Sudden Novel Death Syndrome: Why It Didn’t Work Out
“Why That Novel You Were Really Excited About Dead-Ended Into A Black Hole of Guilt and Lack of Plot Development and What To Do About It”
By Savannah J. Foley
I have them and you have them: failed projects. No matter how exciting the initial burst of inspiration, no matter how striking and significant the initial chapters, something causes the story to descend into a frustrating nothing, subsequent chapters diluting themselves into a boring parody of that first, promising beginning. As a writer, your excitement turns to hesitation, then panic, then disgust, and your project gets shelved and locked into the back files of your computer, never to be developed further (except for those occasional, guilty tweakings).
Why does this happen? What, if anything, can be done to prevent it? I’ve compiled a list of reasons—and solutions—to this stagnation, and I hope it’s a help to you:
1. The first rule of writing is: Don’t talk about your novel.
2. The second rule of writing is: Do NOT. TALK. ABOUT. YOUR. NOVEL.
Discussing ideas with your friend or audience seems to be a sure-fire way to kill a project from the very beginning. There’s just something about debating possible plot options that effectively stops production in its tracks. My theory is that it turns your project into an attempt to please everyone at once. Others suggest it distracts you from the delicate process of actually working on the project; you become the type of writer who is always talking about his/her book without ever actually writing it.
This phenomenon has been noticed by other writers as well. Consider the following quotes:
Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially. ~A. Bronson Alcott
I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension. ~Norman Mailer
Solution: Don’t talk about your project! Don’t you dare let anyone encroach upon the amazing process that belongs only to you and your writing. Your friends can’t write it for you, and they can’t be there in your head when you’re working out all the details, so why would you involve them at all? Let them read the finished product, not influence a work in progress. Rule of thumb: Consider it bad luck to discuss the details of a project until it is finished. Bring out your novel or story like it is Athena emerging from your head: fully-formed and beautiful.
One last quote to pound the point home:
Writing is a product of silence. ~Carrie Latet
3. Beginning Too Soon
This is my biggest problem: trying to start work on the project when you don’t really have any idea what you’re doing yet. I have three pet novels in a suspended state of animation because I tried to work on them too soon and killed them: a YA about orphaned sisters, a scifi about global warming, and a steampunk about… well, I’m not really sure, but it involves poisonous, addictive perfume, and gangs.
The way my writing works is that I get a flash of an idea, typically just one scene or concept, and then work the plot around this idea. All I ever want to do is immediately begin writing so I can record this idea in explicit detail and start working on giving it the same vibe I envision in my head, but in the long run it’s better to wait. Remember what they taught you in school, and practice abstinence.
Working on a project too soon causes overstimulation, like touching a budding flower or playing rough with a newborn kitten. It’s just a baby idea; give it a little time to grow and develop before you start to mess with it. If you recall my earlier post, writing is a sort of mental disorder; you have to learn to trust your subconscious and let it develop plots and characters on its time. The conscious brain is a marvelous thing, but it’s not a very good writer in general. The best writing comes from the heart, the subconscious, and it can be terribly flighty.
Another metaphor: Think about your idea as a feral animal you have just caught sight of out in the wild. You have to be very still, very quiet, and very non-threatening before it will start to approach you. No sudden movements, lots of praise and encouragement, and before you know it you’ll be gamboling with that wild creature like you’re the best of friends.
A relevant quote:
As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing it till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall. ~Virginia Woolf
Solution: Develop a list of things you MUST have before you begin writing. For example, the names and personalities of all your main characters and their families/significant others, a strong sense of setting, where/when the main characters/love interests meet, etc.
4. Panicking (Writer’s Block Happens)
You’ve given yourself enough time to fully flesh out your characters and plot. You’ve kept the existence of your next work-in-progress as secretive as possible. “Yes,” you say to your friend, “the reason I’ve been so busy lately is because I’m working on a new project. No, I don’t want to talk about it until I’m finished.” Then, without warning, you hit the Wall.
You’re not alone. “Every writer I know has trouble writing,” said Joseph Heller. We all experience that jarring moment when you realize that you’re facing a great chasm in your writing, with no way to get to the other side. Sure, you know where you want the plot to end up. Your characters are well-developed and strong-willed, but how in the heck are they going to leap across this plot gap and make it safely to the next planned-out plot development?
Rule of thumb: Relax. Take a break. You’re probably working too hard:
Writer’s block is a disease for which there is no cure, only respite. ~Laurie Wordholt
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out. ~Ray Bradbury
Listen to Bradbury on this one; sometimes you just run out of creative juices. It’s okay; don’t panic, just take a break. Read a book; it’s how you get filled up with inspiration again. Watch television, take a walk, draw something, phone a friend (you haven’t talked to them in a while, have you?). Avoid thinking about your project, and when you do, think of it only as a dear friend. Only when you can’t wait to get back to your story and start working again should you approach your work-in-progress.
Need a different solution, or on a deadline? Try sleeping.
If I’m trying to sleep, the ideas won’t stop. If I’m trying to write, there appears a barren nothingness. ~Carrie Latet
The only cure for writer’s block is insomnia. ~Merit Antares
5. Not Getting Your Daily Dose of Inspiration
When writing a novel, it’s easy to lose track of the other recreational things in your life. You go to work or school, you come home, grab a bite to eat, maybe do some housework/chores/homework, but then you’re writing! This ties back into what I said above; sometimes you don’t allow yourself enough time to get properly relaxed and inspired again. Imaginations have to be fed and watered like anything else, or else they will stagnate and shrivel.
My favorite solution to counteract this stagnation is reading. When I was reading two books a day, in school and later when I worked at a bookstore, I read a wide variety of books, from fiction to self-help to comedy, poetry, scifi, fantasy, cultural, travel, biographical, etc. Reading other people’s styles and descriptions fires your own imagination.
One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment. ~Hart Crane
Solution: My favorite books to read for inspiration are either poetry (Billy Collins ftw), or the biographies or autobiographies of other writers. Shell Silverstein’s biography A Boy Named Shell, and Hunter S. Thompson’s biography The Joke’s Over by his best friend Ralph Steadman are two of my favorites. Others would include Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series, the most famous of which is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Stephen King’s On Writing, and anything by James Thurber (if you haven’t heard of him, immediately get on Amazon and order Lanterns and Lances. Seriously. Do it.).
Well, that’s my list. What problems do you encounter when writing, and what solutions have you developed to counteract this? Or, share your favorite writing quote about the process.
Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Woman’s World (now known as Antebellum) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency trying to sell Antebellum. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com.