Familiarity Breeds Contempt: What Do Writers Do When They’re Sick of Their Novel?

812896_grumpy_girl_There are lots of phases and lots of components to the writing process. Some of us arrange them differently, and some of us approach them differently, but one stage almost every writer–if not every writer–goes through is the “If I have to edit this novel one more time I am going to punch a hole through my computer screen” phase.

I usually approach that phase toward the end of a project: after multiple edits, beta reader responses and subsequent edits, and even a proofread or two.

At this point, my story isn’t only “no longer new.” At this point I know the plot so well, and am so familiar with all its ins and outs, that I get bored with it and start to incessantly pick at little thing after little thing. I’ll change some wording and then change in back. That kind of thing.

I’ve written before about the problems of getting stuck on one paragraph or one section while editing, and what to do when that happens. I find that situation occurs for me most often when I don’t feel like looking at my novel anymore to begin with.

When people say that “familiarity breeds contempt,” they often mean familiarity with people, but the adage applies equally to works of art.

I never thought when I started writing that I would eventually get sick of my book. But that’s happened with every book I’ve written: as much as I love my characters and respect them and their adventures, I’ve gotten sick of them.

So, what do you do when this happens? I got to contemplating that and to examining my personal experience with this phenomenon, and I’ve got a few suggestions that you can take or leave or adapt as you will.

  • KEEP SIGHT OF YOUR GOALS. This is particularly important if the blahs hit when you’re nearing the end of the process. Are you going to self-publish? Seek an agent? Submit your novel to competitions such as the Amazon Breakthrough Novelist competition? You can use those visions of completing your journey to motivate you through the final rough patch.
  • IF NEEDED, TAKE A BREATHER. This can work well when your deadlines are self-imposed and flexible. Write a short story. Work on some poetry. Edit a different novel if you have more than one in stock. Outline or plan a new novel. Give yourself a little distance when you get sick of your project: Distance is incredibly important.
  • OUTSOURCE BACK TO YOUR BETAS. Another great tactic for the final edits…. If you’ve incorporated suggestions from your beta readers, read through the changes 2 or 3 times, and can’t bear to read through the chapter another time, why not ship it out for a second opinion? Not the entire novel: just the part that required a lot of work and might still need some polish. See what someone familiar with the story has to say about the new version. You can work on something else while you wait to hear back.

So, what do you think about this? Have you reached the saturation point with a novel or short story, or maybe even a poem you worked on extensively?

How did you handle the burnout?

If you enjoyed this post, you might like these other posts about editing. And don’t forget that you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page, if you don’t want to miss out on future posts.


46 responses to “Familiarity Breeds Contempt: What Do Writers Do When They’re Sick of Their Novel?

  1. I have had this happen and I find it helps to just take a break and work on something else until I have some new insight or enough distance. Sometimes I will find someone new to read a section I have been having trouble with or read some other part of the story just to get a fresh perspective and see it with different eyes. I’m always amazed at some of the things other people who aren’t familiar with the story have to say because it is usually something I hadn’t thought of at all and beta readers hadn’t mentioned. Of course the someone new is always someone I know thinks differently than I do and usually hasn’t read the entire work because I find that tends to give them too much to think about, too many things to consider when all I want is a fresh opinion on a certain chapter or section of a chapter.

    • That’s a great suggestion, thanks for sharing!!! I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me to share a section with someone who hasn’t read the entire novel. WOW. Everything you say here makes total sense, though!!! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ll have to do that next time I hit a trouble area.

  2. I handled the burnout by trashing the entire thing… But my contempt for my novel ran pretty deep, and it’s been years… I actually sat back and determined what my problem with it was, discovering that it was overly complex, too complex for my usual writing style to handle (wherein I just keep everything in my head and let it come out as needed). So I began developing a sort of guide to help me manage it. It seems to be working because I can adapt that guide, which helps me to make any changes to my novel as I go on (if I need to make changes to the mythology or customs of the people or governments of the nations or whatever other nuances I have to attend to).

    • NICE! It’s true that the more complex the story, the more useful an outline/guide of some type can be. It can be helpful to “feel out” changes in the guide before you institute them. Glad you found a way to avoid wasting all that effort you had put in previously!

      I generally write without an outline and end up making all kinds of changes and substantial edits. I might need to get some kind of guide together for the changes I want to make to my current WIP, actually ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I’m kind of at this stage now with my WIP. What I’m working on with my writing partner is something that has been around us indifferent formats and interpretations for about eight years and now we’re actually close to having a completed draft done I’m a bit sick of it and I would love to take a break for it but I also want to get this draft done. So I’m going to persist and get it wrapped up, then have a break as my writing partner goes through it.

  4. I was at this stage with my new book up until about a week ago. I was ready to throw the whole thing into the fireplace. I was sick of looking at it and almost to the point of hating the book. But now I’m excited again. September 9th is the big day. My proof looks great and I love it again- my brain baby is about to be born.

    As for avoiding burnout, I agree with JCCKeith. You have to put the project down, get some air, work on another project… Anything to get your mind off of the stress of that troublesome work. You come back refreshed with a mind to get back into it and get it done.

    Great post, Victoria! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and best of luck with your release!!! I find there’s NOTHING to get me stoked about my project again like a proof copy in my hands!!! There’s NOTHING like that moment ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I was going to read another post of yours, and then I saw this and thought, I’ve been here!!!!

    My Waldorf story has been easily 7yrs in the making. And I’ve definitely wanted to give up on it but as you say, I thought about the end result, my goal and was serendipitously reminded of this when folks emailed me about it or when I started to read it to a writers group.

    I can echo what you are saying, giving it to friends to read and reading it to a writers group can help you appreciate what you’ve written and give you a fresh perspective and jolt out of the ‘sick of this’ blues! Cheers!

  6. I agree too. A break and fresh eyes are the best for your project and sanity. I’m in the end stages of editing and just when I think I have done enough, I do another quick read through and bam, there’s another mistake or ‘boring’ paragraph. I have noticed that I have started over editing, like changing lines and words one way then in the next read through I change the line back to the original. You want it to be the best it can be but at one stage you have to just sit back and decide wether the edits are contributing to the story or just leading you in circles.

    • Oh my gosh totally. I have noticed the same thing when I edit, so I’m so glad you mentioned circle editing! Changing things, and then changing them back. UGH. I get in that cycle and it’s not good. Definitely time to let it go to someone else at that point!

  7. I’m at the saturation point with one of my books and this is after a few months away from it. I use the ‘not another editing run’ feeling as the point where I’m on my last push. If I go beyond that then I start making changes for the sake of making changes and just making a mess. I push through this last edit where I’m meticulous and slow because I don’t want to do it again. Then beta readers if anyone is up to this point.

  8. Boy, can I relate to this.Glad to know I am not alone

  9. NancyS.Goodman

    Such a wonderful and timely post! I love the idea of shipping it out ot th beta readers for a quick peek! Tweeted

  10. Jane Taylor Starwood

    Excellent post, Victoria. I guess we all run into this problem sooner or later. I put my novel Shattered Blue aside for several months, thinking I’d never finish it. I was sick of reading it over and over and not figuring out how to solve the problems. But then one day I picked it up again, and to my surprise, I enjoyed it and came up with ways to fix what was wrong. Now it’s my first self-published novel and is getting great reviews.

    I think a lot of burn-out is just being trapped inside the problems. We need to back off, take a break, and come back to it refreshed.

    Thanks for all the great posts!

    • That’s a fantastic point; it really is getting trapped in the problems, running them over and over and getting nowhere. Sometimes a bit of distance can clear your head and allow you to see the solution because you can view the problem from a different angle.

  11. Thank you for your insightful article!!! l have hit this wall many times in my writing. At first, I thought it was because the writing was not a good story. Then, I realized that it had been good enough to hold my attention for however long it took to get it to the stage it was at when I got sick of it. I didn’t realize that other authors went through this! I am so glad to know I am not alone in this! I had read somewhere that an author needed to take a breather from their writing, to give it a fresher perspective. I didn’t know when this should happen. Now, I do! Thank you.

    • I’m so glad the post was helpful for you!!! You are DEFINITELY not alone. I hit this wall myself a lot. When I first realized it was normal was when Stephen King made a throwaway reference to visceral reactions to a draft after multiple edits in “On Writing” ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. For me, I always have more than one WIP going. Once I finish an edit on one, I start on another. Itโ€™s slower going, but whenever I come back to a WIP, itโ€™s brand new, and Iโ€™ve been so focused on the other one that I can look at the new one with a better perspective.

    • That seems like a fantastic policy! Distance is not only emotionally necessary but it does provide fresh eyes and allow you to be more unbiased. I usually have more than one WIP in different stages, but am not as good as you at going back and forth, back and forth ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. When I get to this point, I know it’s time to let it rest for a while. One novel rested for two years, another only three weeks. But time needed to pass. I also know that if I’m in a bad mood, I won’t like anything I’ve written. So a moody day is not the day for me to tackle a troublesome passage in my book. Thatโ€™s a day for taking a nice long drive or walk and recharging my batteries.

    • Love that approach! There is so much more to life than writing ๐Ÿ™‚ a “bad writing” mood day is a great day to soak in other things, like nature and family and friends ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Great blog, Victoria! The taking a breather approach is a big one for me. My first novel has taken five years to write, but I went into it understanding that I was using this novel to learn how to write a novel. For that reason, I scrapped it twice and rewrote it. But talk about familiarity. The final few edits weren’t so bad, but the ones just before that…ouch. I had to get away. Even if you’re not tired of reading the same stuff, you should still take a break in order to clear your palette, so to speak. At that point, you’re just too close to the mosaic and need to get a fresh perspective.

    • Thanks for dropping by and sharing your experience! My first novel taught me how to write as well. Rather than rewrite it I just moved on to something else… Maybe in the future I’ll decide to rewrite it, though. What a hoot that would be! ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Editing definitely leads to burnout for me, at least if I don’t give myself a break. I’ve found that it’s easiest for me to plow through editing in a few days and then take a breather. If I drag it out too long, I start to get burned out. That approach is not however, for everyone ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. So many comments, clearly you’re not the only one!

    My biggest regret re: my WIP is not taking it to my writing group sooner. I’ve rewritten the beginning so many times that I can’t stand to look at it any more. I should have gotten feedback on it sooner so the invigorating responses were better timed.

    I think this is another reason why it helps to work in chronological order. I generally write scenes out of order, but when editing it helps to start a chapter back so I can fall back into the flow of the story. When I’m looking at the scene out of context, it’s harder to get excited about it.

    • that’s a GREAT point. I generally edit in order, from page one through the end, unless I feel particularly and strangely inclined to hop onboard some work that will be tough and get it done ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks so much for sharing your experience! Glad to hear you have a writes group: a community of writer support is so important! ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Pingback: Accepting the Writing Rhythm | The struggle to be a writer that writes

  18. Reblogging! ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Reblogged this on Proseia and commented:
    If you’re a writer of fiction and you’re not following this lady’s blog, you’re doing it wrong. Check out her posts and I’ll bet you won’t feel quite as flounder-y and lonely about the writing process as you did before. ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. Reblogged this on High Fantasy Addict and commented:
    Yup… I’m so here…

  21. I have just finished the process of editing (well, my editor did), with tears, rebellion, and yes, “wanting to punch a hole through my computer screen” (not at the editor). I questioned every “strike through, every comment about, “it has to move the story forward”. But, everything (well, not everything) the editor did. did make the story better and I a glad of it (as difficult as it was).

    • AWESOME. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. We all need that firm, tough, but genuine love sometimes, and it definitely doesn’t come easy. It helps to know it’s tough for us all!

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