Sudden Novel Death Syndrome: Why It Didn’t Work Out

23 Nov

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

24 Responses to “Sudden Novel Death Syndrome: Why It Didn’t Work Out”

  1. Sandy Shin November 23, 2009 at 8:42 AM #

    Thank you, Savannah, for such a helpful post!

    I’ve been stalling on my current novel, despite the initial burst of enthusiasm. Now I realize I’ve broken the “Do not talk about your novel” rule, which is so very true: talking about it drains bits of the first-draft rush, the i-want-to-know-what-happens-next adrenaline, so when I actually sit down and write, I feel no inspiration whatsoever!

    • svonnah November 23, 2009 at 9:16 AM #

      You’re welcome 🙂 Good luck on your novel!

  2. Alexandra Shostak November 23, 2009 at 9:49 AM #

    Lol, I break the “don’t talk about it” rule all the time, because I’m not an outliner, so I need Sarah to bounce ideas off whenever I think up the next chapter/section/whatever. 🙂 Though, of course, with the exception of miss SJM, I don’t talk to ANYONE about my novels, even when they’re finished. Well, nobody in person, anyway.

  3. Sarah J. Maas November 23, 2009 at 12:23 PM #

    I think I have to disagree with your Number 1 (and 2). I’m with Alexandra–I never NOT talk about my novels. When I speak with friends about my ideas, it helps me sort out the weaker stories from the stronger ones–it helps me figure out loopholes, plotholes, what characters fall flat…if my idea is even interesting.

    Frankly, I think a lot of the superstitions that writers have are pretty silly: not talking about your novel, “writer’s block” (which does not exist), etc. If your idea is truly strong and original, then having someone make a suggestion about a direction in which to take your novel isn’t going to ruin anything at all–in fact, your opposition to it may help you figure out MORE of your story. And if you happen to love that person’s suggestion, then there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to go on a tirade. Every writer is different in their habits, I guess. 🙂

    Great article!

    • svonnah November 23, 2009 at 12:36 PM #

      I agree that talking about a novel can be immensely helpful… once it’s established. I try not to talk about mine in their early stages because I don’t know where they’re going to settle, and I find that discussing it with people makes me more confused and iffy about my potential plots.

  4. junebugger November 23, 2009 at 12:31 PM #

    Thanks for this awsome post!

    I agree with Sarah and Alexandra about not talking about the novel idea. I need to talk about it. I need outside ideas to stimulate mine. And often I am given ideas that inspire better plotlines.

    Other than this contradicting opinion, I agree with all your other points. I’m going to save this article to refer to while I plan out my next project.

    And great idea about reading autobiographies/biographies of writers. It’ll definately inspire me in my querying process. Can you recommend a book about a writer who struggled to get published but acheived his/her goal in the end and became successful?!?!?! I’ll be reading this book each time I get rejected.

    • svonnah November 23, 2009 at 12:37 PM #

      Hmm… I read one once about a Mexican poet who discovered his voice while doing jail time, but other than that I got nothing 😦

      Oh! ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. He had a big ol’ nail in his room that he would pin his rejection notices through to inspire him. I have a copy if you want me to send it to you 🙂

  5. Rachel S November 23, 2009 at 1:04 PM #

    I also agree with the other posters… I talk about my story ALL THE TIME! (lol I am pretty sure all my real life friends want to love me and kill me at the same time.) It helps me figure out ideas and also gets me going. I have literally a page-long list of people that I need to give a first copy to… 😉 Better get on that.

    I think that ‘writer’s block’ may happen, but I don’t think its exactly writer’s block. err…. For me, it is often my brain telling me I have other things to do (*cough* usually homework *cough*), and that whenever I get back to writing it will be the right time. *pause* Hmm okay maybe that is writer’s block… lol!!

    I thought overall your article was great (and really long)… I originally read this at 8 AM and am now re-reading it (my brain is actually functioning now) at 3:00… 😉

    Have a great Thanksgiving, Savannah!

  6. S.J. November 23, 2009 at 3:15 PM #

    This is a ridiculously helpful post – thank you!

    I agree with you on the ‘not speaking about your novel’ score. Telling others about your work, at least in the beginning, takes some of the ‘magic’ out of writing. I love the feeling that it’s a secret, like a special glow inside my brain that only I have access to.

    Anyway, thank you!

    • svonnah November 24, 2009 at 6:17 AM #

      Yes, that’s it exactly!

  7. Mandy Hubbard November 23, 2009 at 3:39 PM #

    HA, Savannah, I’m starting to think you might be alone! I talk about my writing too. In fact, the second I have so much as a 1-2 sentence idea, I email it to Cyn (my crit partner– FAIRY TALE is her debut by Delacorte) and we start throwing emails around, fleshing it out.

    Since i”m forever on deadline I rarely get to work on projects when the idea strikes, but if I can flesh out the idea, I add it ot my Idea List and then as soon as I start writing it, I again start talking about it.

    I think there are no rules, becuase there’s no way in such a creative field that everyone functions the same. 🙂

  8. Schneider November 23, 2009 at 5:25 PM #

    Woah, I LOVED this post–it got all the heavy-hitters of novel death. I think I suffer the most from 4 and 5, and your solutions for them are *excellent.* I need to, like, copy&paste this article, haha.

    Also, awesome quotes. 😀

    • svonnah November 24, 2009 at 6:18 AM #


  9. Rowenna November 23, 2009 at 6:14 PM #

    I’m with you, Savannah–I keep mum about the current project, except for cryptic little “it’s set in post WWII London…and goodness is the tea boiling already!” when my husband or best friends press. Of course, I tend to be a keep mum type about my writing in general…if I was more of a talker, I might function differently.

    So true about daily dose of inspiration–sometimes I find I have to get up and do something to feed it, as well as reading. I can come back from a hike or from going dancing and know exactly what I want to write about! Great post!

    • svonnah November 24, 2009 at 6:19 AM #

      I struggle with Number 5, too. I say to myself, ‘No! I’m too frustrated by not writing to read or get inspired!’ which does not help, of course, lol.

  10. Maybelle November 24, 2009 at 12:18 PM #

    I would have never thought that talking about my novel actually detracts from the writing! But I guess it can when you become a “person-pleaser” and end up whittling all your time away – time that could have been spent writing. However, I personally find that I get a much clearer sense of plot and direction when I tell my stories – similar to way I discover things only when I teach them to people.
    Although, as always, it’s not good to overdo things 

    I totally agree with “getting a daily dose of inspiration”. It’s nice to have a variety of interests/hobbies because they’re refreshing and ultimately feed into your writing. I am always amazed at people who can math/science and then come back to writing. It just bridges both sides of the brains so well.

    • svonnah November 25, 2009 at 7:30 AM #

      I find that when I verbally tell people about my story I lose the magic and excitement, but when I WRITE to people about my story the ideas become clearer. I just shared the outline of my newest novel on my livejournal ( because of the advice from my fellow contributors to try sharing and see what happens. I’m hoping this time by writing about it instead of verbally telling I won’t lose anything.

      And you know what, I think it worked out! Having to tell someone the whole plot cemented things in my head. So perhaps WRITING about your story has some use, but not VERBALIZING it until later 🙂

  11. Jeannine Kinsey November 24, 2009 at 5:58 PM #

    Ugh. The first one is definitely my weakness. I start talking (needlessly) about my novels, and before I know it, I’ve no inspiration or instigation to write my story, because I’ve already told it to 5 of my readers. Not good. Perhaps one day I’ll get to the point where I can talk and write my novel at the same time, but not now.
    Thanks ever so much for this great blog. It is a real inspiration.

    • svonnah November 25, 2009 at 7:31 AM #

      Thanks for the compliment! I think you’re exactly right about losing inspiration by talking about your work in progress; the excitement goes into your conversation, not the writing.

  12. dismantledchildhoods November 26, 2009 at 7:16 PM #

    This was sooooo helpful. I am (in)famous for unfinished projects… I am going to try sticking to your rules for my current one and see where it goes! Thanks for the advice…


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