For this month’s Writers Ask Writers series we are answering a tricky question posed by a reader of Annabel Smith’s blog:
How do you maintain interest in your project when you’re discouraged?
Writing doesn’t get easier with time; every novel is a first novel.
John le Carre
For me, the hardest moment of my novels is beginning them. While stories sit in my mind they can stretch, explore, they bend with ease, but in the process of beginning to get things down on paper I am easily discouraged. My words are woolly, my descriptions are awkward and uninventive, and the drivel on the page does not reflect either the compelling plot or absorbing characters that have taken over my imagination. For me, the challenge is then chiseling away at this rough-hewn story, and through sheer effort and commitment trying to turn it into something interesting, enjoyable and valuable.
My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.
That being said, I’ve learned through bitter experience that if I stare too hard or too long at a troubling page of words, I can’t see anything. In getting past difficult moments when creating my stories, I’ve found I need to rely on a delicate tension: acknowledging a problem as truthfully as I can to myself – this character isn’t working, I don’t know where to go next, the story seems to have broken down – and then having the courage to let the problem sit, without turning away from it. Sometimes this means putting the computer aside or the pen down, and doing something else. It means trusting that the answer will come without me spending 24/7 chasing it. My story remains much fresher to me when I don’t get caught up in obsessing about it.
The greatest gift is not being afraid to question.
One of the most valuable things I’ve learned so far is not to fear discouragement when I am writing. A stumbling block might contain a valuable lesson – if I can shake off the cloud of emotions that tend to trail after this feeling, and can easily envelop me in foggy insecurity if I dally too long. I’ve learned to try not to pay any attention to that painful little voice that likes to remind me that I’m a bit rubbish if it gets half a chance. If I don’t feel my story is working, then I take a step back and think objectively about why. What do I need to do to get past the problem? Sometimes the questions are small – Do I need another scene? – and sometimes they are larger – Is this the right book for me to be working on at the moment? But I’ve found there’s ultimately no harm in asking questions, even difficult ones, and it is often the first step in finding my way forward.
I can’t help but end with this marvelous quote from Geraldine Brooks, showing that the very best writers know what it is to experience discouragement:
Writing may aspire to art, but it begins as craft. Words are stones, and the book is a wall. You choose each stone with consideration, you place it with effort. Sometimes, you find just the right stone – the right shape and heft – for that difficult niche, and the effect is beautiful and satisfying. Your wall has gone up straight and true.
Other days, you pick up one stone and then another, and none is right. You try it, it will not fit. Frustrated, you jam it in anyhow. The effect is unsightly, the balance precarious. You come back the next day and cannot bear to look at it. You bring in the back hoe and knock it over.
The important thing is the effort. There can be no day without lifting stones. And after enough days, if you have sweated enough, scraped enough skin off your hands, been patient and diligent with your craft, unsparing in use of the back hoe, you will, in the end, have a wall. And it may even be a beautiful wall that will last for a hundred years.
[Read Geraldine Brooks’ full article here]
Every writer knows what it is to experience discouragement, so if it’s happening to you then you are certainly not alone. You can read all about how my fellow writers experience and respond to discouragement by heading over to their blogs:
‘I try different strategies, and the way forward often seems to lie in the space between persevering and allowing time for sifting and settling…‘ Go to Amanda Curtin’s blog
‘Nothing comes out perfect first time.’ Go to Emma Chapman’s blog
‘trust your subconscious...’ Go to Dawn Barker’s blog
‘A residency is a wonderful boost.‘ Go to Natasha Lester’s blog
‘I think there are two main reasons why we become discouraged with our writing. The first relates to difficulties with the project, the second is about ourselves.’ Go to Annabel Smith’s blog