Have you ever sat down to work on a writing project in progress and realize you just … don’t want to?
And I’m not talking about the totally normal “wow it’s been a long day I would really much rather be horizontal on a couch watching Veronica Mars reruns than work on my book” feeling we all experience sometimes. I mean a total, full disinterest in a project you were once excited about.
It’s pretty safe to guess you’ve hit plenty of walls like this. It’s one of the most frustrating things that happens to writers at all levels. All of a sudden, it seems, you just don’t want to keep moving forward.
And if this has happened to you more than once, you may have wondered — might still be wondering, especially if you’ve stumbled upon this blog post — if there’s something you did wrong. Something you did or didn’t do that caused a sudden drop in your interest in the story you were once so invested in.
The truth is, it may not be your fault entirely. You see, all writers are always learning regardless of how much they may have written in the past, and it’s quite possible you’re still figuring out the ingredients that make up the recipe of an interesting story.
There are many different reasons writers lose interest in the stories they’re writing. But we’re also far too quick to judge, citing our short attention spans and laziness as primary reasons for a common inability to finish what we start.
It’s not that a short attention span and a lack of motivation don’t contribute to an unfinished manuscript in some way for some people. They’re just not always the main reasons why a writer quits.
Sometimes it’s as simple — and at the same time, as complex — as the fact that as you’re telling a story you often seemingly out of nowhere realize that you are no longer enjoying what you are working on. And that makes finishing what you started extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Is there a way to “fix” this problem? Can you become re-interested in a story that has lost your attention? I think the key to sticking with a story all the way through from beginning to end — even if you do put it aside for a while and come back to it — is to first learn what makes a story interesting, not just to the person reading it but to the writer creating it.
Write a story about interesting characters. While this might seem obvious — of course stories should be about interesting people — first drafts are often filled with characters that are unrelatable and/or serve no true purpose beyond lazily moving a plot point forward. I mean … this happens in plenty of published works too, but you get where I’m going with this.
We don’t do this on purpose. We just don’t always remember that in order to write characters OTHER people will care about, WE have to care about them too.
Hank Green says to “fall in love with your characters” if you want to continue writing stories about them. And he’s totally right.
Sometimes when you’re writing a story, you get so caught up in the events you want to take place and the messages you want to convey that your focus on your characters suffers. It happens to all of us — I wrote almost an entire book last year before realizing I knew next to nothing about one of my main protagonists, and instead of treating him as a person, I’d unintentionally but completely defined him by his health condition. Yikes.
But you not only have to know your characters … you also have to like them? And relate to them and understand them? It seems kind of strange to say you have to “like” a villain, for example, but you can also take this advice to mean that you should enjoy the process of getting to know and further developing a character as you write about them.
It’s the same thing I say about boring, unenthusiastic writing in general. If you’ve created a character that bores you to no end, your readers are also going to feel bored, and that’s not the best setup for a potential page turner.
I won’t name the specific book, but I once read — painfully, all the way through — a nearly 500-page story narrated by a character whose “flaw” was that everything bored him. Every other page the words “it was boring” or “I was bored” appeared. Guess why I didn’t like the book? I was bored with hearing how bored this character was all the time.
You don’t have to write a soap opera — there’s a time for extremes and a time for being conservative with your drama. But people are interested in interesting people. So if you want your stories to be read, you need to attract readers with characters they’re going to want to get to know.
Let things go completely off the rails. Sometimes when I’m stuck working on a book, for example, I’ll click over to a blank document — a clean slate — and just start writing the most bizarre versions of the story I’m trying to tell.
A lot of writers make the mistake of creating a tight outline for their stories and refusing to break away from it. There is nothing wrong with outlining — in fact, it’s a practice many people wouldn’t be able to write successfully without.
It’s a great way to build the basic framework for your story and figure out what you’re trying to accomplish by telling it — beyond just being able to say you wrote a book, of course! But you have to construct that outline in pencil, figuratively, because sometimes stories change — usually for the better — when you least expect them to. And that’s what often makes them stay interesting.
I won’t lie and say the random directions I took my story in that separate document all ended up in the official draft –though one of them did accidentally branch off into a completely different book, so there’s that.
You’re not always going to use everything you write, but at the very least it can give you an idea of where your story could potentially go, if it felt right to take it there. It’s OK to break from the mold you’ve created for yourself. You are the writer, after all. If your story needs some spicing up, there’s no one better to add the spice than you.
Don’t worry about anybody else. Do you care what people who haven’t even read your story will think of it when they do? Uh, same. The difference between aspiring writers and working writers, however, is that aspiring writers let other people’s hypothetical concerns hinder their writing productivity, and working writers don’t.
What really gets people here is fear. Fear that no one else is going to find their content interesting. Fear that they’re going to stay lost in the fray. Fear that they’re going to spend hours upon hours hard at work and that work isn’t going to amount to anything.
It’s an issue all of us face. But only some of us learn how to deal with it.
Based on my experience, this fear isn’t necessarily something every writer “gets over.” It’s really just something you have to learn to live with. I still face doubt every day. I’ll finish a writing session and start to wonder, “Was any of that even good? Does anyone else even care about this stuff as much as I do?” But at the end of the day that doesn’t matter, at least not yet. What matters is that I don’t just stop because I’m unsure. I trust my gut and keep going. And so should you!
Don’t worry about the unknown. Okay, that was an unfair request, let’s try that again: DO YOUR BEST not to let your worry make storytelling choices for you. Yeah, that’s better. Honestly, if anxiety could write a book, it would be a bestselling author ten times over by now. You’re in charge of how your story goes, not your fear and certainly not anyone else who might criticize, dislike, or say mean things about it. This is your story. Tell it the way you want, and consider your audience’s reactions later.
This will give you the freedom you need to take your story in the direction it needs to go in order to keep you — and any future readers — fully invested in what you have to say.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.