Restarting A Writing Project

This past week, I started working on Razor Mountain again after taking about a week and a half off. It wasn’t too tough to get back in the swing of things, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take me longer than usual to finish that chapter. And it was really a struggle getting that first sentence out. This particular break was a much-needed rest, and it helped me to recharge and get excited about writing again. It also got me thinking about coming back to old projects.

I have to admit, consistency has never been my biggest strength. I’ve tried to develop a daily writing habit many times, but I doubt it has ever lasted more than a month. I’m the kind of writer that vacillates between periods of productivity and…well, not productivity.

I often find that getting the motivation to write is as big of a challenge as the actual writing. As many authors have said, I don’t always like to write, but I like having written. That motivation can be even harder to find when I’ve let a project falter in the middle. Whether it has been a day, a week, a month or longer, it can be a struggle to pick up where I left off.

Tips for Starting Again

In some ways, the challenge of coming back to a half-finished project is just a very specific form of writer’s block. You may have forgotten where you left off, you may be uncertain where you want to go, you may have forgotten the names of all the minor characters, or you may simply have a hard time getting excited about the thing again. Each of these blocks can be overcome.

Read/Edit the Story So Far

This may seem obvious, but one of the easiest ways to get back into a story is to read what you already have. This can be daunting if you’re halfway through a novel, so you might start with the most recent chapter and see how you feel.

When I reread my work, especially an early draft, I have an immediate desire to edit. That often isn’t the most effective use of time when the work is still unfinished, but in this case it may be a desire worth indulging. Editing is still writing, and it can be a gentle way to ease back into the process. Once I’ve read through the most recent chapter and edited out all the ugly phrasings and typos that popped out to me, I find myself at the end of that chapter, all warmed up and ready to start filling the next empty page.

Read Your Notes

If you’re working on a large enough project that you were taking notes on the side, these can be a much better way of getting back into that “author headspace” than simply reading the story itself. I like to think that my important themes and ideas are going to be obvious on the page, and I’d immediately pick them up on re-reading, but the truth is that most of my first drafts lack that sort of detail.

A few notes on a character’s obsessions or their back-story might be more helpful than the most recent chapter or two. You’ve already written where the characters have been. To move forward, you have to focus on where they’re going.

Start Somewhere Exciting

Sometimes, the place you left off just doesn’t excite you. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to skip ahead or back-track. Ask yourself if the story seems to have gone off-track, or if you’re just more interested in something you know is coming up. It’s okay to jump to the exciting part to get back into writing mode.

This may feel weird if you’re not used to writing out-of-order, but it can actually be good practice. Just think of it as a non-linear story. Jumping ahead doesn’t mean you can’t go back and fill in the blanks later. You may even find that something from the “future” of the story makes going back to write the “past” more interesting.

Ask if It’s Good—or Why You Stopped

On that same note, being bored with a story can be a warning sign. If you stopped because the story wasn’t holding your interest, and you come back to find that you still don’t want to write that part, it may just not be good. That faint sound you hear is Maud Newton in the distance, trying to tell you “Don’t Write the Tedious Thing!”

Try to remember what drew you to these ideas in the first place. Instead of struggling to finish the story you don’t actually want to write, take the time to find the story you’re excited about, and get back to writing that.

Don’t Be Afraid of Breaks

When I took my (relatively short) vacation from Razor Mountain, I was worried about pausing, about losing momentum. The truth is that it was a much needed break, and I felt remarkably refreshed afterward. It took a bit of effort to get started again, but once I had, I found that the words flowed just as well as they always had: sometimes easily, sometimes haltingly, but they were still there to be found, somewhere just above and behind my eyeballs.

If you’re worried about “falling off the wagon,” it helps to have practiced. I happen to be an expert starter-and-stopper, so I know that it can be painful to start again, but I also know that I can. I’ve done it many times before.

You might be able to make it easier on yourself. You can plan it out like a writing vacation, with beginning and end dates. You can leave yourself an exciting spot to start back up, in a scene you love, perhaps even mid-sentence, instead of waiting for some painful sticking spot to take a hiatus. You can leave some notes for your future self to remind you of all the wonderful threads you’re in the process of spinning.

In the end, it’s important to remember that writing is a physical task as well as a mental one. You put down one word after another. Finish a sentence and start the next. If you can do that, you’re writing again.

Burnout

This post is a bit more off-the-cuff than my usual essay-style posts about writing. It’s not prescriptive. I don’t have any conclusions or answers. I just have a few things I felt like talking about.

Writer’s Block vs. Burnout

Writer’s block is wanting to write, but finding yourself unable to get the words out. It is perpetually romanticized (by some writers, and some non-writers). If you do a google search, you’ll find millions of suggestions for how to “break through” writer’s block. I’ve made my own contributions.

Burnout, on the other hand, is losing even the desire to write. It’s writing depression; it’s losing the joy or even interest in the stories that compelled us to write in the first place.

The Grinding Gears of the Content Machine

Gone are the days when writers would toil away quietly, hidden from the public eye, perhaps producing a novel every couple of years. (Or wait, was there ever really such a time?)

To be a successful writer today, you are expected to do everything. If you’re a traditionally published midlist author, publishers are doing less and less for you. You’re expected to do more of the marketing and promotion. If you’re self-publishing, then you not only have to do everything yourself, but you’re probably paying out of your own pocket for services like editing and layout. Either way, you need to have a social media presence on a list of sites that changes every few years. You need to be entertaining. You need a Substack newsletter. You need to dance on TikTok with your book, or some shit.

The publishing industry is a massive beast, and it’s slow to change, but it’s clearly moving in the same direction as other modern media. The focus isn’t on making something amazing occasionally, it’s on making a constant stream of “content.” It’s quantity over quality, the obsession with capturing views and the fear that if you give anyone a reason to glance away, even for a moment, they’ll forget about you and never come back.

Earlier this week, I reblogged Lincoln Michel’s post, subtitled “Why are we more comfortable talking about output than art?” That was right about the time when I realized I was falling into exactly that trap.

Background Radiation

Stress is like background radiation. COVID has been stressful, but things are improving, right? It was really bad, and now it’s…better? It’s pretty hard to tell. I used to work in an office, and I’m still working from home. My kids are back in school, but they’re wearing the mandatory masks. Everything is just not quite right. Just a little bit tainted.

I have no intent to talk about politics on this blog, but political strife has come to permeate more and more of modern American life. Where you live is a political choice now. The car you drive is a political choice. Where you work is a political choice. And, of course, how you’re dealing with COVID is a deeply, deeply political choice. It taints everything it touches: a slow poison in the air.

These are the kinds of background radiation that most of us are dealing with every day. I feel bad even complaining about it, because others have it so much worse than I do. But that stress wears away our defenses. It weakens us in body and mind. Winter and the upcoming holidays pile a little more on top.

That building stress level didn’t really come front-and-center in my consciousness until this Friday, when the software development world collectively freaked the hell out over this thing now known as Log4shell, and my entire team got to drop everything we were working on to frantically search for possible exploits and figure out whatever mitigation was needed. Probably the worst computer security issue found in the last year or two.

Oddly enough, that huge stress spike in my day job helped me to realize the stress I had been putting myself under when it came to my writing. Somehow, it snuck up without me realizing. Nothing like realizing you’re sad and have been for a while.

Observing the Signs and Portents

In my February 2021 “State of the Blog” post, I mentioned a two-posts-per-week schedule. I talked about building up a buffer of pre-written posts. Even a whole month’s worth! And maybe, just maybe, adding a third post per week. After all, I was being careful to avoid burn-out.

In my August 2021 “State of the Blog” post, I had apparently given up on the two-month buffer. But I talked about adding a third post to the weekly schedule. Maybe. Sometimes.

I was certainly up to three posts per week when I began actually publishing chapters of Razor Mountain at the start of November. That threw the existing schedule out the window. I decided I would post a chapter of Razor Mountain each week, while still doing a weekly development journal and a weekly post about writing. That left me scheduled to write 4-5 posts per week. And my stats show that I have indeed posted 4-5 times every week from the start of November until last week.

It can also be observed that pretty much every chapter development journal contains some mention of “falling behind.” Despite having one chapter written when I started, I was behind my self-imposed schedule by Chapter 3, and pretty much unable to keep up from that point forward. That makes sense when I had been steadily increasing my expected output. Unfortunately, the power of wishful thinking makes it sometimes seem reasonable to start behind schedule and not only catch up, but get ahead.

In short, it’s easy to get caught up in a self-determined schedule despite that schedule being objectively unreasonable. In my case, I really wanted to be able to finish publishing the book in a year, and I did not want to consider evidence that the schedule was not practical for me.

The Creative Pathology

I am a naturally lazy person. I am the sort of person who absolutely delights in staying up until 1:00 or 2:00 AM, and then will happily sleep past noon. I love to spend a Sunday playing video games all damn day. Without an external stimulus, I am capable of truly astonishing feats of procrastination.

Yet, in complete opposition to this laziness, I am a person deeply concerned with my legacy (as pretentious as that word sounds). I’m terrified of dying without leaving behind any artifacts that somehow prove my worth. Is a life worthwhile if it doesn’t leave behind ample evidence?

Intellectually, I know that’s ridiculous. Emotionally, it’s a feeling I can’t shake. I’m Ozymandias, from the famous Shelley poem.

No matter what we leave behind, memory is always temporary. Some lives are remembered longer than others, but nothing lasts forever. We’ll all be broken statues in the desert eventually.

Still, this dichotomy is probably what drives me to create more than anything else. I know that I can easily fall back to that default state of lethargy. I’ve certainly done it before. There’s a sort of frantic worry somewhere down deep that if I ever stop, I won’t be able to start back up again. The feeling that I need that inertia. Moderation has never worked well for me. It’s just a stepping stone back into apathy.

I don’t think that kind of internal push and pull is healthy, but I suspect it’s the sort of engine that drives a lot of creative people. We’re all Ozymandias, trying to not be forgotten.

(a typical gathering of writers)

Perspective

In a deeply ironic twist, while I was worrying about my output, WordPress came around like an excited puppy and informed me that I hit a new record for page views in a single day. Someone sharing a link or a new reader going through the back catalog still gives me more of a bump in readership than a typical post.

So, is it really worth stressing about?

No. That’s probably obvious from the outside looking in. It’s just a blog. It’s just a novel. If there’s anything I take away from all this, it’s that it’s very easy for things to feel more important in a given moment than they are in the long-term.

I’ve taken a week off the novel, and I might take more. I’ll take a little bit of holiday vacation to de-stress. And I’ll pick back up where I left off and keep writing, maybe not worrying quite so much about schedules and the endless churn of “content.”