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  • Writer's pictureLiz Hudson

A Confession: Returning to a half-finished manuscript is tough

Last week I saw a meme on LinkedIn aimed at writers; somewhere along the lines of being ‘successful means you don’t need motivation, you need discipline’. Sounds joyless. It is joyless. I've done it. At the time, it occurred to me that while I’m sure some people might feel empowered by that, too many people might feel shamed by the notion. And you shouldn’t.


Let’s remove ourselves from the alternate dimension where everyone who wants to write or aspires to write, is cheerfully able to put aside their other life for two to eight hours a day, every day of their lives, come rain or shine. Some people can and I applaud them. As usual, this article is not aimed at those people, and it’s not aimed at people who make their living from writing fiction. I’m not talking to those people.


If you dream of being a writer but you have a day job, a family, a real life and sometimes, sometimes, that thing you love doing but doesn’t pay your bills has to go on hold - you. I’m talking to you.


Writer Liz Hudson works on her laptop in an airport

I put personal writing projects on hold about a year ago. My motivation had expired. I was running on discipline at the time, and I was starting to hate it. I last wrote and published a piece of fiction in March 2022, and I stopped producing content for Writing Voices around the same time, with a one-off special in October. The next time I published a prose article was April 2023. Let me tell you, that year in-between was one hell of a year. I started a new job; I ended a 15 year long relationship and met (and moved in with) my partner. I’ve done more international travelling in the last 12 months than the last 20 years; in fact, I’m finishing this article in an airport on my way home from a conference! I’ve worked very hard to maintain my mental wellness. And other stuff. I still write most days, but not fiction - my profession involves writing, and it is the sort of writing which requires a high degree of energy and focus.


Something had to give. I opted not to bury my love of writing for good and I stopped.


In October 2022 I decided to give myself a break from feeling bad about it, and it was liberating. Almost exactly one year on from putting down my pen, I’m writing again. Not with a sense of obligation and foot-dragging dread, but with joy and discovery. It’s like slipping into a favourite old sweater, it feels great! It’s been surprisingly easy to slip back into creating articles for Writing Voices again – if you didn’t check out my Dungeons and Dragons article, it was a lot of fun to write. However, I’m still trying to get my head around diving back into fiction. I’ve got three manuscripts begging for my attention but sitting down and working on those longer form projects is a different kettle of fish from writing articles and blog posts. My article-writing muscles never atrophied because of my job.


My manuscripts are all mysteries and I’ve completely lost the thread of what’s going on. And what if I’m not as good as I used to be? The self-doubt and lack of direction really hamstrings you. The day I started writing this particular article, I decided to try a new short fiction project as a warmup exercise, and within 90 words I knew I wasn’t invested in it. Those three manuscripts were praying on my mind.


So how do you get back into a dormant manuscript? I have a few thoughts on the matter. And yes, I’m writing this down before trying any of them. It's called procrastination, alright? Writing is my mistress, not my breadwinner. I get to be a maverick and focus on enjoying myself…


Re-reading

I think a big part of my problem is not just that I've lost the threads of the plot, but that I've lost my sense of immersion. I’m not in the world with my characters anymore. I don’t daydream about them. They don’t talk to me at random times of the day or night, leaving me scrambling for a pen or my phone so I can make a note of what they just said. Re-reading has always been useful for putting myself back into the right frame of mind day-to-day; I’ve always been an advocate of the technique of re-reading yesterday’s work to help get back into the groove the following day. A little like remembering the title of a song by singing the lyrics.


Copyedit some old material

Yeah, yeah. Never edit as you go, it’s blasphemous or something. I’m a bugger for it. In this particular situation, I feel like copyediting is Re-Immersion Lite. An easy, lower pressure way to get back inside the existing narrative while you build back up to grabbing the reins. Like doing a few reps with the bar before you stick the heavy weights on the ends. A cautionary note though – definitely version edit; make copies and edit the copies.


Plotting

I hate plotting. I’d much rather be using the time to write, blissfully and willfully pantsing my way through the story as far as I can push it before I give up and start trying to break chapters down and schedule plot points. In this case, where I’ve lost the plot (pun intended) on mystery narratives, I have to admit that sitting down with my admittedly wishy-washy plot documents might be a good idea. Zooming out and looking at the arch of the narrative, and then getting into the notes I need to hit in the chapters to come might just help me orient myself and feel a bit less lost.


Off-manuscript short stories and scenes

I love this option. I’ve done this before, mostly as an exercise to help flesh out my characters’ backstories and personalities. Instead of gap filling, writing out those bits of the narrative that happen behind the scenes but will never make the book, I feel like this could be a great low-pressure way to get to know my characters, locations and social rules again. Find my voice again without worrying about stuffing low quality content lacking strong direction into my reader-facing material. Perhaps the side-step back into the main manuscript might be easier once I’ve warmed up my fingers a bit first.


Nuke the manuscript and start again

Read it and chuck it in the bin. The nuclear option. Part of me thinks, especially with the older manuscript, that I’d be doing myself a massive favour to start again. I’m a better writer now. If I had to write those same chapters and scenes again, I’m pretty sure I could do a way better job. However, the idea fills me with profound horror. I worked hard on all those chapters! It would hurt. Perhaps the threat of mutually assured destruction is enough motivation to just get on with the job? It’s a back pocket option for sure, but it stays on the table. Better rewritten in full than perpetually half written and rotting on my hard drive. I promise you this though, if I press the big red button, I’ll print a few pages and give them a proper Viking funeral.



So, there you have it. Picking up an old manuscript after a prolonged break is hard. Taking a break is hard. Coming back from a break is hard. Being at peace with that break is a labour of love. Having a few solid strategies for getting back into the flow is essential but it’s going to look different for everyone. I’ve shared my ideas for jump-starting my old manuscripts, and hopefully something in there is useful for you too – maybe now, maybe at another time in your life. Perhaps you’re currently banging out books like a lean mean writing machine. Maybe you don’t have a manuscript and you’re just here because I put ‘confession’ in the title and it piqued your interest. All of that is okay, as long as you enjoyed your time with me today.


And if you’re like me, locked in a Mexican stand-off with a dusty manuscript: the best of luck to you! My email is on the contact page, feel free to reach out.


My flight is being called. I’ll see you on the other side.


Burned manuscript pages
Image by LEEROY Agency from Pixabay
 

Liz has been waging a cunning campaign of procrastination for, well, her entire life. Her most recent schemes for avoiding completing a full length manuscript were a mid-life crisis Masters degree in Creative Writing and starting the Writing Voices website. She is now busy entertaining new strategies for continuing the cold war against her writing career... keep reading.


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