Six impossible things

Losing interest

Sooner or later, every writer hits a point where they lose interest in continuing to write a story that isn’t finished yet. This isn’t the same as getting stuck; when a writer is stuck, they want to continue and intend to continue, but can’t seem to do so for one of a variety of reasons. A writer who’s lost interest doesn’t particularly want to continue.

For a writer who’s under contract, there’s no help for it but to slog on and hope the juice comes back before the deadline arrives. A writer who isn’t under contract can dump the story and move on to something else, which may or may not be the right decision, but which is always a hard decision.

Abandoning a story halfway through – truly abandoning it, without mumbling about coming back to it someday – is not an easy thing, even when the writer knows for certain that the story has gone totally cold and isn’t likely to warm up any time in the next couple of centuries. And a lot of the time “losing interest” isn’t really about the story going cold.

So what is it about, then? Well, what kinds of things make one reluctant to sit down and work on a story?

1) The plot and/or characters have gotten predictable, pedestrian, and boring…at least as far as the writer is concerned. Sometimes, this is because the writer has more experience as a reader; the idea that seemed fresh and exciting when she started writing turns out to have been fresh only because the writer hadn’t run across the multitude of similar stories doesn’t look so cool when she’s reading the forty-leventh story of the same type. Sometimes, the predictability is simply because the writer has been reviewing the plot too often and too much, and she’s gotten to know it too well. Some writers are more sensitive to this kind of thing than others; the extreme case is the writer who gets bored with the story if she knows anything about what comes next.

2) The story is technically more than a little too stretchy, and the writer is tired of not being able to get it down properly and sees no prospect of ever getting it the way he wants it. A writer who feels as if he is making progress is usually willing to hang in there, but banging your head against a stone wall is not something anyone wants to keep doing if they have a choice.

3) The writer has taken so long to write the story that they have outgrown their interest in the premise, the plot, or the characters. The novel I started writing in 7th grade never really even reached the mid-point of the story; by the time I’d gotten thirty or so pages into it, I wanted to write better-conceived, more consistent, more grown-up stories. So I left it and never looked back. The same thing can happen to adult writers; the plots and worlds and characters and problems I was deeply interested in when I was in college don’t draw me any more.

4) The writer finds she has said everything she had to say about those characters or subject. This one usually affects writers who’ve been writing a series, often a popular, long-running one. After a while, you get to the point where you’re just done with those people or that place.

5) The writer has taken so long to write the story that the real world has overtaken his premise. This one is a problem for people who do modern, real-world, or near-future stories; the classic example is the way the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s affected all the writers who were in the middle of writing spy thrillers involving the U.S.S.R. when the collapse happened. Any real or near-future story that involves technology in a central way is extremely vulnerable to this kind of thing – what looks like a cutting-edge computer when you’re writing it may very well look like it dates from the last century when the story actually comes out.

6) The story may be moving inexorably in a direction the writer simply doesn’t want to go for some reason. The intricate murder-mystery is turning into a drawing-room comedy, and the writer hates drawing room comedy and is just not going to write it, that’s all. Or perhaps the fast-paced action-adventure is insisting on becoming a psychological drama within a couple of chapters, and that particular psychological drama cuts a little too close to home for the writer to want to write about it now (or, maybe, ever).

Some of these problems are fixable; others aren’t. If the world overtakes your near-future plot, there’s not much you can do; they’re not going to roll back the Arab Spring just so your novel will still work. If, however, you’re just bored and finding the plot predictable, you can often change things up to rekindle your interest (this is the origin of the well-known advice about having ninjas jump in through the window if you’re stuck). Outgrowing your story or your series is a good thing, at least in a personal sense (though if one has been making one’s living from a series one can no longer stand to write, it seldom seems so at the time).

The main thing, though, is to be quite, quite certain that one really has lost interest, and is not simply avoiding writing a tricky or unpleasant bit that’s coming next. Because one cannot avoid the tricky and unpleasant bits completely or forever, and while it probably doesn’t hurt to abandon one novel or story in the middle every so often, abandoning a whole string of them sets up a pattern of bad habits that can be really hard to break.

  1. Thank you for this post! I have a story/book/thing that was my very first long writing project, and I haven’t written on it for several months…I know where I want it to go and end, and I think I know how to get there, but the words just aren’t coming for it anymore. Is there a way I can really be certain that I’ve lost interest, or is that a really subjective question? 🙂

  2. *waves* Hi, poster child for this post, right here. 😉

    I think I’ve gone through some combination of all of these at various points (I hate #5). Mostly, it’s just that I write so slowly — you spend years and years immersed in something, it’s gonna get dull no matter what it is.

    Or so I always thought. I noticed I hit a couple of “I don’t care any more” points in my NaNo project, and that was only three months start to rough-finish. So now I’m wondering if it’s not just a function of the way my brain interacts with certain parts of the story structure.

    Either way, what works for me is to look back and remember what got me excited about the story in the first place. And then, slog through anyway. It does get interesting again, no matter how terminal it seems at the time.

  3. The main thing, though, is to be quite, quite certain that one really has lost interest, and is not simply avoiding writing a tricky or unpleasant bit that’s coming next.

    I have yet to abandon a story, but I always hit an interval of disinterest. Which camouflages anxiety about a tricky bit. After I push through it, I am astonished that I was ever bored! Good camouflage!

    Thanks for the checklist. I suspect I’ll need help if ever I should abandon a story. I’m the persistent type who just refuses to give up!

  4. One or more of these things usually happens with each story I write. But, I find the biggest thing that has me dragging my heels is, as you mentioned, I know I have a tricky bit coming up. With my latest project, I had to write a prophesy, and I didn’t write anything for a couple of weeks because I thought it would be hard. Finally I just sat down and wrote it – it ended up taking me a few minutes (maybe because I had been thinking of it the entire time). Regardless, I find that pushing through is usually the best option for me.

  5. Point #5 happened to Dickens with *Bleak House*. By the time the story came out, the Court of Chancery had been abolished. It’s still a great book, though.

  6. It’s a little unnerving to have someone I don’t know read my mind. 😉 I’m about to hit 50,000 words on my current project, and I can’t count the number of novels I’ve abandoned somewhere between 50,000 and 55,000 words. Whatever the original cause of the problem, now I think it’s just a bad habit.

  7. I’ve grown out of a few novels, but mainly that’s because back then I had no idea how to go about finishing a novel, and so the plots were so poorly worked out that I was never going to be able to get past the premise. I might, in the end, go back to some of them, but only if I have a real plot (and better world building, and am somehow once more interested in the characters, so yeah, unlikely). And I’ve also written myself out on a set of characters – this was in fanfic, but I wrote over a hundred stories about the same characters, and at a certain point, I just didn’t have anything else to say about them. I’d said EVERYTHING.
    But the rest of the time, I just need to fight through it.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,