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Strategies for Restarting a Cold Project

[1]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:

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.

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?

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.

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?

About Jeanne Kisacky [2]

Jeanne Kisacky trained to be an architect before going back to her first love--writing. She studied the history of architecture, has written and published nonfiction, and has taught college courses. She is the author of the recently published book, Rise of the Modern Hospital: An Architectural History of Health and Healing, 1870-1940 [3]. She currently fights valiantly to keep her writing time despite the demands of a day-job, a family, and a very particular cat.