Has it been a while since you worked on your book? Don’t beat yourself up about it! The distance you’ve gained since the last time you sat down with this material is very valuable in giving you a fresh perspective. When you let a project sit a while (at least a couple of months) before coming back to it, you end up in a kind of creative grey area. You’ll never be completely objective about your own work, of course, but time can help you separate yourself from the work mentally and emotionally. You’ll be a lot more objective now than when you were right in the thick of things—it can be easy to lose sight of the proverbial forest for the trees when you’re immersed in a work.
Now that some time has passed, you can return to it with renewed vigor and insight—sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised by your own brilliance, and at other times, you’ll be embarrassed by how bad a passage is! You’ll catch errors you never noticed before, and you’ll be better able to match your progress to your original concept or outline. Here are some tips to help you take advantage of this unique vantage point.
1. Make time to read your manuscript all the way through. Don’t get out the red pen (or blue pencil!) just yet; just re-familiarize yourself with the material. Take note of which sections really pull you in as a reader and which are awkward or confusing. Do you catch yourself burning through pages quickly, eager to find out what will happen next? Do you feel surprised by certain excellent sections, almost as if you don’t remember writing them? Later you’ll analyze these moments to uncover what you did right so you can do more of it throughout the rest of the draft.
2. Revisit your original outline or notes, or ask yourself, “What is my plot or promise distilled into 1-3 sentences? What are my main themes?” Now spend some time thinking about how well your manuscript gets across that plot or themes. Have you lost sight of your intentions? Or did the drafting process take you off on an inspired tangent? If it’s the former, spend some time identifying where you strayed from the plan and why. If it’s the latter, reformulate your outline or plot pitch so you have a new plan.
3. Spend some time restructuring the manuscript to get back on track. This is an opportunity to remove or correct any diversions if you’ve strayed from your original outline. Or, if you feel the work has taken a new, more interesting route, rework the manuscript to better follow the new outline or pitch you drafted as per tip #2. HINT: Don’t do major rewrites here; just move stuff around and make notes about necessary new material to guide you later.
4. Do one pass treating your book as though it were a screenplay. Pay attention only to “blocking” out the action (making sure characters move in, around, and out of each scene in a clear and logical way) and reviewing the dialogue. Each main character should have a distinct way of speaking, a unique voice. Read your dialogue out loud so you can hear how easily it flows…this will help you spot stumbling blocks your reader may trip over later as she likewise “hears” your dialogue in her head. HINT: If you’re writing nonfiction, use this step to make sure your anecdotes are set up properly using the same kind of blocking and dialogue pass.
5. Consider getting a second opinion. One of my favorite ways to get excited again about an old project is to share it with my critique group or a writing buddy. You could also take a writing workshop that involves a critique aspect. The feedback you’ll get will offer much-welcomed advice, but something about the collaborative energy also ramps up my imagination, giving me lots of great new ideas. If you’re far enough along in your drafting process to warrant it, you can get the same shot in the arm from a good freelance editor as well.
Many beginning writers imagine that their bestselling heroes just come up with an idea, then sit down for months on end and write from start to finish. This is rarely true. Many successful writers work on their manuscripts in fits and starts, just like you do. It’s not only okay to put something aside for a while, it’s a natural part of the process. So if you’re feeling like your current project is a bit stale and some other great idea is pulling at your sleeve, go ahead and switch gears.
Just don’t fall into the sweethearts trap. You know, that one where it’s always really exciting at the beginning, but as soon as it’s time for the hard work you move on to something new? That’s less than admirable behavior in relationships, and it’ll get you about as far with writing, too. Inevitably, you’ll be left with nothing but the memories of half-finished dreams and a haunting sense that you could have had more.