It’s only natural for a writer to experience some degree of burnout once the initial enthusiasm for a project starts to fade and the questions and doubts come creeping in. In most cases, I find that this is the result of insufficient outlining. No, not the “Roman numeral I followed by capital A” kind, but the kind in which you have laid out all of the major beats of your story ahead of time, and have taken the time to get to know your characters inside and out.
I’ve covered this before, but it’s probably worth doing so again. Before beginning any story, I like to sketch out its structure, like using a blueprint to build a house. I start with the tent-pole moments: Opening, Inciting Incident, Act One Break, Midpoint, Act Two Break, Climax, and Conclusion. Then, I start to look at what has to happen in between each of those major events, and start devising logical obstacles—roadblocks that must be overcome in order for that event to unfold.
The other thing I do is create detailed character sketches for all of the major players. I like to know who they are, where they came from, what their likes and dislikes are… all kinds of stuff that may never make it into the actual story, but that gives it resonance. The most important thing is to know what they want, why they want it, and how they react to stress. Conflict is the driving force behind any good story, and nothing creates conflict quicker than setting a standoff between two characters with opposing objectives. If you can do that for every single scene, you’ll be in good shape.
However… nothing will reveal story like the actual writing of it. As you work your way through the outline, characters will do unexpected things, new plot wrinkles will occur to you, etc. At that point, I always go back to my outline and modify my sketch. You don’t have to be married to the thing, but it sure helps to use it as a guideline.
My point is that if you already have a good idea of what’s going to happen before you sit down to write each day, it’s much less likely that you’ll get stuck or burn out before reaching the end. It simply becomes a matter of taking the time to hammer out that page or two or five or ten—whatever you can manage. It allows you to focus on smaller chunks, to achieve small goals each day, rather than always staring down a long dark tunnel, wondering what awaits you at its end.
This doesn’t work for everyone, of course. Some people actually find extensive outlining to be counterproductive in that, by knowing all the twists and turns of their own story, they become too bored with it to actually want to write it. In these cases, I’d suggest finding some other way to entertain yourself. For example, maybe you’re writing a murder mystery and are disinterested because you already know who the murderer is. Because of that, however, you’re better able to use foreshadowing and misdirection throughout the first draft, planting clues and red herrings and the like. Sometimes, these are the most enjoyable aspects of writing, knowing that you’re setting the reader up to believe one thing when, by the end, you’re going to surprise them with the exact opposite.
Another possibility is that you’ve lost track of the emotional core of your idea. Something drove you to write this story to begin with, and every now and then, it’s worth taking a fresh look at that basic premise to remind yourself of what that was—giving yourself an emotional boost, so to speak.
Finally, it may be that your subconscious is trying to tell you that you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Something about the story is no longer working as you know it should, though you can’t quite pinpoint why. In these cases, it’s often best not to plow through, but to step back and consider matters from a different angle. Stop to take a fresh look at the characters involved, to see if their motives and behavior are consistent. Look at the staging of the scene, to see if maybe there’s a more dramatic way to present that particular story point. If these efforts don’t help, it may be that you’re trying too hard, and have to distract yourself from the story altogether before a solution will present itself.
Quite simply, there’s no simple answer. Burnout comes in many different flavors, and the solution to it may not be readily apparent. The best thing I can recommend is to take what time you can to reevaluate what you really want to say with your story, and how you mean to say it. Even the very best story ideas are going to leave you crawling through the muck at some point—especially if you don’t have a map as to where you’re going. The choice then becomes to pull yourself out and find the road again, or to keep slogging your way through. Either way, if you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to overcome.