Monday, 2 June 2014

Week Six: Novel Avoidance Syndrome

Okay, huddle up. It's time for an awful truth to be exposed.

Novels do not want to be written.

How silly she is, I hear you cry, novels do not have a mind of their own. Novels are inanimate objects. In fact, they are both invisible and ineffable while still unwritten. Novels come from our own heads, ergo the author must be in command of the novel-writing process, not the novel itself.

The machine gun hammer of keys should be all your brain hears. Not the siren call of new ideas ...

Well, yes. And most of us are in command of our novels, most of the time. But sadly, at some point, if circumstances are right for revolt, the novel may end up leading the author round by the nose.

Novel-In-Charge or Novel Avoidance Syndrome are closely linked, and are both diseases that manifest in various forms, some less serious than others, some positively fatal if allowed to progress unchallenged.

When the novel wrests control from the author, there may be stubborn runaway characters with minds of their own, narratives which demand to be in first person instead of third, plots that won't follow your synopsis, books that refuse to finish, books that refuse to start, and worst of all, those dastardly novels that simply stick their thumbs in their belts partway through and refuse pointblank to be written at all.

Sometimes there's a subtle progression from hiccup to total collapse. The novel does not always make it obvious to the author what's about to happen by manifesting the tricks noted above. Instead, your novel simply creeps away into the back of your head when you're looking the other way, a potentially dangerous shift which allows a space to open up. A space where other ideas - more beguiling, far superior ideas - may begin to take the place of your current novel. Then BANG, you wake up one day and your novel has gone.

There may be other, less obvious warning signs of imminent collapse.

You take more coffee breaks than you should. You stop for unnecessary research. You gaze out of the window. You watch the entire boxset of something vaguely connected to your novel's background. You accept invitations to lunch. You shop online. You tweet all morning and share funny photos on Facebook. You put off writing for a day, then fail to come back the following morning. You suddenly decide to cook a special supper. Every evening. For several hours when you would normally be writing.

If you've spent your precious writing time browsing in the local library, there may be worse problems ahead than a late fine.

This is how the final collapse may happen. Late one evening, after a successful day at the word-face, often when you're feeling on top form and the novel is swimming along nicely, you find yourself reaching for a notepad or the back of an envelope to scribble down an idea which has just flashed through your teeming brain.

Wow, you think. That's the best novel idea since *insert name of Famous Novel here*. I must write this book. But not yet, of course. First I must finish Novel One. Brilliant, two fantastic ideas one after the other. I'm on a roll. What a clever author I am.

The next day, you wake up with this new novel idea still bubbling away in your head. Go away, you say firmly. I'm writing Novel One first. And so you slope off to your desk, or where/however you write, and try to concentrate on today's word count.

But bizarrely the going has become heavy since the day before. Your boots stick in the mud. You may be taking enemy fire. After some valiant attempts to write, you pause, puzzled, and read back what you've written so far.

To your horror, the novel that was racing along superbly now sounds thin. Your great story idea, once so promising, is hollow and superficial. It lacks ... Well, it lacks what Novel Two is clearly bursting with.

You are dismayed. What now? You look at your unfinished typescript, and suddenly you can't face that long trudge through mud to the finish line, through howling wind and rain.

But Novel Two ... Ah now, that's a charming prospect. The sunny uplands of that intriguing first chapter beckon, a story so compulsive it will almost write itself, characters so powerfully drawn you can see that writing award dancing before your eyes.

So you throw Novel One aside, type Chapter One again, and head off into the glorious unknown, whistling a happy tune.

A few weeks or months later, you find yourself reaching for a notepad or the back of an envelope to scribble down the most exhilarating idea for a new novel that you've ever had. Wow, you think. This is bloody brilliant, it's bound to be a pageturner ...


Okay. Here are some ways to deal with Novel Avoidance Syndrome. You learn these as you get more experienced as a writer, mainly from having suffered too many times from lost and broken novels. So here is my approach.

In the early stages, note when you are taking too many breaks from writing, whatever the reason, and change your schedule to push yourself back into the book. Put your head down and write whatever comes out, even if it sounds like garbage to your ears. It may be garbage, but equally it may not. Your creative brain may be out of kilter and you can no longer tell. Just stick it down anyway. The theory is, you can't rewrite what hasn't been written.

And ignore pleadings from the soul that the book is flawed in some way. These are often dream voices from a weary psyche, begging you to stop working so it can rest. If the book is genuinely broken, promise yourself you will start again. BUT NOT UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED THE WHOLE NOVEL. Only when you have finished will you - or another reader - be able to see if this 'broken plot' thing is an illusion of the writing process, or a true problem.

And new novel ideas? The ones that come in the night, or while staring out of a rainy window?

Always keep a notepad on hand.
Write the new novel plot down in a notepad, or type it up in a few spare moments, then put that new idea away AND DO NOT THINK OF IT AGAIN.

Exercise self-discipline, even if you think of creative writing as something floaty and marvellous. It really isn't. It's actually hard work. It's a job like any other, like collecting the bins or doing someone's annual accounts.

Tell yourself, There is nothing wrong with the novel I am writing. Repeat after me, one novel at a time. Finish what you start, regardless. Consider the novel writing process as akin to clearing your plate. Eat those lovely greens. Type THE END, and then you can get that notepad out and type Chapter One of your new novel.

Teach yourself to succeed by teaching yourself to finish. Visualize yourself finishing your current book and starting a new one. Don't despair, don't give up. Keep on truckin'.

And if all that fails, don't ask me to read your unfinished book and explain why you no longer want to write it. I've told you. It's all in the mind.

QUESTION: Have you ever suffered from Novel Avoidance Syndrome, and if so, how did you beat it? Or are you in its grip right now?

Answers in the comment box below please. Thanks for taking part in the debate!


  1. In its grip right now! I'm supposed to be settling down to a serious edit of the young adult novel. I have plenty of motivation - the beginning (the first 30 pages) was recently shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Prize. It didn't win but I attended a sumptuous dinner and met agents who told me I was welcome to send it when it's ready. So what have I done this last week? 'Cleared the decks' - I mainly write short stories as Rebecca Holmes for the women's magazine market, so want to get some of these out first, as they're my bread and butter writing. Fair enough in some ways - but it's surprising how long it takes. I mean, I'm on here, aren't I? Still, two stories nearly ready to go out so I don't have nightmares about not having work 'out there', then I WILL immerse myself.
    Thanks for the timely reminder and hints. It's nice to know I'm not alone. :-)
    Lilian Butterwick

  2. Excellent post, Victoria. I can empathise with everything you write here, and I have the file bursting with 'brilliant' ideas for future novels and short stories to prove it.
    You're right though, the key thing is to jot down all those light bulb ideas, type them up, and file them safely away. Never...never...give up on the WIP to pursue a new project on a whim.

  3. Oh yes. On novel #3 (out next year!), I took several months off because I was convinced I could not and should not write it. The subject matter seemed too big, too important for little old me. BUT it nagged me. I continued my research and decided to feel the fear and do it anyway. So I jumped back in. Result! Real result: finished novel sold by brand new agent for more money than I have ever earned in one go. Moral? Stick with it if it nags/begs/needs to be written.

  4. Totally agree. Found myself abandoning a novel because it was wandering off on its own, and I didn't like where it was going. So I started scribbling down an outline for a new, shinier, and infinitely more exciting book, when I realised I had fallen into this trap before, but had persevered and been pleased with the result. Books reach a tough stage, for me it's somewhere in the middle, when the prospect of further research and the unpicking of muddled plot lines, makes a blank page and an unimpeded imagination seem so much more appealing. But I am learning that this is all part of the process. So I have returned to the story, and although it is slow going, I am surprising myself. You must stick with it!

  5. I've definitely been in the grip of NAS, and have three abandoned novels to prove it! I'm sticking with the current WIP come hell or hight water, otherwise I'll have nothing finished by the end of this year.

  6. H.E. Bates said you have to wrestle your story to the ground and keep it pinned there. Don't let it wriggle away.

  7. This has happened again and again which is why I have three unfinished novels sitting in a drawer but this time I will keep going until the end that is a promise.

  8. I seem to have tapped a common theme here. The author and the rapidly escaping novel ...

    Happy writing, all of you! Vx

  9. I wasn't too bad until I took on a sequel. Oh, my word. Got there in the end, with 20,000 words of deletions and rewrites along the way. But I won!.

  10. I've had this for about a year. On and off thinking about ideas I thought were good enough and then scrapping them and coming up with new ideas.

    Then I tried to actually write down my ideas into a novel and ended up re-writing my stuff tones of time. I think the thing to do is to just sit and write and don't stop until you have lots of it written. It may suck, but that is what editing is about, write for now and edit later


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Many thanks, Jane Holland