When the Fire Goes Out (and What to Do When This Happens)

I haven’t touched my novel-in-progress since the second week of July.

Yeah. There’s no way of sugarcoating the truth. The good news is, I haven’t stopped writing altogether. But the first draft of the manuscript I’ve been working on for the past year? The desire to open the Word file isn’t there right now. In fact, I think it had been gone for a while, but it took me several weeks to realize it.

Maybe this has happened to you. At some point during a writing project, despite the passion you felt early on, the fire goes out. You might not know the reason why right away. You might not even recognize what the feeling is at first, so you keep pushing on. But once you do… well, depending on your personality, you might have a hard time accepting it.

Today, I’m here to tell you something important: It’s OK. You’re not alone in this, and maybe something in this post might help you get through it and figure out what to do next.

Why I’m Taking a Break from My Novel-In-Progress, and How I Reached That Decision

Back in May, I took 2 weeks off from the first draft of a YA magical realism novel titled Storm. The time off was partly planned (I went on vacation, including a weekend at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival) and partly unplanned (because, well, life happened). So I wasn’t surprised that once I resumed working on Storm, I struggled to get my head back into the story. I couldn’t visualize the characters or scene locations as clearly as I used to, or put myself in the protagonist’s shoes as easily as I has before.

I told myself not to worry. That as long as I kept up my writing routine, the clear vision I’d had of Storm would come back. So day after day, I showed up for each writing session, then fought to bring the rest of me to the table. It’s not that I wasn’t writing, because I was putting words on the page. But my ability to “see” the story still hadn’t returned, so all the new words felt… directionless. As if the new words didn’t equate to progress. It also didn’t help that every session ended with me feeling weary and frustrated, or that whenever friends asked me how Storm was coming along, I had to force myself to sound excited about it.

Finally, one July afternoon as I was driving home from work, I asked myself, “Do you want to work on Storm tonight?”

The answer: No. Let’s work on poetry, or a different writing project.

That’s when I realized I had lost just not the vision for Storm, but also the passion for it. And if you’re a writer or other kind of creative person, you know how difficult it is to stick with a project when you’re neither seeing nor feeling it anymore.

The Symptoms of Losing Passion for a Writing Project

The strange thing is, it’s easy to mistake the loss of motivation for a work-in-progress (WIP) with other, equally discouraging feelings. For a while I thought I was experiencing a bout of “writer’s doubt,” until I considered the symptoms I was experiencing. Here are some of the signs that indicate the fire may have gone out for your WIP:

  • A sense of reluctance or lack of enthusiasm before you sit down to write
  • Fatigue or frustration when the writing session is over
  • A sense of lack of progress or direction despite the effort you put in
  • An inability to visualize or “step into” the story as clearly as you had before
  • The desire to create excuses for not working on the WIP (My excuse at the time? “Oooh, another World Cup game today! I’ll put off Storm til later so I can [insert other activity] while the game is on.”)
  • The desire to work on other writing projects instead of your WIP
  • A general pessimistic change in attitude toward the WIP
  • Any combination of these symptoms for a prolonged period of time (weeks or months, as opposed to days)

Ten Tips for Managing (and Moving On From) a Loss of Passion for Your WIP

It’s easy to fall into negative thought patterns and unproductive behaviors when the spark for a writing project flares out. So what can you do to move on with more compassion for yourself and renewed faith in your writing? Maybe these tips, which I’ve split into two categories, can help.

The Psychological…

#1: Accept the loss of inspiration. Take a moment to understand what you’re feeling and the source of that emotion. You might not want to admit that you’re no longer compelled to work on your WIP, but it won’t do you any good to ignore the feeling, either.

#2: Avoid being hard on yourself. For me, the worst part came after I realized I’d lost the passion for my story. I beat myself up about it for 2 weeks, dwelling on all kinds of self-defeating questions: “Why don’t I feel like working on it? Am I a quitter? Should I even be writing?” If you also take this route when things don’t go as planned, please avoid guilt-tripping yourself in this way. Battering your self-esteem will only make you feel worse. Instead, be gentle with yourself, and know that it’s OK to feel the way you do.

#3: Release your feelings. It’s understandable if you’re upset about this situation, but it’s not healthy to linger in that feeling. Letting go of guilt, disappointment, and other negative emotions can help you make sense of what’s happened and move on. Journaling allowed me to throw everything I was thinking and feeling onto the page; and afterward, I felt calmer, clear-headed, and lighter. However you choose to release –whether it’s journaling or something else – let it be a method that works for you.

#4: Understand that every writer hits potholes. You’ll run into all kinds of obstacles and setbacks as you work toward your goals. So do other writers, including successful ones. NYT bestselling fantasy author V.E. Schwab openly shares her highs and lows with writing on her Twitter page. So as difficult as some moments may be, it’s important to remember that you are never, ever alone.

#5: Take stock of why you’re writing. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to remind yourself why you’re doing this in the first place. This DIY MFA article by Leanne Sowul shares six ways of determine whether you’re writing for the long haul. Her insights prompted me to reflect on my reasons for continuing to write through the ups and downs, as well as on the goals I’ve reached and successes I’ve had so far.

… And the Practical

#6: Give yourself time to recover. You may be tempted to jump into a new project to fill the void. But in reality, you might need more time before starting something new. Take this break as an opportunity to rest your mind and consider your next steps.

#7: Talk to people you trust. Writing is an act of isolation. Losing steam or hitting other obstacles in your craft can therefore make you feel even more alone. So, as frightening as it sounds, it’s a good idea to reach out to friends who share your creative interests and whose advice you trust. Once I left the guilt-trip stage, I opened up to other writers and supportive friends about what happened with Storm. No one criticized me. Instead, they offered feedback on how to move forward and encouraged me to be patient with myself.

#8: Switch to a different type of writing that inspires you. If you dabble in other forms of writing like poetry, essays, or short stories, shifting your focus to any of these shorter projects can allow you to continue nurturing your craft while letting the long-fiction side of you heal. This is why I’m so grateful for poetry at the moment. Despite losing motivation for Storm, I’ve still had plenty of drive to work on poems, submit them to journals, and read them at open mic nights.

#9: Stimulate your creativity in other ways. Do you enjoy painting? Drawing? Playing an instrument? Composing music? Engaging in these or other creative activities can be a fun and therapeutic way of getting you through this period. Plus, you’ll still be producing something – and that’s always an accomplishment to be proud of.

#10: Keep any previous projects in your “trunk.” There’s always the chance that your passion for the WIP may rekindle in the future. So don’t throw out your notes or delete any files for those “trunked” projects. Instead, put them aside for the day you feel ready and inspired to pick them up again.

Additional Reading to Get Writers Through the Tough Times

Whether you’ve lost the passion for your WIP or experienced a different setback in your writing, these blog posts are much-needed reminders for us to practice perseverance as well as kindness to ourselves during such times. Oddly enough, all of these articles crossed my path during that 2-week period I mentioned in Tip #2, when I needed their messages most. Funny how that works sometimes, huh?

Have you ever lost the vision or passion for a writing project? What was your experience in managing your reaction or emotions and moving on to something new? Did the passion for that story eventually come back? What other advice or insights would you like to share?

25 thoughts on “When the Fire Goes Out (and What to Do When This Happens)

  1. I often fall into this hole. The chasm of disconnection with my WIP. Day job, family, and other new interests take precedence and rule my mind at more times than I’d like. And if I hadn’t forgiven myself for all those times, I wouldn’t still call myself a writer. I wouldn’t still say that I have a WIP, you’ll see it displayed in bookstores one day. You’ll see.

    My trick to getting into the groove is recognizing the warning sign pretty early. And that is possible for me, having been this way many times, because I am on the watch for it. My inner Editor is the best signal. Whenever I find her acting up, I first check whether those other signs you’ve listed above are also present.

    Once I know, my plan-of-action is to immediately go to page one and turn into a potential reader. It soothes me so much and I fall back in love with my WIP pretty soon. Another idea is to talk to my gang of writers (better to find someone who hasn’t heard of my book yet).

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Oh yeah, since I’ve been writing the same stories for years, I lose interest in them frequently haha. Especially after NaNoWriMo when I’ve been with them constantly for a month. But you never know when inspiration will strike again. Sometimes I’ll be watching a movie that somehow relates, or just suddenly see a character in another light, and then the story seems interesting again. You just can’t always control it. Writing is a great lesson in learning to let go! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • It really is. And hearing your own experience makes me feel a little more better (no, wait, that’s not right… even more better? Gah. You know what I mean, I’m sure. *lol*) about my own. I’m so used to sticking with my stories for so long that the act of letting go makes me feel like a traitor. But in reality, it’s OK. It’s normal; all writers go through it.

      Thanks for commenting, Mei-Mei. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a really important issue, Sara. I have a couple of projects that I’ve put on ice as I simply don’t have the headspace for them right now, but I know I will return to them. Have you visited the site Language is a Virus which provides a series of interactive writing exercises? It really helps to bring the joy back to writing…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sarah. I’m at Language is a Virus right now, and it’s a bit overwhelming (in a good way, though!) with all the exercises and writing games it offers. I’ll try to explore it a little more when I have more time.

      I hope, though, that this post didn’t give the impression that I’m not writing at all. The poetry has still been flowing as if the floodgates were opened. So it’s not so much a case of writer’s block as it is burn-out on one particular project.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve had similar things happen to me. One was recent and I talked about it with a friend and discovered that I wasn’t excited about my story because the genre just didn’t work for me. When I decided to switch the genre to something I liked more the fire came back.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Sara, I’ve been thinking of this post ever since it went up last week, and I’m sorry it took me so long to comment. Thank you, first of all, for linking to my posts– I’m grateful to know that they’ve helped you! Secondly, I’m sorry you went through this turmoil but happy you came to a resolution. Writing a book is like being in a very intense relationship– when it’s not right, you know it. Moving on gets you one step closer to finding the one manuscript/person that you truly love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Please don’t worry about that, Leanne. I’m just glad that I reached out to you when I did over the summer, after the “Writing for Life” post went up. Thank you so much again for writing it (and for all of your other posts at DIY MFA – you know how much I love your column), and for the wisdom and encouragement you shared in your email. 🙂

      Like

  6. Pingback: The Creativity Corner: Summer 2018 (Plus, A Question for Readers) | Sara Letourneau's Official Website & Blog

  7. Ahhh – this is something I’ve experienced a lot over the years. I have so many 1/4, 1/2, 1/3 of the way finished projects that it’s sometimes disheartening. But then I look at ALL of the things I finish on a regular basis – papers, knitting projects, drawings, blog posts – and of course, the 10 or so full rough drafts of manuscripts waiting to be polished. I have actually lost all enthusiasm for a novel I got halfway through, only to rediscover my enthusiasm for it a few years later and I finished it! Your advice to always keep it is invaluable – because if you’ve had something excite you once, chances are it can happen again – even if it has to change form. It’s good that you’ve been writing so much poetry though. It gets everything out in a short, controlled space, and allows you to work through things. Thanks for the encouraging post and helpful tips 🙂 This is a good read for me right now (even though I have been writing), as I tend to lose any enthusiasm as soon as school picks up steam ^^

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Rebekah. 🙂 And you’re right – sometimes you have to look at everything you HAVE accomplished rather than focusing on your failures. Besides, the road to eventual success is riddled with potholes, right? It’s all a matter of finding how to move forward in the end, be it with a new project or (if you still have the passion for it) the current one.

      Also, hearing how you were able to finish a manuscript after putting it on hold for a few years gives me hope. 🙂

      And I can only imagine how your enthusiasm for novel-writing might be waning right now now that you’re in South Korea for school! Do you ever feel torn between your desire to sight-see / immerse yourself in the local culture versus writing? Or does the former win out most of the time?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly!
        And I’ve actually finished a couple things after putting them on hold, so there is definitely hope!

        Bizarrely, my enthusiasm for novel writing has been going strong since I’ve been in Korea – everything makes me want to write, lol. The problem is definitely school. And to be honest, my desire to travel and my desire to write are linked. If I go explore, I come back ready to write, but if I write too long, I want to get back outside and practice my Korean. So it really is more of a symbiotic relationship. It’s really just a time balancing thing, I think.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s an awful feeling to have. I’ve been through this on a few times, and I’ve even lost the spark and passion for writing anything at all before. I never like to admit it, but sometimes it’s an indication that I need a rest. And sometimes the spark comes back, sometimes not as bright, sometimes not at all, sadly. I hope your spark returns.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed, it’s one of the most unpleasant feelings for a writer to experience. And yes, it can indicate a need for the writer to rest. If that’s how you interpret it, then yes, give yourself that opportunity to rest. But don’t be hard on yourself while you’re resting, too. I’ve seen some writers express guilt or regret for taking time off from a WIP – and that’s just as draining.

      Thank you btw, VP. We’ll see if the spark for Storm comes back. It might not be anytime really soon, given what currently has my attention… But in the future, I would never say never. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s hard not to feel guilty and frustrated, but you are, as usual, right. 🙂 We have to do what we have to do, and following the path of taking a break, or resting, or walking away, often results in better projects than we would have otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I think the idea of holding onto the work is really important. It seems as if the real trick is balancing writing stuff that interests you while also realizing you might not be inspired 100% of the time. I don’t write fiction (maybe in the future???), but it seems as if the struggle is knowing whether you can “push” yourself to finish instead of giving up on all your projects halfway through and *never* finishing and knowing when it really is time to move onto something different.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed, it’s difficult to be inspired all of the time. But when the desire to work on a particular story is gone for weeks or months, it’s not so much a question of endurance, especially if you’ve done it before. I think that’s what was hardest for me about putting Storm aside. I had finished first drafts for two separate novels before – so why did I not want to finish this one? I had to find a way to stop criticizing myself over that decision, even though it felt like the right thing to do. And in hindsight, given what I’m doing at the moment, I’m actually glad I did. And you bet I’m holding onto that finished draft for another time. 😉

      Thanks for stopping by, Briana!

      Like

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