Writers ask writers: How do you maintain interest in your writing project when you’re discouraged?

Writing a novel is a long-term project. When I write, I have flurries of inspiration and enthusiasm – usually at the start of a project – when the ideas seem to come from everywhere, when I can’t type fast enough to keep up with the words that come to me. In that expansive, manic phase, I love my novel, and think it’s going to be brilliant. But there are other times when the project seems terrible, mundane, unoriginal, and I want to give up.

I’m currently writing my second novel, and I’ve been through this cycle of euphoria and despair several times already. I’m back at the top at the moment: a good time to reflect on how I manage to keep going with a project when I’m discouraged – the topic of this month’s collaborative blog post with my writing group of Perth women fiction writers.

Annabel Smith, Natasha Lester, Dawn Barker, Sara Foster, Amanda Curtin, Emma Chapman
Annabel Smith, Natasha Lester, Dawn Barker, Sara Foster, Amanda Curtin, Emma Chapman

When I had the idea for my current project, about 2 years ago now, I loved it. It’s a topic that’s controversial, sensitive, and ethically murky, and involves mental health, children, parenting – exactly what I love to explore through fiction. Straight away, I scribbled pages and pages of ideas in a notebook, then over the next three months, wrote the first draft while I was waiting for edits of Fractured to come back to me from my publisher. I then put the draft away, had my third child, and turned my attention back to launching Fractured.

Once Fractured was published, it was time to move on and write something new. I printed out the draft of my second novel, and read it from start to finish. I didn’t like it. It was too simple, boring even. I spoke to my agent and publisher, and part of me wanted them to hate it, to give me an excuse to give up and start something new. But they liked the idea.

An early draft of Fractured

I reminded myself that I felt the same way about my first novel many times during the years that it took to complete – the first draft of Fractured is almost unrecognizable compared to the finished book. First drafts are just that – very early, rough sketches of a story. For me, self-doubt is a protective mechanism, particularly as I get to the point of having to let someone else see my work: if I tell myself it’s terrible, then I can brace myself for criticism and rejection.I talked again with my publisher, and her enthusiasm perked me up. She had some great ideas about the overall structure, and I realised that I really only had half of a story and needed to add a whole other strand.

In the past few weeks, I’ve decided to add yet another element to the story, and sub-plots and links are starting to come to me while I’m doing other things, sending me running to my computer to jot them down.

These ideas came to me after researching around the topic of my book: watching a documentary and listening to a podcast; meeting with the director of a medical clinic; reading blogs and books of real people dealing with the issues I cover. I’ve also decided to trust my subconscious – this is where the best ideas come from, and it’s not a place that you can access through force. As an example of this, I went for a run a couple of weeks ago, and suddenly thought of a beach that I’d heard of, close to Fremantle (where my novel is largely set). I’d never been there, so that morning I packed the three kids in the car and went there. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a place that had to be in my story. Later, I started to research the tragic history of that beach, and I read a line that about a local Aboriginal myth really resonated with me: “…they sang to make him crazy.” It fitted perfectly with another scene I had already written, and could see the links appearing between characters and settings and times. I now have that line written above my desk as I try to fit all the pieces together.

That is the reason I write: when I feel like the project is going nowhere, something happens that starts it all again: the thrill, the excitement when you know that you can write something that might just work. Any long-term project goes through these cycles.

Overall though – and pardon the clichéd metaphor – writing a novel is the marathon. There are moments when the going is easy, exhilarating, and there are other times when you want to give up. Those are the times when you might need to walk for a bit, catch your breath, then keep moving forwards. The adrenalin at the end, the endorphins and the sense of achievement, is worth it.



So here’s a summary of how I manage to keep going:

• I accept that loss of motivation is part of that emotional cycle of novel writing and remind myself that soon, I’ll be back on top with anticipation burning through me

• I discuss my ideas with someone, and try to find that passion again for the premise of the story

• I research around the topic – watch a documentary, read someone’s blog, travel to a setting

• I let my subconscious rest and find the answers


And you can read what the other authors in my writing group do:

Amanda Curtin accepts that it’s OK not to plan, not to know…

Emma Chapman tries to find peace in the knowledge that nothing comes out perfect first time…

Sara Foster has learned not to fear discouragement, as the stumbling block might contain a valuable lesson…

Annabel Smith finds the answer lies with her husband, Jonathan Franzen and Ferris Bueller…

Natasha Lester uses other books to inspire her, and has learned to relax and have fun while writing…

4 thoughts on “Writers ask writers: How do you maintain interest in your writing project when you’re discouraged?”

  • Great topic Dawn. So easy to get discouraged when things aren’t going well. I’m learning not to throw my hands up in despair but to keep going with the writing, try some research, work on character outlines and trust that a new thread will appear. Brainstorming with a writing buddy works really well for me and sometimes doing some freewriting with evocative music playing in the background.

  • Great post Dawn and a wonderful quote – “…they sang to make him crazy.” I’d already purchased Fractured at SWF before I met you at the WOW Mentoring event and read it while on holidays in Fiji. I couldn’t put it down and really look forward to your next novel. Anna

    • Hi Anna!

      Lovely to hear from you again – WOW speed mentoring was fun, and pretty inspiring! Thanks for your comments about Fractured, and I was really excited when i read that quote too about a local myth. I’m sure that somehow it can make it into the next book!

      Take care and hopefully meet you at another festival…