Sunday, August 30, 2015

Back to School and Fresh New Starts

Although the weather is still hot and dry here, the subtle (and not so subtle) signs of autumn are all around me: the burning bush is turning red, the stores are displaying Halloween decorations, and the kids are back to school. I don't know about you, but I always equate the autumn with new beginnings, a fresh start, a chance at a new adventure. When I started each new school year with a stack of blank notebooks and sharpened pencils, I vowed to myself that this year would be different. This was the year I was going to (fill in the blank here.) Depending on the given year, it could be get better grades, be more outgoing, try out for sports, or as simple as not procrastinate. Usually by mid-October, however, the shiny new promises I made myself were as scuffed and neglected as my back-to-school shoes. Walking around in life puts a few smudges and dirt on those idealized vows.

Nonetheless, I still make new plans and search out new opportunities in the fall and this year is no different. Since I've been struggling with my present work in progress (or WIP for short), I'm tempted to jettison the tiresome task for something fresh and new. There is nothing like starting out a new work, be it a short story, novel or poem, when the fire of inspiration is on you. The words seem to fly like electricity from the brain cells through the arms to fingers, words of sheer genius madly spilling across the computer screen or notebook page. Then you hit the slump, the saggy middle, the problematic plot stopper, the self-critical editor...the mid-October blahs. What then? How do you get that "back-to-school" new beginnings promise back into your work? Do you buy a new, fancy pen and notebook? Do you look through pictures to inspire or turn to your writing manuals on plot and characterization? Sometimes. Or, do you jump ship and start a new project and just pray that the old one will come to life again in the future? Every writer has a different answer to this same dilemma.

I'll tell you what I'm doing now with the old WIP when I'm sorely tempted to fall in love with a fresh, new project instead. I'm doing something to help me become intrigued by my old characters, to re-discover and re-invent the theme that originally inspired me, and to get back to the "butt in seat, hands to keyboard" discipline that any writer needs to not only succeed but just finish a book! Not unlike bringing a horse back into work which has been laid off due to sickness or injury, I've had to start slow and review the basics. At first I took my story which had been on "stall rest" and lost all its muscle out for a ride and found it just couldn't keep up, so I went back to the barn and did a complete assessment of where the weaknesses were. Having identified two-dimensional characters, stilted scenes, plodding plot points, I fixed or eliminated these "lamenesses" by drawing up entire profiles of my main characters or by painstakingly mapping out timelines or sequences of events. Surprisingly, by doing these "fundamental exercises" I not only improved the story I had, but also became excited about it again. I gained new insights into the characters' motivations, I saw new ways to keep the suspense turned up, and I fell in love with this old WIP in the season of new beginnings. I guess those old, scuffed shoes still have a lot of miles of adventure left in them after all. What's going to inspire you this fall during the season of starting over?


  1. I do tend to move onto new "shiny" projects and ideas! Eventually the point at which I have been made to pause because I can't see where something is going, this passes. I was rapt yesterday to find an idea for finishing off one current story over at that I am writing, and an idea for a follow on novel I hadn't planned!
    Whenever I am stuck, I will leave that project be but go work on another so that I feel I am always being productive with my writing.

  2. Christine, that's a great tactic for staying productive. I tend to stall on project, afraid if I leave it, I'll never come back. Thanks for sharing your strategy!