Do you have an unfinished writing project that you had to set aside before it was finished? Maybe life events intervened. Maybe you got stuck and shifted to a different project. Maybe you just decided to wait for another year when daily existence didn’t suck the life and soul out of your creative energy. Do you think about whether or not to pick back up with that abandoned project and try to finish it? Restarting an unfinished project can be deceptively challenging, involving far more than simply writing the next scene. If the project has been dormant for a while, there’s a good chance that the story has grown ‘cold.’ You can’t remember where the plot was heading. The characters have lost their vivid presence in your mind and feel hollow. Or maybe you are a different writer now than you were before you had to take a break, and you worry that you just can’t match the tone.
Because of a variable schedule on my day job, my writing time comes in fits and starts and I’ve had to restart cold projects on a regular and repeated basis. Here is the process I go through to get myself back ‘into’ the story and some suggestions and strategies for how to revive a cold project and finish it.
First – a warning: When you set your expectations and your goals for the project, keep your flexibility level on overload. Your intention might be straightforward–get back to the project and finish it–but there are (at least) three likely outcomes when you try to restart a cold project:
- You might get back into the groove and finish the story just like you’d planned before you got interrupted.
- You might figure out how to repurpose what you have written into a new version of the story that you are now able to tell.
- You might discover (and accept) that this still may not be the right project for you at this moment in time, but hopefully along the way you will discover the story that you really are meant to tell.
All of these are good outcomes, because they all get you past one of the biggest hurdles to getting back into any writing project–finding the emotional strength to stop looking backward and to start looking forward.
What to Do Before the Writing Break (If you can see it coming).
Sometimes, you have some advance warning that you will have to take a break from writing. Maybe you are switching jobs, or have a huge deadline coming. Maybe you are making a lifestyle change that will curtail your writing time temporarily. If this is the case, in the last days (or hours) you have left to work on it, write down where you think the story is headed. This could be a synopsis, an outline, an abbreviated story, a few critical later scenes, or even just a few lines summing up the things you think should be important for the remainder of the story. Whether you write three lines or three thousand, do not sweat the word choice, style, or punctuation for this. This is not final prose, this is a story reminder, a memory jogger. Get down the basics, the who does what, and what happens as far ahead as you can and then set it aside. Someplace where you will find it without searching.
After the Hiatus.
Step 1. Forgive Yourself.
Whatever caused the break. Whatever intervened in between. Whatever kept you from getting back to the project until now. LET IT GO. Let go of any thoughts that you ‘should’ have gotten back to it sooner, or never dropped it in the first place. It is a cold project. It has no baggage other than what you bring to it.
Step 2. Reacquaint Yourself with the Project.
The goal is to get the story back ‘in your head.’ Re-immersing yourself into the world and the characters will let you reimagine the story arc and propel the story from the beginning that you have through to an ending.
- Read all that you have already written on the project all the way through WITHOUT EDITING IT. NOT EVEN TYPOS. Until you read all the way through what you have, editing is either a trap (you push words around in one section to little overall benefit) or a diversion (you set off on another trajectory before you even remember what the original one was).
- If you managed to leave a story reminder, read through it. Repeatedly.
- Think about the project. A lot. Think about it when you go for a walk. When you do the dishes. Think about the characters and their unwritten story. Can you still see where they’ve been? Can you see where they want to go? Think about the world, the history, the future.
- NOTE: In my experience, at this stage it’s better not to discuss the project with other writers. Until you’ve clearly picked the thread of the project back up and know where you want to take it, outside discussions make the task harder by challenging and perhaps suppressing your own fledgling story ideas.
- Re-read what you have already written multiple times if you want to. The more details that are already on the page that you can keep in your head, the closer you get to being able to re-immerse in the story. If during these re-readings you notice passages that need revision or elaboration, highlight the passages, jot down your ideas as marginal notes or keep a separate journal or notecards for these ‘fixes. ‘ Don’t get into a deep dive on the editing quite yet.
Give yourself a deadline on this step. Depending on the length and complexity of the project perhaps a couple days or a week before you move to Step 3. If at any point in this reacquaintance process, you start seeing where you want to take the story and you feel the itch to start writing, then it’s time for Step 3 (even if you haven’t reached your ‘deadline’).
Step 3. Assess the Future of the Project
Ask yourself: “Is this the story I most want to write?” Be as brutally honest as you can be in answering it. Don’t think about how much time you’ve already invested. Or how far along it is. Assess the story and your engagement with the characters and their desires and obstacles. Does the story still fit who you are now? Does it pose questions you care about? Are you excited about it?
- If your answer is ‘yes’ to all of these questions and more, then it’s time for Step 4 — get yourself back into the writing groove.
- If your answer is a resounding ‘maybe,’ you have a difficult choice. You can give yourself a little more time for Step 2 or you can jump into Step 4 and see if the exercises get you excited about the story again. Either way, set a hard deadline (probably no more than a week) and then reassess the project again. If after that week you are still uncertain about whether this is the story you most want to write, set it aside, at least temporarily. Write on other things. (If you’re lucky, the unconscious angels of inspiration will keep working on the story while you get back into the habit of putting words down, and it will be there for you another time.)
- If your answer is ‘no’–this project no longer speaks to you–then put it back in the cold file drawer. No regrets. Hard-won experience has proven to me that you can’t pick up a cold project that you are halfhearted about and make it work. Your best option is to spend your precious time on a project that you are enthusiastic about. If you LOVE your cold project, but just can’t get excited about writing it at the moment, don’t worry. It isn’t going anywhere, and maybe another time you will feel like trying again to revive it. One bright point for this option: there’s a good chance that re-reading the cold project will have started the writing gears turning and you may now have an idea for a new story. One that you are excited about writing. Give yourself permission to leave the cold project unfinished and write the one that engages you now.
Step 4. Get Yourself Back Into the Groove.
Option 1: You know where It needs to go.
If you are already seeing where the storyline should go, and you know what you want to write. Do it. Even if it’s just one new scene. Sit down and write. Don’t think you need to do more research. Or more plotting. Or more outlining. Or more anything. Write when the muse hits. Because usually half the battle of restarting a cold project is just getting back into putting the words down and trusting yourself. If you run out of gas on writing forward, then do more research, plotting, or outlining. But don’t stop trying to write forward. Writing momentum takes forever to build up and dies quickly. Every single time you work on the project, face the blank page and write a new scene, a couple paragraphs, or even just a few new sentences. Even if they are crap. Set a timer on how long you have to try to write forward before you can move on to research or plotting. Or put a timer on how long you can do research before you have to face the blank page. Either way, the goal is to keep the focus on finishing the story.
Option 2: You still don’t quite know where to go with the story (or have run out of gas).
If you want to write the story, but aren’t quite back into the writing groove with it, try a couple of these exercises. At any point in this process, if you start to imagine new scenes and the itch to start writing forward hits you–stop your exercise and get to writing forward. There is no need to be thorough and ‘finish’ the exercise.
- Do some side writing. Write short stories or scenes from your characters’ past. Or distant future. Write a new version of an existing scene from a different character’s viewpoint. This can be particularly beneficial on the later scenes, that are closer to where you left off with the project. Describe the settings your characters inhabit. Write about what you hoped the project was going to be when you first started it. Write down what you want the mood to be. The vibe. The takeaway. How you want the reader to feel. How you want your characters to grow. What you want them to learn, to overcome.
- Continue to purposely think about the characters, the scenes, the plot, the events, while you are doing other automatic activities (walking, exercising, doing chores).
- Read what you’ve already written again. This time if you have editing ideas, go ahead and make the changes, as long as they are substantive. Remember the goal is to move the story forward, not to fix the ‘past.’ Pushing around punctuation and finetuning prose can feel like progress because it is getting back to writing, but tinkering with details in the early chapters will not show you where to take the story. If your edits are recasting scenes or adding new complications, or if they are helping you re-engage with the characters, then it is worthwhile. If you feel you have to correct the existing story trajectory to be able to continue it, then fix the crucial passages, but then move on to the new scenes. If you must edit, then make sure you are not just cutting. Write new lines, new passages. This kind of revision can develop momentum and turn into new chapters.
- Rewrite an existing ‘weak’ scene: go back to what you’ve already written and analyze the chapter or scene you love the most and a scene that you are not happy with. What does the powerful scene have that the weak one doesn’t? Is there more dialogue? Is the action off the charts heartpounding? Is the character facing a crisis and dealing with it? Is the scene funny? Sad? Romantic? For the weak scene, what is leaving it flat? Does it have characters that you no longer enjoy writing? Is the world not feeling like a believable place? Rewrite the weak scene based on your analytic observations of the strong scene. For example, if you love the dialogue in your favorite scene, try rewriting the weaker scene in all dialogue. If you love the action, try rewriting your weak scene to have more action. Hopefully this will get you back into the writing, and kickstart you back into the story.
Step 5: Keep Writing!
If you’ve reached this step and are writing away, you have restarted your cold project—whether it’s on the original trajectory or a new one. I strongly urge you to keep writing forward until you reach the end of the draft even if it’s starting to feel like a stitched-together Frankenstein of storytelling pieces. It is almost certain that the tone of the writing, or the nature of the characters or the world in the new writing passages will not be a 100% fit with the ‘old’ writing. Maybe the narrator’s attitude has shifted because your attitude has shifted. Maybe the story arc has shifted because the characters have changed along with you over the months. DO NOT FRET ABOUT THIS. Your goal is not a perfect beginning. Your goal is to reach the ending. And once you reach that end, what needs fixing in the earlier passages will become obvious. Trust yourself to make the story whole in revisions.
If you have gone through all of the stages, and you are still not back into the project groove, then it is not the story you were meant to write at this moment. Have a decent ceremonial ‘burial’ for it by putting it back in the cold file drawer. Say goodbye, mourn it, and move on. This is not failure. All the work you’ve done to get back into the story will most likely have gotten you back into the practice of writing. And while I can’t guarantee it, usually by this point if the old story isn’t flowing there might be the glimmer of a new one. The one you were meant to write now.
How about you? Have you got any exercises or advice to give about how you restarted a cold project?
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