Sally from the VISION Writers list asked for a post on:
‘How to find your way back into a story when you’ve been away for awhile’? With either the writing or re-writing process. I think skilful, seasoned writers might probably say – don’t leave in the first place! But life just happens, sometimes. And it feels like the story grows a tough hide in the meantime, that’s hard to pierce through and get back inside of. Tried and true ways to get back inside?’
Sally, this really hit a nerve with me.
I’ve spent since July last year working on The Outcast Chronicles trilogy that was written 6 years or more ago. Normally, if I come back to something, I’ll read it from beginning to end, let it brew for a bit, then tackle it once I have a vision for the whole thing. But because this was a complete trilogy of 500 pages each book, I couldn’t do this. So I re-read the synopsis (spelling plural?) and plunged into the clean up rewrite, while also bearing in mind the requests from my editor, based on his reading of the synopsis.
This has proved really challenging, with major changes happening, books ending in different spots, sub plots taking on large significance and one character’s age changing. All of this had a roll-on effect and I’ve been riding the roller coaster of reworking the trilogy ever since.
In terms of having breaks in the writing – that’s one of the reasons I left a mentally-intensive job (journalism) and went into a mentally easy job (supermarket). At the checkouts I had to concentrate, but when I was wandering about putting up stock or tidying up displays, I often found myself working through where I was up to next in the story, so when I did get the chance to sit back down I knew where I was headed next.
For editing I have to leave the story alone – I can’t edit straight away, I need the break in order to look at it objectively. Only requires a few weeks, but necessary. I’ve got a bad habit of only seeing what I think should be on a page, rather than not what’s really there if I look at it again too soon (my English teacher used to go spare over this).
One thing I like to do (which is easy when you’re working on a series) is when I’m putting one book down, I work on drafting/editing another. It keeps me in the world, but not engaged with those characters (except in a minor way) or with that part of the storyline. However, this often leads to insights and understandings about the book I’m not working on that helps me when I come back to working on it – a good thing.
Otherwise, I have a series of things I use to get back into the story. One is to re-read and re-discover the story. You’ll sometimes here people say ‘don’t read what you’ve written, keep writing’ but sometimes you need the reminder. I use some meta-documents such as scene outlines and colour charts to help me look at the book objectively and see where its flaws and weaknesses are.
One more thing – I think we can get so caught up in the idea of ‘I’m a writer and I have to keep writing, regardless of what happens’ and to a certain extent, that’s true, particularly if you get a contract. But I also believe that there are times when life just says ‘Dude, settle – give yourself a break, you’re doing fine and it will all work out’. I had a couple of years where I barely wrote a word of fiction (it was all in my work at the newspaper) and I just trusted that it would work out. Sure enough when the time was right, I picked up the trilogy again (after a four year break) and sold it two years later. So find what works for you and do that.
Good question, Sally, and I love your metaphor of the hide that grows on the abandoned story – like skin on hot milk when you let it go cold. You’ve already undercut my first response, which would be, Don’t leave it behind in the first place. For me, more than a week away means a major struggle to get back into the groove; more than a month away, and I usually end up rewriting everything I’ve already written. I think the story, world and characters are like a dream at the back of my mind; and if I go away for too long, they fade like a dream too.
So my first advice would be, try to add a tiny bit to the story every day or every second day, even if it’s only a sentence or a single short paragraph. Keep it turning over, keep it alive in your mind. Failing that, I guess all you can do is re-read and hope to recapture the thread. But it’s a huge drag!
1. Read what you’ve written, right through. Make marginal notes about what you MIGHT do, ideas for scenes, bits of dialogue you hear, atmospheres you feel from the existing material. Also, it’ll be very clear, as you read, where chunks are missing/overwritten. Mark these places. You might be able to jump right in at this point, but…
2. If you still haven’t got a handle on the story after the read-through, consult the scrapbook you made for it. If you didn’t make one, assemble one now; for a short story, a double-page spread might be enough, or even a single picture, if you find the right picture. Try and be relaxed and open while you put this together, ready to approach the story from a number of different angles. This step might get you going again, but…
3. Still tense and panicked? Hold the story and the pictures in your head while you do something mechanical (washing dishes) or physical (swimming laps). Focus on entry points for one or more scenes, either old scenes that you’re now repairing/rewriting, or entirely new ones that are going to drag the story off in a different direction. Just gently prod your imagination to work on some bit of the story, doesn’t matter what bit. I’d be very surprised if you haven’t got going by now, but…
4. Tell yourself, ‘I’ll just finish off THAT scene,’ or ‘I’ll just write TWO PAGES’. Sit down and write. Have a number of places-to-start at your fingertips, so that if that scene doesn’t work you can jump in again from another direction.
5. Keep going. The rest is doggedness.
I’d have to agree there is a very large component of Determination. It has been like a sauna here in Brisbane. I’ve been sitting at the computer with heat radiating off the screens, a wet washer on the back of my neck, writing. As long as I meet my page quota each day I’ll be OK.
So there you are, Sally. Hope this helps.
Anyone else have tips for how they get back into a manuscript?