Slogging Through the Mud

Or, what to do when you start a lot of books and don’t have the brain space to finish them?

I’ve been doing a reasonable amount of writing lately, averaging just over a thousand words a day. But I can’t seem to finish anything. There’s the Pride & Prejudice fanfic that needs another thousand words, a series about a medieval mercenary who travels around fantasy Europe and slays monsters, The Garia Cycle, and The Avalon Chronicles. Among others. I think I’ve worked on five or six different projects in the past week, without finishing any of them.

It’s worth noting that I’m sick at the moment. So that’s a reasonable excuse for leaving stories unfinished. But even when I’m feeling okay, I keep getting attacked by plot bunnies that hang around for a few days, demanding that their story be told, then disappear into the night after a few thousand words.

This appears to be a common problem among writers. I take some comfort in the notion that I haven’t abandoned any stories; I’m just not working on that particular story at the moment. And I have been able to come back to a story and finish it after a hiatus.

The way I see it, there are three ways to deal with stories that come and go in your mind:


-buckle down and finish the stupid things. This can be useful for short periods of time, when you really need to hit that deadline, but can lead to crashing and burning after a while.

– take each one as it comes, and have a bunch of half-finished books for when your brain comes back. But you have to make sure you actually finish the story, and it doesn’t fall through the cracks.

-go and do something else, until the brain comes back. Don’t force it too hard, else you’ll end up hating writing.


I’ve been doing a little of all three. I’m making myself write in fifteen minute increments, because anyone can write for that long, and I get about three hundred words out of each increment. I’m also allowing the new plots to show up and take over for brief periods of time, and going back to the old ones when I can. And I’ve started re-learning to sew, which is causing its own set of woes and successes (still can’t figure out why the machine is stitching unevenly, but I’ll sort it out eventually. Figuring out how to adjust the bobbin tension was an accomplishment).

But I’m going to take a nap, now, and see if I can’t get rid of this cold. So, talk among yourselves. How do you handle stories that come and go of their own volition?


(image is from Pixabay; not mine)


  1. It takes me long enough to figure out and outline a plot that I will have scribbled notes for various degrees of other projects in a bunch of files in between starting an active project and finishing it.

    I’m under the weather now, and full of ideas for crud that I’m better off dropping.

    Since I’ve never finished any lengthy fiction, I have no idea how to manage things well without messing up the fiction process.

  2. I am a bit stuck in one story right now, as usual the Great Lord bad guy is the one giving me trouble. He’s done something sneaky a long time ago that got him stuck raising Our Hero at his (extensive) household. Very early Edo period, ~1600ish.

    My problem is what a daimyō could do that would have the Emperor saddle him with the last scion of a samurai family, a child he couldn’t safely kill but could treat harshly. The Great Lord is the owner of a whole castle and the surrounding landscape, basically a little kingdom.

    Our Hero meets Somebody Interesting at a crossroads, and they end up in a face-off with the daimyō himself.

    Thus far my thinking is the daimyō himself managed to kill Our Hero’s family over politics, and the Emperor commanded him to keep the family name alive through the last child. Fast forward, the daimyō is scheming to get in a battle with the next town over, so he can expand his lands and influence, with an eye to overturning the new Shogunate and becoming Emperor himself. But its fuzzy, I can’t quite figure out what he’s thinking. If somebody is going to expose his scheme, they better know what it is.

    I don’t understand bad guys very well. Heroes I’m better at, they’re pretty straight forward. See demon, kill demon, move on.

    1. @Phantom, my husband says that he would be looking to become Shogun, not Emperor, as the Emperor was pretty tied into heredity, and Shoguns might “control” the emperor, but wouldn’t go after him. For that period of time most Shoguns had more power than the Emperor did. And if he tried that, then the other Shoguns would gang up against him to prevent him messing up the ride.

      He said that you thought about him killing off the family and thus being forced to raise the kid was a good idea. Another plot might be that the family of Our Hero was related to the Emperor, and when they were wiped out (by someone else), and the Emperor feels that the Bad Lord is a great swordsman (doesn’t know about his bad dude thoughts), and would thus be able to raise the last child in safety with good training. In general he said that all the Emperor would have to do is to tell the Daimiyo in court in front of the other Shoguns/Daimiyos that, that was what he wanted him to do and the guy would be beholden to do it.

      Maybe that will help?

  3. As for me, I literally have 12 or 13 stories in partial dress, and they all seem to be partying together so I’m not getting anything finished. I feel your pain. But, I haven’t seemed to conquer the whole “come back to them and finish them” thing.

    Get well, soon.

  4. I have several file drawers worth of stuff, from notes scribbled in haste to stuff that needs a thorough rewrite to be ready to go. And I keep getting ideas for stuff I want to write. I really need to go through everything, sort it and inventory it so I can figure out what I actually have so I can start prioritizing my efforts and getting more things done and up.

    And I’ll still have a new idea come along, and it’ll be hard not to go “Oh, Shiny!” and go running off after it like a dog after a squirrel.

  5. Blake, when I don’t feel writerish, I can always work on covers and illustrations. Though I don’t know how many of the matter will make it into the series.

  6. I have a folder (with subfolders by year) of scenes, snippets, half-done, half-baked things, most all unfinished – many stuck around 8-16K words in. Well, sometimes if all I had was a scene, the scene is done; it’s just not connected to anything else.

    And that’s fine. I’ve found that when I actually commit book, if I go back a few months after it’s all done, I can pick out 7-12 things I did over the years prior that ended up, in one way or another, in the finished story. So I don’t beat myself up over it, because it’ll come in handy some day. The folders, I tell myself, is to my creative process what the Danish cookie tin is to sewing; an essential collection of miscellaneous that comes in handy someday.

    What I’ve done as the brain came back, recovering from lack-of-oxygen, is taken a chunk of a stalled work, and tossed it at some alpha readers. Instead of the usual “does this work?”, though, I asked the usual alpha reader questions and finished with “What do you think happens next? How do you think this play out and ends?”

    And when the questions came back, and the scenarios, I found myself thinking over “Oh, I forgot to write this bit, and no, that wouldn’t work… but why wouldn’t it? Well, if I build the world this way…” And that was enough to get me back into the story.

    Which isn’t to say I finished every story I tried this with; some got a rewrite and are better, stronger, and… stuck further in. But it was good practice for working on worldbuilding, plot, characters, backstory, foreshadowing, and means the current story is better for all that. And I can still go back later and pick them up, and try again… as long as the alpha readers are willing.

    And the current story? It’s till coming. Slow, fitful, not always in linear order… reminds me of needlepoint “I thought I was done, but that was only the blues! Now I have to go back over here with yellow, and over there with yellow, and pray that when I get to green it starts to make sense and connect…” But it’s still coming.

  7. I do this ALL THE TIME.

    Literally. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a story over 3000 words or so without working on something else between times.

    The rule is circle around. That is vital.

  8. This happened to me with some short stories. I had ideas for starting, but no clear ideas for ending. Then one year I joined a critique group which required a story a month. My brain responds to external deadlines. I finished all of them. Each month, I suddenly “knew” what was going to happen.

    On the novel side, I started a new series with an ambitious plan to stockpile a bunch of books and do a rapid release, which everyone says works well. I wrote the first two. I started drafting the third. I got stuck half-way through it and decided I might as well get the first two ready for publication while I was stuck because otherwise Nothing Was Happening. Published them. And became unstuck. And, honestly, that break was great because the back brain got to come up with better material than what I had originally planned.

    1. You know, I’ve started sticking gold stars on my wall calendar every day I write something on the WIP – even if it’s 10 words – and while it’s not quite a monthly deadline, I’ve found that after a long day at work, winding down for bed, the pressure of “I have to come up with something, anything to write on this” does actually manage to unstick something. Because I don’t want a gap – I have to keep up the streak!

      It’s rarely as much as I manage when writing in the morning, and always needs editing the next day, but it’s progress!

      1. The act of writing, no matter how little, keeps me mulling over the story. I know there are people who benefit from gaps in writing, but I’m not always one of them. Sometimes I am.

        1. Gaps help my editing, but they rarely help my writing.

          I mean, I can walk away and two years later come back and say, “Ah! The central character is too passive! I must fix that.” But I never come back and say “Oh, this is what happens next; I must write that!”

          Sometimes editing helps springboard the writing; sometimes it doesn’t.

    2. I started outlining because of that. “You! Idea! You want to be written? Tell me how you end!!!!”

  9. Also, as someone who doesn’t succumb to ooh-shiny, I wish I could. I had an idea for a short story in my new series while I was finishing the third book. I knew it was purely my dark side trying to procrastinate on finishing, so I didn’t fall for it. But it was so magical and alluring and I had it all figured out (not true–that sensation of having it all figured out is a lie) and I didn’t start it until I wrote the end on Book 3.

    Now the dark side is telling me that I should have written the short when it was hot, because now it’s not. The dark side may have cookies, but it lies. Writing requires making actual choices. Part of the reason the short was all magical was because it was a procrastination device and my brain was letting me hold several mutually contradictory possibilities in my head at the same time. Of course it’s magical when you can have all variations real at once. But magic is not real.

    Starting the short story was great. Now I’m at the tricky middle and convinced it’s not working, sure it’s dull, etc. That would have happened even if I’d started it as soon as I thought of it. Because I didn’t listen, I have a novel drafted.

    However, I’m stuck and worried that things would have gone better if I’d seized the moment.

  10. I’m not allowing any more plotbunnies into my flat, no matter how cute they look and how bad it’s raining out there. 😛 I know what’s going to happen: they will bring friends, procreate like bunnies, grow a giant variant, and turn trilogy on me.

    Sole exception are those minor ideas that will fit into the Fantasy Monster That Includes Everything and the Kitchen Sink, my fun and training project. Besides that I got three Roman historical fiction novels in various stages of development which are currently on the backburner. Right now I want to write and not disappear in research holes for days (I still do that for my blog). Also, as I said in another comment, I want to improve as writer to do those novels justice.

    I got some more vague ideas with just some snippets written, about the Battle of Nechtansmere, for example, and some idea about something Neolithic / Bronze Age which may include Orkney and the battle of Tollense in north-east Germany. And there’s that novel about the fate of a family of minor noblility in the 10th century which keeps oscillating between straight historical fiction and historical Fantasy with shapeshifters and such. I’ve felt a historical writer at heart for a long time and wish that one would stop playing games. It’s in the drawer right now until it behaves. Or until I break down and decide to write it as Fantasy. 😉

  11. DAY-UM, I really relate to this. Since October, 2019, I’ve:
    – Endured weeks of a truly disgusting respiratory infection, which left me to exhausted to do much besides non-writing work.
    – Just as I was clearing up the crud, my knees developed major pains. For 2-1/2 months, it felt as though I had glass shards between the knee joints. Again, too drained to write.
    – Finally, cortisone shots cleared up the problem, just in time for the holidays. Travel and family obligations interfered until January, 2020.
    – The knees flared up again. This time, I managed (after a few weeks) to get an appointment with an orthopedic guy. He tested for rheumatoid arthritis (but, told me that it was very unlikely).
    – Still having massive problems. The test came back positive, but – again – very unlikely to be a true diagnosis. The rheumatology doctor set an appointment at the end of March.
    – A cancellation got me in quicker. She ran more tests, saying – not RA, she would bet.
    – She called last week – it’s definitely RA, mild case (if a mild case causes this much pain, this is likely to be a difficult condition). Several days later, I was walking and felt a burning pain in the right knee. My husband managed to bully the ortho practice into seeing me the next day. Had to practically carry me to the car.
    – No breaks. Soft tissue injury (sprained ligaments). I’m barely managing on Motrin and with a brace.

    During all of this, I’ve been having troubling concentrating, and my husband has noticed that my memory is not as sharp. Turns out that those are not uncommon symptoms of RA. I’m researching what a change in diet might do, as well as journaling. I’m not up to real writing just now, but I want to keep working. I may have to adjust. I may have to learn to dictate my writing. I just know that this will not defeat me.

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