Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Fiction Fatigue

Anyway, there I am writing a book and I'm about halfway through the first draft and suddenly, the magic is gone and I'm no longer as jazzed about writing the damned thing as I once was. Oh, I still think it's the best thing I have ever written. Hell, it may be the best thing anyone on Earth has ever written. But I am, alas, a bit tired of it. I am going to call this phenomenon, where my own brilliant work no longer seems interesting, fiction fatigue*.

What I think is going on is that, now that I've written some 36,000 words and have come to really know who my characters are, a lot of the joy of discovery is behind me, and I know that a lot of the work left to do is working-out-of-plot and pure craft sort of stuff. Yes, there are things to decide and amazing metaphors to pull out of the air and beautiful writing to do by the ream, but still, I'm no longer in that happy getting-to-know-you phase with the story or the characters.

This book is written in 3rd-person, and what I'm doing is using a sort of omniscient POV as a neutral narrative voice while often reducing the narrative distance and writing in 3rd-person limited through one of the main characters. For a while this was really a thrill, getting close like this to my characters and zooming in and out, as it were, into the heads of several people. But now the technique has sort of become just background, mere mechanics for me. It's no longer hey, this is way cool and is now simply how I'm choosing to write the book.

The chapters are taking longer to write, too. Part of that is because the early chapters were all pretty short, about 2000 words or so, and the middle chapters are twice that long. Part of that is also because I find myself having to do a lot more research for the middle than I thought I'd be doing, because I figured once I had all my historical background info for the first act, I was done with research. Wrong. But also, it's just taking me longer to write now because I keep looking for something new about the characters or their world because, in a way, I am exhausted. It's like with someone who's been riding on a roller coaster all day: by the evening, it's just no longer the adrenalin-producing event it was at dawn.

I know that if I keep pushing forward, I will finish this draft. I'm not worried about that because this is not my first novel (it will be my third) and I know that I've got the stamina to write a book-length fiction. But I do see that I am suffering from fiction fatigue right now, and I find myself thinking that I should take a break from the story. I don't like those thoughts, because I certainly didn't do that with my last book; I plowed through and wrote my first draft in about seven months. But I don't know.

So I ask you two things: are you familiar with what I'm calling fiction fatigue? If so, what have you done about it?

* Disclaimer: I ran across that term, "fiction fatigue," someplace lately and while I can't remember where I saw it or what the original meaning of it was when I stumbled over it, I am co-opting the term today. Them's the breaks.

Also: The Literary Lab has a new look and a new graphic for the new year! Thanks, Glam!


  1. Oh, Scott, you have NO idea how much I know what you're talking about. I don't know if you remember my DIVORCE post over on Innocent Flower, but that's exactly what I went through. I was tired. I thought the book sucked. My first book I'd gone right through and loved from the beginning to the end. But Monarch...totally different feelings.

    I have, thankfully, fallen in love with the book again, but I've been working on it for 14 months now, and it's still not ready to query. And, in fact, I've had the idea for it floating in my head for about 10 years. So it has been a long journey, and I don't see that it will be over anytime soon.

    I'm rambling, forgive me.

    Anyway, to answer your question, YES, I've been there. Working on Monarch has become just that - work. I'm not in the falling in love stage, newly married stage, or even the I hate you I want to divorce you stage. I'm in the "Let's Stick It Out and Have Faith" stage. It's actually a nice place. It feels like something I've earned.

    I hope you like the new look. I didn't even ask you guys if that would be okay to change stuff around. I figured you'd kick and scream if you hated it and I could turn it back to the old look. *wink*

  2. I get occasional bouts of fiction fatigue. Less often in the first draft, more likely to occur during revisions and re-writes.

    I like the new graphic, nice job Michelle.

  3. I totally identify. I reach 40000 words and then -whammo - each word seems like a thousand. I'm glad I'm not the only one! Thanks for the post.

  4. Yes, familiar with the phenom. I suggest taking a break--the roller-coaster guy probably goes home, relaxes with beverage and music of, then goes to bed--not necessarily a long one, just so the same mind/emotion muscles that have been pushed for so long have a chance to stretch out, and for love to seep back in.

  5. I've been there more than once - but it's kind of like excercise. After I push though and do it, I usually look back and smile.

    I force myself to walk one mile and write two pages every day. It's a manageable goal and usually works. Not always, but usually.

    Thanks for sharing such an honest place in your journey. It helps us all.

  6. That's why I like the pace of NaNoWriMo--I write no matter what.

    Let me guess--you're a pantser. Either that, or you've become a slave to your outline. In either case, what you need to focus on is the end point. Where will the characters end up and what do they have to do to get there?
    If some part is uninteresting to write, then it will be uninteresting to read. Skip ahead, kill off a character, introduce a new one, create some conflict, uncover a secret, make a character change sides, do something to get things more interesting.
    Figure out where you are in terms of story structure, and where you go from here. At 36K you should be well into the 2nd Act and about to turn to the main conflict of the whole story.
    My advice is not to take a break, but to write even more. And if after a couple days you haven't progressed, you can always delete it during edits.
    I feel like you need to write through slumps, because that's when the brain becomes creative. But maybe go for a walk or something to clear your head.

  7. I think I'm with Tess on this one. Usually, when I get fiction fatigue, it's after I've stepped away from the writing for a few days already. And, I think I'm tired of working on the story, but I'm often mistaken. If I force myself to write, within minutes I'll feel excited again. That's me. I wonder if my not using an outline (usually) has something to do with it. I think that kept me in the "getting to know you" phase far longer than if I had one going into it.

    In the lab, when I get this way, it's usually refreshing for me to see other people's work by going to conferences or something. Hearing that others think that what I'm doing is exciting usually excites me all over again. So, maybe you could read something new and unexpected to restart your engines?

  8. I'm now working on the fifth novel that I've started (and by "started," I mean wrote 30K-100K words of the first draft). The first time I got sick of writing a novel, I had just started college. I thought that either the novel sucked (which was probably right) or I just didn't have the stamina or maturity to write a novel.

    But now I've found that the exact same pattern happens to me every time:

    1. For a few months, I'm super excited about the story and CAN'T STOP writing it.

    2. I get sick and tired of it, quite suddenly, and put it down "for a couple weeks," which turns into months. Meanwhile, I start writing something else that seems much more exciting at the time.

    3. I find myself thinking more and more about the previous novel, like an lost lover I've come to miss. I re-read the well-rested draft and feel a resurgence of passion for it as it surprises me with both how wonderful it is and how obvious its flaws are.

    So... right now I am in the honeymoon phase of my '09 NaNoWriMo work and trying to bust out a REAL first draft before I put it to sleep. But I know full well that I will probably jump back to my previous unfinished manuscript before I totally finish this one. And I have confidence that that's OK, because all is not lost!

    I'm not a monogamous writer, but I always come around. I've never left a draft hanging forever, and it always gets better in the revisiting. Everybody is probably different, though.

    Do you work on more than one manuscript at a time?

  9. Two things work for me when this happens:

    The first is to just keep at it....and accept the fact that what I write during this period will suck. But I know I can go back later and strengthen it.

    The second is to skip ahead and write a scene later in the book that is exciting...it helps get my creative juices flowing and it's easier to go back and fill the gaps.

  10. Ahhh, the wonders of mid-book-HATE. At least that's what I call it.

    I suppose it didn't hit me with the first two novels because I still didn't have a clue what I was doing. Every since then, yes, about the 20k mark (if not sooner) in each novel, I hate the thing with a burning passion.

    It's like post-novel ennui for me. I've learned it happens--every single time--and so I just work with it. I realize I'm going to hate the book at some point, so when that hits, usually I take a few days off and do something else, or read more, or just veg out with movies or video games. Whatever works.

    I'll still hate the novel when I come back, I always do, but at that point I find I need to soldier through it, get it DONE. Then go into ennui hell and wonder why I do this to myself. O:) LOL

    No, really, I think a short (i.e. no more than a week, tops) break when I get sick of the novel can help. I do something else. Write something else (in my case, I try to work on throwaway short stories). Whatever it takes to get a bit of distance so I can recharge my mental batteries, then dive in again and push through the draft.

    *shrugs* At least by now, I can recognize the problem and plan for it, even if it never gets easier to overcome. ;)


  11. You've more great suggestions here than you could shake a stick at (where'd that expression come from, anyway?), but I'd add another: flash fiction.

    It could be something new and completely different, or a short story involving your characters in a situation different from those in your novel. Plonk 'em down on safari, or write them broken down at the side of the road in Kansas, or lost in a rotten inner-city neighborhood.

    Either way, it might get you past the boredom, and, as Iapetus mentioned, writing through the low points is--from I've heard--the best way to go about breaking through.

    Best of luck to you, good sir.

  12. I am writing my third book too, and yes, I have hit the fiction fatique. What I do is jump to a part of the story that I'm excited about and hope the fatique leaves. =) Good luck on the writing!

  13. I've been there. I skipped ahead to a part I found more interesting and then filled in the rest later.

  14. Hey, everyone! Thanks for the advices from all of you! But to clarify (and yes, I did mean to write "advices"), I'm not bored with the story, I don't hate the novel I am writing, and I am neither a panster nor am I enslaved by my outline. Rather, what's happened is that the writing is no longer a magical land of free-flowing words where 3000 perfect words pour from my pen and I haven't even noticed because I was in that state of rapturous bliss. Now the writing seems like work. So it's not anything like a crisis, but it's beginning to seem like a grind. It remains interesting to write, or at least what I've written remains interesting to me, but where I could once write a thousand words in an hour, now I write a hundred. It's just very difficult suddenly and I feel simply exhausted by the idea that I have the second half of the book to write.

    Last night, during my rainy 5-mile run, I had a fabulous idea for an upcoming chapter in the Third Act, where the POV bounces back and forth between the protagonist and God. That's right: God. It's going to be simply amazing. Still, it feels like it will take simply forever to get the writing to that point.

    Anyway, what I did during the last book when the writing felt like work was, you know, keep working. On this book. I'm not one of those people who can have multiple stories going at the same time. The very idea makes my skin crawl. I have no idea how some of you do that; I can only really concentrate on one thing until I'm done with it.

    Writing a novel is hard; we all know that. We have to find ways to perservere and get through the process. I'm going to try the "just keep writing the next damned word" method for now.

  15. Oh, Scott. You crack me up. I'm glad it's not dead stop hating it or anything. I've sure been in your shoes. Of course, my writing's not as deep as yours, but still I've lost enthusiasm for bits and pieces and had to muscle through at times. For me it has always picked back up as I forced myself.

    It might be time for a break, though, if you have been writing non-stop. You could always read some girly teen book to clear your palette.

  16. Scott, that POV shift sounds really awesome! I'm more excited to read it than ever. BTW, the word "eels" is now in the opening chapter of Rooster.

  17. Lois: It's true that I have been doggedly pursuing this book and the research for it for months now, and maybe my brain is just wanting candy. Girly teen book? Maybe I'll go off and read "Twilight!"

    Davin: Mighty Reader has been reading "Wolf Hall," which won the Booker Prize in 2009. It's got plenty of references to eels, which leads Mighty Reader to believe that the secret to success in literary fiction is, as you have discovered, the eel. Which reminds me that the current working title for the Horatio book is "The Saltwater Tears of a Freshwater Eel." That one can't miss!

  18. When a kid is intelligent, he tends to get bored in class. He needs stimulation with a more advanced curriculum. If you’re in the market for a puppy and you want him to be a loyal sort that’ll sleep at your feet, you’d be better off with a dumb dog. A smart dog will be investigating every smell that comes his way. Naturally, it makes sense that an extremely talented writer, who may very well be writing the best thing on Earth, would get bored. Fiction Fatigue is usually an affliction reserved for the geniuses of the world. Common folk will not comprehend the condition any more than a kitten can ponder the universe. It’s the cold truth… whoa

    I just remembered you were judging the contest blind... Nevermind.

  19. So you seem to be saying that you're writing too slow...my suggestion it to write faster!
    Seriously, set a timer, and see how many words you can get out in five minutes. Then do it again and see if you can beat your last count. And again :) The pressure of the challenge may force your brain to decide which story line is most important to write right now.
    And if it turns out to be crap, it's only 5 minutes wasted (at a time).

  20. Fiction fatigue is just part of the writing process. Normally, at least with me, it happens in the revision stage, and not the initial writing stage.

    I just sort of consider it one of the pitfalls of writing, and something I must overcome. It's not like my hairline receding and there's nothing I can do about it. With fiction fatigue, I sometimes stop to read a book. For whatever reason, the semi-meditative state my mind goes in to when reading helps relieve the fatigue and reenergize my motivation for writing.


  21. Charlie,
    I've been dying to know who wrote the contest entries. I'll get to soon, but not quite yet. You're making it that much harder for me to play by the rules!

  22. Oh, yeah. Twilight would definitely fill the teeny bopper bill.

  23. Great post! Yes I have suffered from the same thing. It usually occurs for me around the time I figure it all out. I am not an outliner so I just write and as I got start piecing the future of my characters together. Once I know the eventual path the story will take, I seem to lose that sense of discovery as well. There is nothing quite like those first few days with a novel.:)

  24. Doesn't every writer get this Scott? I know I have been in that place before. Though, right now I have a case of synopsis fatigue. It might be fatal! UGH

  25. Hi Scott.

    I think your fiction fatigue is one of two things:

    1. Laziness. (And you don't strike me as lazy)


    2. The Need To Slow Down. Listen to that Writer's Brain that you've developed. If you're having a hard time getting the words out and you are not quite sure why, then slow down. Your brain is trying to tell you something. I'd say to try and write a scene a day, but don't worry so much about word count. For some reason, the story needs you to be more reflective right now.

    (When this happens to me, I open the working document for the story which I call "The Manifesto" and play around with ideas some, jump ahead and see what future scenes might be like...just so I'm still writing on the book.)

    Good Luck.


  26. Robyn: I thought Scott and I had convinced you to only query agents who didn't know what a synopsis was? No? Well, you'll sort it out, I know. Keep plugging away at it.

    Shelly: I think you're right. I am lazy. No, kidding. I think that the second act is less action than character, and I really am having to think a lot more about every scene and setting than I had to in the first act. I have a bunch of questions I need to answer as I go along, and all of this means extra time for everything. Likely the pace at which I write, once I get down to the actual writing, is just as fast as it was when I began the draft, but there's a lot more reflection between every scene or even between every sentence. So in an hour's time, I'm sitting and thinking and considering more than I'm scratching down words in my notebook. Yep, I think you've hit the nail on the head. And I think that means that I'm writing at the pace I can write this, and I should just chill out and, as you say, not worry about word count and other measures of progress. Thanks!

  27. Thank you very much for this. Fiction fatigue is a great way to describe this phenomenon that I think is pretty much an inescapable part of the process. It's always nice to know that others suffer from it too, and to hear some of the suggestions for working through it.

    What I am wrestling with now, and could use some help with, is how, after walking away for far too long from a piece, do you get yourself back to that place where you can productively work with it.

  28. Thank you so much for writing this post. It's as if you stepped into my head and articulated exactly what I was feeling about my manuscript. It's my first novel - well, at least the first one I think is worthy of finishing and sending out to agents and editors. And yesterday, I was ready to throw it in a drawer - and I've got 70000 words! So no, I'm going to keep it:).

    I wish I had some smart advice to give, but from the look of the comments in this thread, you're getting great comments and good insights (which I bet you already had to a large extent). I just wanted to say thank you for sharing. I needed to read a post like this one this morning.

  29. Scott, actually you did convince me, but when I looked at the agents I am preparing to query they all ask for a synopsis. I might decide to chuck them and start fresh with a batch of new and improved synopsis free agents. :)

  30. sarahjayne: What I've found helpful when returning to something I haven't worked on for a while is to just sit and read it and find something in it that's really good that gets me excited. Don't approach it like it's something to work on; approach it like it's something fun to read. That way, you get into the story and the characters again in a nice way. Works for me.

    Denny: Thanks for commenting! I think that lots of good advice has been given here. Likely every writer gets simply tired of thinking about any particular story, no matter how good the story is. I am actually taking today off from writing, having reached the end of another chapter in my draft. I'm letting myself not think about the book at all.

    Writing a book is, in some ways, a long process where we endure constant stress, even if it's a low-level stress. At some point, we need to rest. So rest, and then get back to the writing. Good luck finishing it up!


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