Is this the year you recommit to a project that’s languished, unfinished, for months or years? The one where you think:
when I can dig out my notes…
and have a few solid hours to really dive in…
Newsflash: Your calendar will never magically pop up “Today You Can Focus Entirely on That One Project.” To finish that book on the back burner, you must actively bring it forward.
First, pick one. (You know you have more than one.)
Which project gets you closer to a big life goal? Or envision boarding a lifeboat, where you’re allowed to bring only one manuscript. You probably already know in your heart. Part of every artist loves to dither, saying, Yeah, but if I work on that other thing, maybe… That dithering part of us is basically a three-year-old negotiating between a sundress or their superhero suit for preschool today. Mother Creativity doesn’t care, as long as we get out the door.
- Pick the one you’re excited about, especially if it’s your first book.
- If you make money as a writer and you need money now, pick what makes the most money the fastest.
- If you make money as a writer and you don’t need money now, or you write for fun but want to make money eventually, pick the one you’re excited about. When you reach the murky middle, half-heartedness won’t get you through.
It’s important to commit.
Ask your project: What’s holding me back? Do you need more information? An outline of your story so far? A writing buddy for supportive coworking? Therapy?
Once you’ve chosen, your other works-in-progress will clamor for attention. Every project sounds more fun, more interesting, more exciting than sitting down to what you’ve chosen. This is normal. Your brain is afraid of a big commitment without guaranteed success, so it generates distractions. Stay committed. Write down shiny new ideas, but move on. Remind your brain they’ll be safe until you come back.
Restarting doesn’t have to mean from the beginning. You don’t have to rethink the whole project or make a huge plan or set aside two weeks when your decks are clear (let me just pencil that in for never).
Start small, by “touching” the manuscript almost every day. Don’t sternly assign yourself a word count yet—just take a walk or a shower and actively think about the story. Open up the file and read one page. Tweak a couple of paragraphs. Make a playlist that brings you back to the mood and voice. Keep touching your book, gently renewing your interest and energy until you’re ready to write.
Choose your most supportive, least critical reader and share passages you liked when you originally wrote them. For a restart, I read pages of an abandoned novel to my decidedly non-literary husband. I kept finding bits I liked and thinking OK, not as awful as I remembered. His questions and his “That’s not too bad” (he’s British, so that’s practically seventy-six trombones of enthusiasm) made me excited to dive back in.
Not finding that energy?
You don’t actually have to be “inspired.” Inspiration is like walking into a factory, seeing conveyer belts and drill presses and steam generators and saying, “I could make something with this!” Someone still has to clock in and start work. Give it your best try for a week:
- Use a prompt within your book. For example, every new sentence starts with the next letter of the alphabet. Or imagine an elevator stopping at a particular numbered floor—write about the main character at that age.
- Write the book jacket copy or synopsis to clarify the story in your head.
- Write about what you’re going to write: Scene with Sandy and me in the kitchen, when I realized she was dating my ex and it made me really uncomfortable. She had just dyed her hair blonde and I was alphabetizing the spice rack so I wouldn’t say she looked awful. She said…
And before you know it, you’re writing the scene instead of about the scene. Or at least getting down the first draft by telling the story to yourself. You’ll fix the narrative in the second draft.
Showing up to your project whether or not you’re inspired creates energy and momentum. The most successful writers I know are not waiting for the conveyor belt to bring them the next widget—they’re unpacking parts with no instructions, rolling up their sleeves and tinkering. Working without inspiration can feel weird and awkward and not like your normal happy routine of writing when circumstances are just right (rarely!). See what it feels like to do whatever it takes, to revise or rebuild or seek help with your story.
And if that feeling sucks?
Let the project go.
Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Don’t settle for half-finished.
Let go of the hundredweights of half-pages that were once a great idea. Trust that in your head, in your heart, in your skill, there are multitudes more ideas. Your next beautiful book may be hiding under the weight of a project that feels like an obligation. Be grateful you learned what that writing taught you—then set it aside and commit fully to something you want to finish.
Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publication with many of the best-known outlets in media. As a memoirist, essayist, and travel journalist, Allison has written craft, culture and comedy for National Public Radio, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, and many more. She leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats series and, as Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with weekly blogs on craft and the writing life. Allison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and spent 20 years as a circus aerialist and acrobat before writing and editing full-time. Her book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book will be published by Woodhall Press in September 2021. Learn more at her website.