Last night I went to Brazos Bookstore here in Houston to hear four local authors chat about how to start or restart a writing project. It’s perfect timing, right? Everyone is burning with inspiration and motivation around New Year’s Day and then come late January we’re all struggling just a little bit (or a lot).
Here is one favourite quote from each of the authors last night. Then keep reading below to see what I’ve found useful over the past decade of being a published author, and what two of my creative nonfiction critique partners do to get themselves back on track – or headed in a new direction!
- Bryan Washington (journalist and short story writer): “With a short story, the question bubbles up as I’m writing. Then I figure out what emotion I want to end on, and what emotions need to be in other spots. I write an outline at the beginning, but that outline changes frequently.”
- Mimi Swartz (journalist and author): “Accept what you start with will probably be horrible. And there’s a part of a story that’s always a slog – so set up rewards.”
- Jessica Wilbanks (essayist and author): “I do not write in a linear way. I write images and scenes in a document on the computer constantly. Then when I go back and look, I see the stuff I’m meant to work with keeps coming to the surface.”
- Varsha Bajaj (picture book and middle grade author): “I walk before I sit down to write in the morning and then I have a 500-word per day limit. If I have more ideas, I jot them down on a yellow legal pad with a sharp pencil and go back to them the next day.”
Ceal Klinger (biologist, long-distance runner, and writer):
“When I’m rooting around for misplaced thoughts, I pull my walking/running logbook out of the refrigerator. The logbook is a small notebook where I spend about 5 seconds a day—or maybe every other day, or maybe every few days–scribbling down the date, where I walked the dog or ran, and anything unusual about the day or what I saw. (I leave the notebook in the refrigerator on long trips in the event our home burns down when I’m traveling.) The notebook doesn’t have much in it, but sometimes it jogs my memory.
After that, I round up other mysterious notes to myself (scraps of paper stowed in the refrigerator, in the trash can, on the floor or stuck to the dog), grab a stack of blank 3” x 5” index cards, and make a separate card for each category of disorganized ideas floating around my head. After about half an hour, I usually have a lot of short, chunked worry lists (e.g., the “call these people back” card, the “errands in town” card, the “procrastinated on this task so long it’s been on several cards” card), but some of the cards are relevant to writing (the “to read” card, the “research” card), and sometimes I wind up with several “to write” cards, each one with a few notes about one particular piece.
(*Then* I take a deep breath, start up the computer, and open Scrivener and all the most recent documents in my word processing program.)
I keep the cards in my pocket or leave them next to my computer and flip through them when I have a chance. Eventually, the stuff written on each card gets crossed off, works its way onto my computer with the relevant piece, or gets procrastinated on long enough to be stuffed into the refrigerator with my logbook and other cards from previous roundups.
It’s more primitive than Scrivener, but a small packet of index cards seems somewhat more portable and less intimidating on that first day back. (Also, it’s very pleasant to retire a “worry” card.)
Elizabeth Barbour (life/spiritual coach and writer): “When I’m trying to dive back into a project, I take it and leave my office! I need the fresh energy of an empty dining room table or a cubbie at the library to help me get reconnected. I read through all of my thoughts and notes and then create a “to do” list and chunk things down. It’s so easy with a big project to get overwhelmed and do nothing but if I can make a list of 5-7 small action items I can take, I find it gets me back into the flow.”
In my case, I usually juggle multiple projects at multiple stages of completion, so I’m always starting and restarting something. I find the following help (in no particular order):
1. Bailey’s in my coffee or a special treat to make working on the project feel pleasurable. And/or have a reward lined up afterward.
2. Do a write-in with friends or a short retreat.
3. Set a timer and do word sprints so I shut off my critical brain and just dive back into drafting. My friend (and YA author) Laura Mitzner taught me this one!
4. Migrate all my text from Word into Scrivener. This really jump-started a couple of projects because I could ‘see’ things from a bird’s eye view. I’ve realized I work much better on chunks of text that are 2000 words or less.
5. Print off what I have so far and re-read it (with no critical eye) just to reacquaint myself with the material. Maybe use sticky notes or write in the margin to indicate what the scene or chunk of manuscript is about, write out a quick outline of what I’ve done and where I need to go
6. Do some kind of accountability check-in system with writing friends to get back into the habit.
What works for you? Please add it in the comments!