Six impossible things

Getting Back Into It

I just spent two weeks “on vacation” in Orlando, FL (which is a long story, full of disasters and near-disasters, but which ended up being fun and relaxing in spite of everything), and now I have to get back into a work rhythm that I’ve been totally ignoring for two weeks.

One of the first things I realized as I came home was that calling it “getting back into a work rhythm” is highly misleading. Any “rhythm” in my work life has been steadily deteriorating over the past ten years as other parts of my life have developed chronic emergencies (and no, that’s not an oxymoron). Therefore getting back into things is going to take more rebuilding than is normal for a mere two-week absence. It’s high time it was done, though, and I thought it would be useful for anyone who’s taken a break and is faced with the prospect of going back to a piece of work that’s gone a bit cold.

Getting back into writing comes in two stages, the set-up part and the writing part. The set-up part is what’s been missing these past ten years – I’ve been depending on a daily word-count quota, rather than on a time quota, and quite frankly, it’s stopped working for me. This is frustrating, because it did work for me for years, and I am annoyed at having to revamp my systems, but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t. I’m currently looking at a hybrid system: a solidly set block of daily writing time (one to two hours, because that’s the maximum typing-time my shoulder can handle in one sitting), none of which will be administrative or publicity or bookkeeping or other paperwork (which tends to get done as writing-avoidance behavior), plus whatever additional writing time I can manage at whatever other times of the day it works. No sandbagging.

Having decided on a system, I get to go back into a work that’s had two weeks to go cold. For this particular story, that pretty much means it’s midwinter in Antarctica, so I need to warm it up. This starts pretty much the minute I hit the house. Step one is to read over everything I’ve written so far – that means the notes, the manuscript, discarded scenes (I save them in a separate file), the current outline, all of it. I started that process on the train home, as a way of easing back into things.

The other thing rereading my notes on the train did was to set up my “getting back” stage. Since I’ve been away from home physically, I need to spend time catching up on normal logistics – unpacking, laundry, restocking the fridge, cuddling the cats (a necessity; if I don’t give them attention, they will be incredible nuisances while I’m trying to do anything else), paying bills, going over the mail, sorting out the stuff I brought back, catching up with friends. In my experience, this takes a minimum of half the time allotted to the trip, and a maximum of as much time as the trip itself, so for a two-week trip, I’m looking at one to two weeks of catch-up. This is important, because if I ignore or put off the “minor” catch-up, it nags at me and I can’t concentrate on the really crucial stuff, i.e., writing.

What I can do while I’m unpacking, etc., is think about the story: where it is, where I thought it was going, where it might go instead, how to get it there. Since I’m at home, there is always a notepad or iPad handy if I am struck with a really good notion while I’m paying bills or folding laundry. I usually don’t do more than make a few sentences worth of notes (though if a scene takes off, I’ll drop the laundry and spend a couple of hours at the computer…but if that happens, the story has probably stopped being “cold” and I need to race through the housekeeping and get back to work).

Thinking about the story – retelling it in my head while I do other things – gets my brain primed for working on it. Once the post-trip cleanup is finished and I’m back to my normal routine, I take the notes I generated (there’s always something) and type them into the computer, incorporating them in my outline and/or the manuscript as necessary (frequently, one of the notes will be something like “check meeting scene in Ch 3 – mention hair color thing” which makes me go back to the ms. to see whether I did that and if not, how to add it). I’ll also fiddle with any places I marked for further attention in the most recent couple of chapters (remember, I’m a rolling reviser).

By this point, I’m almost always back in the groove and ready to make forward progress again. If I’m still totally “cold,” I’ll do the extreme thing, clip out the most recent scene, and rewrite it from scratch. Usually, this has one of two effects: either I’m finally good to keep going (and I can go back later and combine the “best bits” from both versions of the scene), or I am still having trouble, but not because the story is still cold. There’s some other problem, and it’s a matter of buckling down and figuring out what it is. (Note that it is a REALLY good idea not to stop writing in a sticky spot right before you leave on vacation. Even if you have to stay up two or three hours later the night before you leave to get past it. Really. Sleep on the plane/train/bus. Your Future Self will thank you.)

  1. I’ve never tried your extreme method – luckily I’ve never had to. Usually a couple days of mulling and I’m back in the game.

  2. My current WIP is deep-space frozen… and it has good reason to be. Over Thanksgiving I was not feeling very thankful (shoulder having a bad day) and made up a ‘pity list’ of all the medical and social emergencies that have happened from the last time I was writing consistently. (Really? All of THAT happened in just the last two years??? Er… yep!)

    So yeah, I really do have reasons not to be so hard on myself for not writing. Also my shoulder has a good 6-12 months left of healing according to the doctor. Any suggestions for when a medical emergency (or newborn) has utterly reformatted your future? At this point I think I should consider myself as starting completely from scratch.

  3. Seconding Kin’s request. My period of not-writing was for much happier reasons, but I’m still having a hard time getting back on the horse. Any thoughts?

  4. Welcome home! I wish you success with the process-rearranging.

  5. Oddly enough, I too am having to shift away from a word-count metric, which has stood me in good stead for many years. Time-on-task isn’t a good fit for me — I’m entirely capable of staring at a blank screen for hours — but I’m having some luck with the idea that I must do something with it X days a week. The something turns into a decent (by my standards, anyway) word-count fairly often, and if it doesn’t, well, there’s always editing or making notes for possible future scenes or whatever.

    I do feel like I’m perpetually having to get back into it, though. The current project is just not staying “active” in my head, though my test reader reports it’s working fine on the page. Don’t know what to do about that, except keep plodding along and hope the next one takes over my brain like books are supposed to.

    • “I’m entirely capable of staring at a blank screen for hours.”

      Gee, I can’t identify with that at all. [cough]

  6. You can always alphabetize the spice shelves or vacuum the cat.

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