“I started a project a few years ago and wrote a chunk…but I never finished it. What should I do now?” I’ve heard this tale from every writer ever. We’ve all had a project sputter and die at some point in our journey. When we take a break for too long, restarting the engine can be difficult. The abandoned story probably bores us, and we may have trouble remembering the timeline and the different character motivations that propelled it.
Many writers (like me) scrap the rusty project for a new one. Sometimes that’s a smart decision, but giving up can also become a bad habit. If you want to dive back into writing, don’t start by deserting a book. But how do you reignite your enthusiasm and meld the new parts of the story with the old?
If the prospect of dragging out your clunker of a story and cranking it seems overwhelming, these five steps should break down the process so you can handle it easily. If you’re already revving to go, pause for a deep breath. First you need to rebuild your novel’s foundation, and then you can finish it for real.
Step #1: Remember Why You Loved the Story
To make progress with your story, you need to become infatuated with it again. What aspect originally captured you? The characters? The plot? The first scene that popped into your head? Rifle through your notebook, outline, or character sketches. You’ll likely stumble upon a cool idea you discarded (or plain forgot).
If you can’t find any notes or documents from the brainstorming stage, try talking to a friend you told about the story. If you didn’t share it with anyone, think back to when inspiration struck. Were you in the shower? In bed? At the bookstore? Return to that spot and clear your mind of distractions. Catch up with your characters. Recall the perfect plot twists you had in mind.
If you still aren’t pumped up, ask your best, most encouraging friend to read your draft. Discussing your story with a supportive, close friend is exhilarating. Plus, if your friend joins in the excitement, he’ll be around to prod you to accomplish the next four steps!
Step #2: Reacquaint Yourself with Your Manuscript
Once you’ve sparked your love for the story again, compile the text into a single document and print it out. You haven’t worked on it for months, so you need to refresh your memory of the plot points and themes, as well as who the characters are and how your prose sounds. A quick read will reload that information into your brain, but don’t do it on your computer. A paper copy provides three advantages:
- Holding pages that are filled with your words is thrilling, and reenergizing yourself is the goal.
- You won’t be able to change anything. If you start rewriting prematurely, you’ll never get your story off the ground. Put it in ink that can’t be edited, and you’ll complete the task much faster.
- Paper unplugs you from the internet. You can’t immerse yourself in the story if you’re flipping to Facebook, the SE forum, and that intriguing article about a kugelblitz drive.
Now, sit down and pore over your book. Don’t edit, but if you have an idea for a future plot point, character quirk, or anything else, jot it in a notebook. Write down any events you foreshadow too. These details will help you expand the story and maintain continuity so you avoid writing two disjointed halves.
Step #3: Revise Your Outline
For one reason or another, the original version of the story didn’t hold your interest, which means it won’t grab readers either. But don’t lose hope. Instead, reassess your outline. If segments you’ve already written need changed, that’s okay. Make a note but don’t backtrack. You must move forward. Try to connect the ideas and foreshadowed events you recorded during the last step in fascinating ways. Your revamped outline doesn’t need to match the previous one. That outline died. Give this one new fuel.
If you’re a pantser, still do some planning. Pull ideas from your list to invent potential plot points that stimulate you. Maybe you’ll use them, maybe you won’t. The goal is to have fun playing with the possibilities. Prove to yourself that the story can be salvaged.
Step #4: Write the Next Scene
You’ve fired up your story. It’s humming, and the sound is music to your ears. You remember where you started and what you’ve written since then. You’ve drawn up a blueprint.
So, whatever scene is next, write it. And keep going until you arrive at the end.
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: Don’t return to the beginning and rewrite. Countless writers assume that this will only take a few days, or a month at the outside. But it becomes a cycle of rewriting chapter one, then two, and being hit with an idea that prompts them to rewrite chapter one again. Eventually they end up with an amazing opening but no book. Don’t be like them.
Your story is on the edge, precariously balanced between reaching an epic conclusion and falling into the abyss of unfinished manuscripts. Push forward. Don’t look back. Enjoy writing fresh material. Relish the rising tension as you get closer and closer to the climax. And celebrate your achievement as you cross the finish line.
You’re a writer again!
Step #5: Circle Around
Normally, when writers finish a first draft, I recommend they set it aside for at least a month before touching it with a red pen. Distance is invaluable when you need to pragmatically evaluate your own words. However, you don’t want to detach yourself from your story when you’ve just finished writing the latter half and your mind is still in the zone. This is your opportunity to go back to the beginning and rewrite the first half so it complements the second. Tweak wording, the scenes you flagged earlier, and the characters so they feel consistent.
After that, you’ll have wrapped up the novel you thought would bury you. Congratulations!
Why Perseverance Matters
Getting stuck on a project is natural. I’ve never met anyone who’s been writing for longer than a week and hasn’t, at some point, jammed up their wheels. Unfortunately, if you can’t yank loose, you won’t succeed in the writing world (or anywhere else). But you can dislodge yourself. All you need is guts and a solid plan.
You’re a writer. Get stuck. It comes with the business. But you’re not a quitter, so don’t tell yourself that a story is old or boring or hopeless. Make it fun again, and then transfer that to paper.
“Well, I’m back.” The emotion those words spark in Lord of the Rings fans across the world perfectly describes how Brandon feels on a daily basis when he finishes writing and starts working on homework. (Yes, writing comes first.) His fictional worlds, where the suns never set and Rutel is Servant-Lord of the Sky, leave him wanting more…but unfortunately life is still a thing. When Brandon can’t hang out in Faërie, he fills his time with normal mortal things like homework, work, friends, (oxford commas) and family. He enjoys backyard football (or any sport), board games, English country dancing, and reading. He doesn’t particularly enjoy (but still spends time) driving, doing math, and waiting for YouTube ads to end.
Brandon enjoys writing-related-but-still-not-actually-writing activities including critiquing, outlining, and updating his blog, The Woodland Quill. Some of his favorite books (there are too many to list) are The 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson, Look and Live by Matt Papa (warning: nonfiction), and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. (Due to his Lord of the Rings reference at the beginning of this blurb, he’s not going to bring that pinnacle of literary genius up again, although he probably should and sort of just did.)
Brandon lives on the Nebraska plains, where the people don’t actually live in teepees but do plant as much corn as the stereotypes suggest. His wonderful family keeps him somewhat grounded in reality, his friends keep his extroverted personality from imploding while he’s writing, and his ice cream keeps him…happy.
Poor ice cream.