We’ve all been there: it’s a few weeks in to our newest project—maybe a sci-fi novel—and the words have been flowing like nectar from the writing-gods. But one day, that sweet juice slows to a trickle, and then the nozzle just sputters out dust. So what do you do? Do you keep opening up your story day after day, trying your best to get words down even though they aren’t coming?
Or. . .
Do you take the forbidden path and start working on something new?
This has been an issue that I’ve struggled with personally ever since I started writing novels. I tend to start strong and then feel doubt around the middle, wondering if it’s worth continuing or if I’d be better off finding greener pastures. I’ve concluded that my problem, as well as others in my position, stems from a few factors.
The first issue is that when you allow yourself to restart every time the going gets tough, you’re accidentally creating an imbalance in your writing skills. It’s almost like you want to do a set of curls so you start with your right arm. You do three sets on your right arm and then do a couple on your left arm and think, “Yeah, I’m actually pretty tired now. Maybe I’ll continue this later.” So the next time you work out, you start on the right arm again. Sure enough, when you pick up the weights in your left hand it’s so much harder that you find an excuse to stop again. What’s my point?
If the majority of your practice is in writing the first fourth of a book or the first chapters, that will get easier because you practiced it. It makes sense that the middle starts to feel more difficult because that’s where you have the least practice.
Another factor to consider is the way your brain is inclined to work. Whether you try to or not, you’re programmed to make connections, especially when emotion is involved. If an experience causes an emotion, that experience begins to have an association. Maybe you love nachos, but you start to get heartburn. Eventually, the negative association of pain will overpower the desire for deliciousness and you’ll choose not to get the nachos. The same process is at work when you start and stop projects. How so?
At times, it pays to think of your brain and body as two separate entities. In this case, think of the brain as a reluctant teenager. It’s fine doing something (such as writing the fun beginning of a story) until it becomes hard. Once it becomes difficult, like a teenager, it whines and complains (by releasing neurotransmitters that cause any number of negative feelings). If someone asked you what to do about the whiny teenager, the answer would be obvious, right? “Make them do it anyway, because if you let them get out of it by whining they will just whine even harder next time it gets tough.”
Yet. . .
What do most of us do when our brain whines? We listen. Of course, if you just lost a leg in an automobile accident and your brain is “whining” at you to do something, that’s a different story. You probably should do something. However, if your brain is trying it’s tricks to get out of something mildly unpleasant, then try working through it. It can help to remember that the vast majority of doubt and fear you feel once you hit that point in your story is really just your brain trying to manipulate you into doing something easier. Basically, your brain is that bad friend who just wants to stay home and watch TV so he tells you that you look fat in everything.
The Big Picture
Maybe the most compelling reason of all to continue with your story even if it’s getting hard is to look at the big picture. So many writers start and end their aspirations of writing before they ever finish a book. And the vast majority of those writers who fail to finish a book have written over a book’s worth of content—often they have written several books worth of words. But they let doubt stop them from finishing anything. Doubt has killed more careers than poor book sales, lack of talent, and bad luck combined.