one end and finish at the other. Start wherever. Change your method.
30. foogoo
I have the same problem - 2 completed novels, 10 or more given up on.

The problem for me isn't that I run out of words to write -- I can always put more words on the page, that's never a challenge.

My problem usually falls into one of the following buckets:

+ The underpinning idea itself is revealed to me as pointless or boring or trite. (Why bother finishing if it's just going to be a pound and a half of accreted Stupid?)

+ The story I started telling isn't the story that the Real Story needs, and then I can't figure out what the Real Story needs instead. "This should be about heroic sacrifice, but Joe and his girlfriend are all about being furries and they aren't going to be able to get me there."

+ A monstrous hole in the foundational logic of the piece emerges, one that invalidates everything in the book that came before. "If it's an axiom that universal-everyone on the planet Zebnob thinks that white horses are the Devil's spawn, and Zebnob has never had contact with Earth, how are there horses of any color to be afraid of?"

+ The idea is actually bigger than I thought, and would need multiple books to handle properly, OR it's smaller than I thought, and needs a short story or novella, OR it's waiting for me to be a better writer/more experienced person because I can't get my head around how to make it work with my current abilities/experiences.

Current tally: 2 completed novels, 15-20 abandoned in some stage of planning or execution. And growing. Sigh.
31. dmg
Wow, excellent points all! (Although this notion you must bribe yourself is rather silly. :-)

The romantic perception of a writer's life -- the money, the fame, the adoring editor and publisher, the fawning fans, the glory! -- differs drastically from reality. Add the recognition that writing, as with any professional endeavor, is (hard) work. The comments that you must "slog" through the pages are spot-on; waiting for the Muse to sprinkle pixie dust over your computer is folly.

I really appreciate Harry Connolly's (#27) comments. Which so interest me that I clicked on your link... which, sadly, is broken. Is Child of Fire your first novel? Based solely on your comments here, I want to read your book.

Already stated, but I second the notion: break the task into the smallest possible component. Writing a novel proves a slog? Then write 150 1000 word segments.

From Vickie Pettersson I learned the use of brackets []. Do not stop and labor over a word, a sentence, or even a chapter; such effort wastes time. Instead, use brackets as a place-holder, and keep writing! Do not lose your momentum. Once your day's writing objective is complete, then return to the brackets.

akabrady's (#26) argument that you must ditch "the TV, Facebook, Blackberry, Movies, etc" also is spot-on. Barry Eisler made the same argument here:

Take the trash out, make the bed, vacuum, clean the house, shop, whatever, in the time dedicated to accomplishing those tasks, NOT the time dedicated to writing. On my computer's desktop are these words: DO YOUR WORK! Many interruptions can disrupt your effort, so find the commandment that works for you.

Have a computer dedicated to writing; no Internet connection, no nothing, but your word processor. This means no ability to procrastinate with checking email, surfing the www, playing WoW, etc.

A day job stereotypically runs 8am to 5pm; during those hours, your employer expects you to work. So that your mind does not go numb with fatigue, he or she provides (let's not argue this point! :-) 1 hour for lunch, 2 15 minute breaks, and as many bathroom breaks as you require. Why should your writing effort not resemble that schedule? Oh, sure, you might be able to devote only 1 hour/day to writing, but you had better dedicate that 1 hour to writing, not anything and everything else.

Almost 20 years ago, I asked a highly-regarded short story author (with 1 or 2 published novels) why he did not write more, and more often. He replied that a recent study showed that any person can excel at 3 things, and he chose, "Husband, father, and heart surgeon. Writing is a distant 4th." Writing is important to you? Place it within proper context of your life, and then follow through.
32. Harry Connolly
dmg, yeah it's Child of Fire. I guess I'm not used to bbCode. Does this work? I'm pretty sure I included quotation marks the first time.

One thing I would say, though: Instead of 150 thousand-word days, just go for 90 or 100 of them. Short is the new long.
33. dmg
Oh, and this quote from Isaac Asimov (which did not survive the multiple refreshes to obtain a captcha)...

"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster."
34. dmg
Thank you, Harry. Link worked; book ordered.

Fantasy typically is not my thing, but I suspect your novel to be peppered with the same insights your blog holds. I look forward to reading 300 pages of the same.
Jason Henninger
35. jasonhenninger
Once again, thank you to everyone! Your suggestions are very helpful and I will read and reread them all.

I knew I was asking the right crowd!
Kelly McCullough
36. KellyMcCullough
Plot walks and talking the plot have both been valuable for me over what's starting to look like a career—14 novels completed 5 out from Ace with more stuff in process.

Plot walks. Credit this to Philip Lees who was one of my fellow WotF winners way back. When you get stuck, go for a walk, ideally in a visually stimulating environment. Take nothing but yourself, no music, no paper, no voice recorder, no dog to fuss over. Turn off your cellphone. Walk in one direction and think about where the story is and where it might go. You get to stop and say "ooh pretty!" at herons or the like, but mostly you have to discipline yourself to think about the story. Philip goes until he has a strong idea and only then turns around. By the time he gets home he's dying to write. I usually set myself a distance beforehand but have a similar response.

Talking the plot. Take whatever was shiny about the story and call or meet someone you know who likes story. Tell them what you've got and try to recapture how excited you were about it. Then tell them where it's going. It doesn't have to be the real answer you're telling them, but often it turns into it. Bringing another person's responses in makes it social and can cue the subconscious. You need an understanding ear, which can be hard to find sometimes but I find this almost always helps.
37. N. Mamatas
Why do you want to write novels?

It's a serious question. Many people, and especially those who write short subjects for magazines, simply assume that they should be writing novels—apparently there aren't enough out there already—and then go ahead and try. They use the same tactics they do when writing their short stories are articles and often fail in the way champion sprinters who don't change their training regimens when attempting a marathon.

It's utterly fine to not write novels, by the way.

If you do wish to write a novel, you might want to conceive of it as a series of short stories or picaresque episodes featuring the same characters.
38. Marilynn Byerly
I'm a published novelist, and I'm also a long-time writing teacher.

My advice. Read books on writing. Most are one-size fits almost nobody, but you may eventually stumble on the one idea or method that gives you an "ah ha!" moment.

Mine was Ben Bova's WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS which helped me understand the relationship between plot and character. It's a good book even if you don't write science fiction.

A good place to start to find writing books is Galleycat ( which has a recent article that lists the most recommended writing books.

Find a good teacher. The Internet has some wonderful online teaching sites. I currently teach at and Both have some really excellent courses.

Find some writing blogs where you can ask questions and read articles. I do a blog every Wednesday that lists good writing articles and blogs. That's a good place to start.

As others have said, writing isn't just inspiration. A novel involves a great deal of planning, thought, and preparation. Those who just write instead of doing some form of plan or outline are more likely to be unable to finish a novel, or their novel falls apart.

Learn how to make that plan, if not an outline.

And the writing profession is a tough business. It's not for everyone, and you're as likely to make a really good living at it as you are to make a steady income on small lottery wins.

Do it because you love the writing, and you want to entertain people, or find something else to do with your time like playing with your kids. Writing's cost is often family time, and some find it's not worth the cost.
39. Stuart Clark
I guess my first question would be, do your brilliant ideas have brilliant endings? I don't know how you start a novel without knowing how it's going to end. It may just be a simple resolution - but you've got to know what you're aiming for.

I second what SWS @ #1 says, key scenes really help. When I start a novel, I have a number of key scenes I know need to be in there along the way. I call them my "stepping stones."

The stepping stones work in two ways: 1) They give some structure to the story, and 2) they provide me with a small goals to work towards which aren't "The End" (which seems like an awful long way away). I have to say, when I hit a stepping stone, I get a great sense of achievement and that in itself is motivating.

I don't rigidly plan my novels, I just have the stepping stones and the knowledge of my final resolution (The End). Between the stepping stones I write quite organically. I write the story but sometimes I'll find that the story will suggest things to me and for that I have my "Ideas file" where I jot down stuff as it occurs to me. I find the ideas often begin to fill in the blanks between stepping stones further along in the story - thus creating more stepping stones. This way my writing is gaining momentum instead of fizzling out.

I'd also echo some other points here. Writing groups are great motivators. I wouldn't have got my first novel finished without attending a writing group. It's extremely hard to show up at a meeting with nothing.

Also, I'd invest in a little netbook (if you can). Carry that thing around with you everywhere. I'm "fortunate" in that I spend 4 hours commuting every day ;-) I purchased an HP mini110 and it just slips into my backpack. Whilst it does have wireless connectivity so I can backup to my desktop when I get home, I made sure I didn't have a wireless plan so I can't Internet surf/facebook/etc - and waste time with all of those distractions. I can honestly say the novel I'm working on now has been the quickest to write.

I do struggle sometimes though. Typically I've found about two-thirds of the way through a novel I hit a slump. It's just that 'so much done, so much left to do' syndrome. There's nothing for it but to put your ass in the chair and knuckle down.

The only other tip I have for you is what I call "layering." I have multiple story threads running through my novels and I constantly skip between them. As I'm starting a chapter, I have a pretty good idea of what's going to happen in each thread within that chapter. If I really just can't get started, I'll break down the chapter into constituent parts, writing a sentence for each scene. For example:

A meets B
C boards ship
D discovers artefact

Then I go back and add another sentence to each scene:

A meets B. A says X to B about Y
C boards ship. Ship leaves for Alpha Centari.
D discovers artefact. Realizes it is long lost key to the galaxy.

Blah. Blah. You get the idea. I just keep going back and revisiting it, adding layer upon layer until instead of sentences I have paragraphs and then scenes. It might not be the greatest thing ever written, but it is the bare bones of the story upon which to hang everything else.

I also make a habit of reading what I wrote yesterday (sometimes the whole chapter) before I start writing. It gets me back into the story and often times I'll correct the odd thing here and there, so I'm editing as I'm going along.

Finally, don't be too hard on yourself. As other people have mentioned, 100 words a day eventually becomes a novel. Some days I'll write 1500 words. Some days a few hundred. Some days just a paragraph. Don't force things. Just be grateful for each little step you take.
Hope that helps.
Lynette White
40. shadoewoman
I honestly think I learned more here than I can offer but here is a couple of ideas that I have found work for me.

1. Instead of trying to put together the entire package and getting frustrated take little pieces at a time. Work on one charactor and build a storyline around that one charactor then add an interaction with charactor B etc. Pretty soon it just flows.

2. I also will reread what I typed the previous day so that I can get myself back into the train of thought.

3. I work full time and so the evenings are when I dedicate time to my writing. Some times I am so brain numb from work that I only accomplish a profread or dictate a few pages but I make myself accomplish SOMETHING.

4. The best investment I have made in the last five years is Dragonspeak. When I am facing a block I just put the headset on and start talking. It always amazes me what flushes out of my tired brain. I have also found that dictating 10 pages is a whole lot nicer than typing 5. Just saying God bless technology.
And one last comment. Dont be hating on WOW. I have actually come up with some good storylines while doing an instance.
Good Luck.
Gabriele Campbell
41. G-Campbell
Kelly, walks are great to get your creative juices bubbling. :)

I walk a lot anyway, not only when I got stuck on my plot, and it attracts plotbunnies like crazy. I caught a beautiful critter - a character - last year which I put in my Idea Files with just the barest of notes, where it duly attracted two other ideas (that is, another character, and a conflict) and some historical facts, and now I have the book I'll write after the Roman trilogy all set out.

But the idea really goes back to a sunny path with fir trees on one side and a view down into a valley on the other, somewhere in the Harz mountains. There I met Ricmar, dressed in old-style Germanic clothes, leaning on a spear though he was still young, accompanied by a large hound or maybe a tame wolf; and I knew he had been outlawed for a crime he didn't commit. On the way home I got his backstory and several possible scenes. I almost regretted leaving him to the Idea Files, but I've promised myself not to work on more than 2 novels at the same time.

The one thing I permit myself is to play with Ricmar when I walk in the Harz, because that seems to be his place, like the Weser mountains are connected with Arminius, a character from my current NiP - the basic idea of which I got when I visited the assumed Varus battlefield in Kalkriese. :)
Fabien Roy
42. lokiloki265
It's been a boost in inspiration just reading the comments posted. Sometimes I think we have some stories we just have to get out of us just so we can get to the one story that leads us to our great novel. You mention having written 15 stories that you were unable to finish. Why not make your second novel a collection of short stories or even find a way to link them into one novel. I have no idea what your stories are about but if you are writing science fiction there is always a way to have characters from one story jump into another. You could use each of your stories as stepping stones (Stuart Clark Technique) to meld into a major novel.
Fabien Roy
43. lokiloki265
Man this is great I am at the end of a conversation thread and no one is reading. I just saw your rolling the crystal ball up and and down your arms YouTube sensation. You have your perfect protagonist in yourself. What a great character for a novel. The park side crystal ball wielding wizard that folds everyone destinies just the way they want it. Take your 15 unfinished stories and link them to the wizard. That was very brave by the way.
Fabien Roy
47. lokiloki265
Jason! I don't know if you are still following your thread but wow. Eyvallah! I've been trying to figure out what to make of it and it sounds as if I might not be the only one slinging mud here. I see you writing blog after blog when you should be stringing those stories together. And now the park side wizard has a name. Ivan Valla. I.V. Man you're on you're way. Take your fifteen stories and string them into one. I'm enthused about this specific conversation because it has made me conscious to the fact that I am not the only one writing out there. Everyone in this convo as humbled me in a way and given me strength to plow ahead into the mass of words I keep throwing on my desktop. Stop blogging and weave those stories, although writing is writing. Who am I to tell you want to do. If I had fifteen unfinished stories I'd find a way. Thanks for the convo.

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