Writers Ask Writers: What do you do when the writing gets tough?

iStock_000009427997XSmallThis is a difficult question to answer at the moment because the book I am currently writing has, 40,000 words into it, been anything but tough. It’s been a joy to write, a gift, something I can’t wait to sit down and work away at, to the extent that I get cranky when I have a day where kids and other jobs make writing impossible. Ideas rush at me anywhere and everywhere; I have pages full of scribble, an entire plot outline – I even, for the first time ever, know how the book is gong to end before I get to the end.

But it’s not always like this. Motivation does flag, words get stuck, procrastinations like Twitter and Facebook beckon and seem so much more appealing than adding to the daily word count. Getting 40,000 words into a book without this happening is something of a miracle, and I am thankful to the writing Gods that this book, so far is blessed.

Trouble at the start

On the other hand, If I Should Lose You, my second book, took a long time to get started. I wrote a couple of short stories, toying around with the idea, and then I had my second child. She had a series of health complications which meant spending some time in hospital and so I didn’t write anything more on the book until she was about nine months old and in the clear. I picked up the short stories and wondered how the hell I was going to go on with the story, but luckily I was still as interested in the idea behind the book – organ donation – as I had been when I started over a year before. And the time off had caused some more ideas to gather in my mind about the story.

The most difficult part at that point was finding a voice. I wrote lots of bits that were okay, but just didn’t sound right. It wasn’t flowing. I find reading to be the most helpful thing to do at this point. Reading widely, reading lots of books, because suddenly , a sentence in a book will sound to me just like the voice I am trying to capture. I’ll use that sentence as the starting point for a scene. And I’ll make sure I read several pages of the book every time I sit down to write, just to keep the voice in my head. In this case, the book was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Something about the stubbornness in Didion’s voice in that book, the questioning, the refusal to accept grief, felt right for my character.

Then, a blessing. I was awarded a residency at Varuna, The Writers House on the strength of the fifty pages I had written. A residency is a wonderful boost. It made me feel that the work must have something good in it to have been selected above all the other submissions, and it gave me one whole week of tranquil and focussed writing time to get the first draft down. I wrote 5000 words each day at that residency, to finished the first draft, which is a significant hurdle to soar across.

Trouble in the middle

My next book, which has not yet seen the light of day, has been the most problematic. So even writers with two published books under their belts, like me, have trouble. After finishing If I Should Lose You and before starting on the book I’m currently writing, I wrote another book. Let’s call it book three. I got to about 20,000 words into book three and hated it. I told myself I just had to push on because the worst thing to do is to stop. So I pushed on until I had a draft, sitting down each day, forcing myself to write when honestly I would have rather eaten my own fingernails. Something wasn’t right and I had no idea what. I sent the first draft to my agent and she was ho-hum about it. Let me tell you there is nothing more dispiriting than having your agent be non-committal about the 65,000 odd words you’ve just sent her.

So I put the book away. Let it rest. And a few months later I had a revelation. 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. I don’t usually research a book properly until I’ve finished the first draft because I don’t want the research to get in the way of the story. But for this book, because I was writing it for a PhD, I did lots of research as I wrote. The research began to dictate the book. The story and the characters became secondary to what the research was telling me the book should be about.

I thought all was lost, that it was unrecoverable. So I continued to let it sit. I started writing my new book. And I continued to read. Then I read a book that suddenly opened up to me the possibilities for my own book three. That I could play around with the structure a whole lot more. I could stop being so damn serious. I could relax a bit more with it, throw out three-quarters of the research and see what my characters would do, if I just let them be themselves.

I won’t get back to book three until I’ve finished the book I’m currently writing, book four. Book four has the energy and where the energy is, is where I need to be. Maybe book three will become book four when it comes to publication and vice versa, who knows. But the big lesson I learned was that if I hate writing a book as much again as I hated writing book three, I need to stop and work out what is wrong before I keep going.

Do other writers experience the same thing?PWFC author collage

Well, Annabel Smith will fill you in on all the reasons why killing off your main character is not such a good idea if you want to be able to continue writing your book. Emma Chapman discusses her feelings of doubt when writing How to be a Good Wife, and the need for self belief here. I love the way Dawn Barker describes the “expansive, manic phase” of excitement when things are going well, which I can certainly relate to at the moment! Amanda Curtin delves into the scary unknown of writing without a plan and I can absolutely relate to what Sara Foster says about starting a book being the hardest thing.

I hop you’ve enjoyed this month’s Writers Ask Writers Post. We’ll be back again next month with a whole new topic. If there’s something you’d like us to tackle, please let me know in the comments. Or if you have your own way of working through times when the writing isn’t flowing, I’d love to hear about it.


  1. Excellent post. It’s great to hear that you’re in a good spot at the moment as far as your writing is concerned! I’m jealous 🙂 I always seem to get bogged down around the 40,000 – 50, 000 word mark. So it’s good to hear your advice on dealing with that 🙂

    • Thanks Jayde. My first two books both had very short first drafts of 45,000 words and 55,000 words respectively. So there was not much chance of getting bogged down on those at the 40,000 word mark as I was pretty much on the home straight then! The book I’m now writing will be a much longer first draft and yes, so far so good. Good luck with yours.

  2. Glen Hunting

    I do sympathise with your third manuscript getting a ‘ho-hum’ from your agent. That must have been rather shattering. But some books do take time to find their time – I seem to remember reading that Muriel Spark put aside at least one of her books-in-progress in favour of others that were working better at the time, and returned to the earlier manuscripts afterwards. It’s really good, though, that Number Four is going so well and that you’re having such fun with it.

    “…the expansive, manic phase of excitement when things are going well…” Yes. Yes oh yes oh yes. A treat unlooked for but always hoped for, somewhere, somehow. And rejoiced in when it arrives.

    Doubt: I’ve been discussing this one rather a lot recently (grateful nods to Ms. Levitzke and Ms. Curtin.) I’m fitfully reworking a stage script at the moment, and I frequently look at it and say to myself, “I’m never going to get this to work.” But that, of course, is part of the impetus, and a big part of the reward if you do manage to pull it off.

    Plot problems: Annabel’s blind-alley of killing off her main character reminds me a little of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. Mitford’s best fiction was heavily autobiographical. She struggled when she had to ‘make things up’, and her subsequent novels were progressively less interesting. The trouble, as her friend Evelyn Waugh pointed out, was that she’d used up her two best plots in the one book, instead of saving one of them for the next one.

    So what do I do when MY writing packs up? Self-flagellation is the habit of a lifetime. It’s too late for me to give it up now… 🙂

    • Hi Glen, I loved The Pursuit of Love too – Mitford is such a great writer but so few people seem to have heard of her. And I think it has actually been a good thing that MS number 3 has had lots of lows – I’ve actually learned a lot more from that that I would have if it had just gone along smoothly and I also think that writing it has made MS number 4 come along really quickly because of those things I learned. It would have been nicer for it to have been easier though!

      • Glen Hunting

        I don’t know if you ever saw it, but the original 1980 Thames Television adaptation of Love In A Cold Climate has been finally been re-released on DVD. It is actually The Pursuit of Love and Love In A Cold Climate combined in the same series, as they both occur in parallel over the same time period. For years this series was thought to have been lost to the world, but it’s back. And unlike most television adaptations, it does absolute justice to the world of the novels and is a joy in its own right. It hasn’t been released in Australia but you can easily find copies from overseas on eBay. The much later BBC adaptation with Alan Bates was a travesty by comparison (and I like Alan Bates.)
        I’m a bit of a Mitford junkie, actually – I have her correspondence with Waugh and also the collected correspondence of all the sisters. Their like will never be seen again, I think.

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  7. Ebs

    I am enjoying reading your blog. It’s encouraging to read about someone else’s struggles/strategies/successes when you’re beavering away at your own projects!
    I have a question about your phd – I’m doing one at the moment, in creative writing, and I’m really finding the novel hard going to write. At the start it was easy, but now I almost feel like I’ve lost passion for it, like it’s a chore. I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of where I’m at (finishing the first draft of my first bigger work) or whether it’s because I’m writing it as part of this course. I’ve had a big bout of illness, which hasn’t helped, but what were your experiences re your phd? I’m almost wondering if I shouldn’t have just written something on my own and not enrolled?

    • I had a similar experience with my PhD. I lost passion for the novel and I think my writing reflected that loss of passion. For me, I think it was because I did too much research too early, which the PhD program kind of forces you to do because you have to write various documents for those in charge. I began to write to the research, rather than let the story take shape. I’ve put that book aside for now – I think there’s nothing worse than working on a book that you have lost passion for and sometimes time and space can help you rediscover that passion. For me, that distance has allowed me to understand where I went wrong, and also to have a complete re-imagining of the plot in that novel, which I wouldd’t have had without the time and space. Now I just have to get back to rewriting it with this new plot idea in mind! I do think loss of passion is a sign that something in the book isn’t working – the difficulty is in trying to understand what.

  8. Liz

    Thanks so much for your response. I wasn’t sure if it was just a first-novel experience, but it makes me feel better to know it’s not just me! It has made me question my commitment to writing because it feels so difficult, and I used to really enjoy or feel inspired by it.
    My supervisor is quite good as for her the story comes first and is more important, but i find trying to write in the university system kind of weird, like the creative fun bit is not seen or encouraged (which is why i write or do anything in the first place!!) I kind of miss not being able to read for fun either, as I feel like I’m not reading the kind of material that makes me want to write, if that makes sense (rather novels or academic work that relate to my topic).
    I guess we’ll see what happens next but i’m glad that your efforts weren’t wasted re your being able to use that material for a revised work – it will be exciting to see how it turns out!
    Thanks again 🙂

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