Reconnecting with a Work in Progress
One of the problems with writing is that it’s fairly difficult to complete a project in one sitting. It can sometimes be a bit easier with a picture book where the rough draft may come in a rush during one sitting and then you return again and again to revise (and sometimes to rewrite). But for longer works, it’s almost mandatory that you be able to stop, go about your non-writing life, and then return to the project. This can be difficult, especially if the break between the stop and return is lengthy. We’re constantly changing as people and as writers, so returning to an older work in progress can be daunting. There are some things that can help.
Read, Revise, and Write
If the work in progress is something fairly short, like a chapter book, or you’ve not gotten too far along in a longer work, this can be a great way to re-engage with a work in progress. You begin by reading what you’ve written so far with an eye toward revision. So you read and tweak, correcting typos, watching for continuity errors (such as character name changes or spelling variations) and fixing any awkward sentences. Reading like an editor lets you reconnect with the story while also shaping it ever so slightly toward who you are now as a writer. Sometimes the sentence you wrote months ago that sounded so good simply doesn’t sound right to your ear today. You’ve moved on, and the read/revise step helps your work in progress to move along with you.
It is important that this read/revise step be fast-paced, otherwise you can bog down and use up all your available writing time in revision. This can be tempting as revising something you’ve already written is often less daunting than facing a blank page. Keep in mind that you’re not perfecting the text with the read/revise step. You’re only reacquainting yourself and gently nudging the text to fit the you of today better.
Then, when you hit the end of the written part, you’ll often find yourself primed to continue with the voice of the work firmly in your head. This will be hugely helpful in making the next parts you write fit smoothly with what came before.
So what do you do when you’re halfway through a novel? You certainly can’t read chapters and chapters of material each time you return to the book. You’ll never get very far ahead that way. In that kind of situation, I only read/revise from the beginning of the last full chapter (before I stopped). That gives me a workable amount of writing to go through. It will mean that I’ll need to watch for voice changes later when I’m doing my full revision, but it will get you back into the book fairly smoothly.
Prep Before Leaving
Another huge help to reacquaint yourself for a return to the book is to leave yourself some questions for what you intend to do next. Say you’ve written the first few chapters of an adventure book where the main character has been dragged reluctantly out camping with the family. You’ve introduced the main character and his preference for reading over swatting mosquitoes. You’ve introduced his gung-ho dad and his long-suffering mom (or maybe his gung-ho mom and his fish-obsessed dad … who knows?). You’ve given him a sibling who may be siding either with him or with his parents, but if the sibling is siding with your main character, don’t let them be too much of a team. You’ll want some drama.
So, you’ve gotten them out into the woods and then you had to stop and go do your own real life for a while. Before you close the work in progress, you already know you’re not going to get back to this book for a while. So one thing you can do is to leave yourself some unanswered questions. What are his parents hoping to accomplish on this trip? Why does the main character really hate camping (often there’s his spoken reason and his real reason which comes out a bit slower)? What catastrophe would work here––a storm? Animals stealing all the food? Car breaks down? Main character gets lost? Someone is sick or injured?
Then when you come back to your work in progress, you can make some notes answering some of the questions (the answers don’t need to be scenes or anything, just ideas you have). Dipping into the idea well to answer some questions about options you might try for this book will often give you a new injection of energy and enthusiasm, helping you to jump back into the writing with eagerness.
Never Quit at an Ending
Another prep suggestion is not to quit at an ending. It can be very tempting to write full chapters and always quit at a chapter break. It feels right to do this. You are able to quit with a strong sense of accomplishment that way. But quitting just as you’ve completed a chapter can make it harder to jump into the next chapter. This is something I’ve definitely learned from experience, as I love quitting at the end of chapters, but have found that makes reconnecting much, much harder.
So always quit in the middle of something and leave yourself some notes about what comes next. For example, if the chapter ends with my main character in a newly erected tent flopping down on him, certain his whole entire weekend is going to be a long stretch of misery, I’ll push on to the next chapter. I’ll have Dad come in and haul him to his feet and shove a fishing pole in his hand announcing, “Come on, Son, the fish aren’t going to come to you here.” And I’ll have my main character mutter something about how he certainly hopes not, but he follows the dad into the woods to the absolute most perfect fishing spot in the world. The Dad will be going on about fishing and the son is mostly turning him out. Then the boy spots something.
That’s when I’ll stop. I’ll stop there because I know where I want to go from there. I want the boy to see something mysterious. I want it to pull the main character and his dad off the safety of the path to the fishing hole. I want it to get the adventure part of the adventure going. And because I know all that, I’ll be able to jump back into the story with immediate things to do and the blank page will be less daunting. Now some people I know actually make a habit of stopping in the middle of a sentence. I’ve tried that and it just results in my having to delete that half sentence as I can never remember how I meant to finish it. But who know? That might work perfectly for you and be worth a try. But whether you stop in the middle of a scene or in the middle of a sentence, be sure to stop in mid-flow so that you already know how the story will carry you along when you get back.
Getting back into a work in progress can be challenging, but if you prepare for it and use some light revision to ease you back in, you’ll find that you can make your way back in far more easily. And you’ll end up with a smoother narrative and a lot less frustration. And isn’t that something we all want?