Writers Ask Writers: Spanners in the Works

This month’s Writers ask Writers post was inspired by a question from one of my regular blog readers (thanks Steve!):

How do you maintain interest in your writing project during those times you think it’s going nowhere?

Many times in the last decade I’ve had the awful experience of feeling that my current work-in-progress is going nowhere: sitting at my desk day after day and feeling that words have literally left me, that I have nothing to say; forcing myself to put something on the paper, or on the screen, only to cross it out, or delete it.

How have I got through these times? The answers lie with my husband, Jonathan Franzen, and Ferris Bueller. Let me explain. Though I almost never watch television, some years ago I became strangely addicted to Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Remember the lifelines? Ask the audience, phone a friend? Well my husband, Jonathan Franzen, and Ferris Bueller have all provided solutions to my writing dilemmas; they’ve been my lifelines.


I think there are two main reasons why we become discouraged with our writing. The first relates to difficulties with the project, the second is about ourselves.

Problems with the Project: Killing Off Your Main Character, and Other Fatal Faux Pas

There is always a possibility that your project truly is going nowhere: that you have been too ambitious or that you’ve tried something that simply doesn’t work, and no matter what you change – tense, narrative point of view, voice – you can’t make it work. Painful as it may be, perhaps you need to abandon it, and begin something else.

More often than not though, your project does have value but you have lost your way with it. In this case, you need to retrace your steps. Ask yourself: Where was the last point I felt excited about what I was writing, where I felt confident? Go back to that point and see if you can discover where you made a wrong turn. Unfortunately, sometimes, we are so close to a work we can’t ‘see the wood for the trees’. We may not be able to work out where we lost the path. In this case, I recommend asking a trusted reader to give you some critical feedback.

I had this experience with my third novel, The Ark. I was gunning along and then I ground to a halt. I had no idea what to write next and nothing I tried seemed to work. After several months of making no progress whatsoever, I asked my husband to read my manuscript for me and tell me what he thought the problem might be. I should point out that my husband is an architect, not a writer or literary critic. But my problem was immediately obvious to him:

You killed off your main character.

As soon as he said this, I realised it was true, and could hardly believe I hadn’t been able to see it for myself. But until that moment, I hadn’t even realised Aidan was my main character. For two years I had believed I was writing a book ‘about a seed bank.’ After my husband’s revelation, I understood that I wasn’t writing a book ‘about’ a seed bank – the seed bank was merely my setting. So what was my book about?


Around that time I read an interview with Jonathan Franzen in The Paris Review. He described a phase he had gone through of reading classic bildungsroman, in which:

There is the life we think we have…and there’s something else underneath it. .. Those great books… found the drama in blowing the cover off a life. You start with an individual who is in some way defended, and you strip away or just explode the surface and force that character into confrontation with what’s underneath.’

I recognised that this was exactly the kind of story I need to tell. After reanimating my main character I explored the story in these terms and I was back in business.

Problems with Ourselves: Inner Critics and Burn-Out

Sometimes our discouragement has nothing to do with the project and everything to do with ourselves. It might be just a confidence problem. It is easy to become paralysed with doubt, to let the inner critic convince us that we have no talent; this is another scenario in which showing it to a trusted reader might help. Or perhaps you are suffering from burn-out; you’ve been pushing yourself hard without stoking what one of my friends calls ‘the soul coal’. In this case, I think the best approach is to take a break.

When I was younger, one of my favourite movies was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which three friends wag school for the day in favour of other entertainments. They go to a baseball game (mindless relaxation), they eat lunch at a fancy restaurant (nourishment) and they visit an art gallery (inspiration). Oh, and did I mention Ferris SINGS DANKE SCHOEN ON A CARNIVAL FLOAT!


If you feel depleted and uncreative, take a break from writing altogether, or take a break from that particular project and work on something else.

When I hit a wall with my first novel A New Map of the Universe, I took a year off, without so much as glancing at my manuscript. I took a mindless job which I quickly grew to hate. By the time I returned to my novel I felt fully recharged and ecstatic to be writing instead of populating Excel spreadsheets.


How do other writers cope when they become discouraged? For Emma Chapman it’s all about self-belief. For Amanda Curtin, the way forward often seems to lie in the space between persevering and allowing time for sifting and settling. For Sara Foster a stumbling block might contain a valuable lesson – if I can shake off the cloud of emotions that tend to trail after this feeling.

When Natasha Lester ran out of steam with her third novel she came to understand The reason I hated it, the reason it wasn’t right, the reason it lacked spark was because I’d broken my own cardinal rule about research. Dawn Barker describes how she wanted my agent and publisher to hate my second novel, to give me an excuse to give up and start something new.

Click on each author’s name to read their full post.

Your turn: How do you move through feelings of discouragement with your creative projects?

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Writers Ask Writers  Spanners in the Works   ANNABEL SMITH

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