How Do I Get Back into a Story?

Quoth Anonymous: “I know I should write every day, but with my job and life, I just can’t. It’s hard to get back into whatever I was writing if I’m away for a few days. How can I dive in again?”

Mermaid at Weeki-Watchee, photographed by Toni Frissell for Harper's Bazaar, December 1947
Photo by Toni Frissell, published in Harper’s Bazaar, December 1947

I was about to start this reply by saying, “Yes, in a perfect world, you’d be able to work on that story every day,” but the more I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure that really is a perfect world. There’s something to be said for taking a step back for your subconscious to do some work…but not for too long.

My best stories seem to come to me as a kind of dream, a state of absorption where I write quickly and instinctively without much doubt. Some people call that a “flow” state, and it’s easy to begin believing that anything written OUTSIDE that state is too difficult or not going well.

To me, the issue is really how to return to the fictive dream of your story, sinking back in so that distractions go away and you are able to once again feel what the next reasonable story moment should be.

I’m not great at doing that, but here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Expect some amount of gear-grinding when returning to a story and be patient with it. The first couple of days are likely to feel a little rough, but they’re only going to feel worse if you pause the project again.
  • Commit to one project at a time. I once thought that I could write several stories at once and just dive into the one I “felt” the most at a given moment, but that generates a lot of fragments that never quite get finished. Tell yourself that one way or another, you’re going to finish this story, even if it’s lousy.
  • Use physical cues to get back into the mindset of working: a certain place, a certain time, a certain desk, a certain word processing program. It’s possible to get TOO attached to the tools as an excuse not to write when they aren’t available, but you need something that tricks your brain into shutting out the world and getting to work.
  • I’ve found setting a timer to be useful, telling myself that I can do nothing but work on the story during that time.
  • Meditation has helped me as well, believe it or not. Take a few moments with your eyes closed and mentally immerse yourself into a creative space. I even have a mantra of keywords to remember in my work, like “Immersion. Performance. Voice. Specificity. Detail.”
  • Sooner or later, you’re going to have to open the document or notebook where the moribund story lives. This is a great time to read through as much of it as you can to get back into the sound of its voice and the rhythm of its sentences. Reading it aloud can help with this, and so can retyping a few paragraphs of the story or re-writing them out by hand.
  • One trick that almost always works for me at the beginning of a session is to write, “So what the fuck is going on?” at the top of a page and answer my own question: summarizing the story so far, mulling through any challenges, talking through where to go next. It sounds silly, but I think you fix writing problems by writing AROUND them.

A lot of that probably sounds self-indulgent, the kind of thing that whiskey-drinking real authors would say is too precious, but for me, the key to creating a good story is feeling it, role-playing my way through it, committing to it with total absorption.

I think the number one thing to remember is not to expect to dive into a story in thirty seconds, whether you worked on it yesterday or a month ago. Imagine yourself settling deep into the pool of your work, letting it surround you and become your reality for as long as you can.

Why Hooman Love Write More than Me?

Quoth Tyler: My hooman is normally quite considerate. But there are these times when he begins writing and forgets it is treat time! I stride into the room and he ignores my efforts to remind him of his sacred duty–I bump his leg, I stretch up to tap his arm, I even mew, but the end result is rarely a full belly. Please help!

Thank you for your question, Tyler. I’m going to assume that you’re a cat and not a severely mentally-ill child, but really, the advice would be exactly the same so you do you.

Let me answer your question this way.

Think about your good standard Stare, right? Once or twice a week, you sit down or crouch while watching a section of wall or corner or ceiling without blinking for half an hour. The work is extremely necessary for the fate of all mankind, but it’s not completely visible to the hoomans around you so they don’t know that.

Yes, exactly like that.

The thing about a good and important Stare, of course, is that the first five or ten minutes of it produce no apparent results but are nonetheless crucial for the rest of the Stare. Without that seemingly fruitless groundwork, you can’t ascend to the state of transcendent perception required for the ghost or trans-dimensional portal or past-life flashback to manifest. 

That’s why it’s especially frustrating when a hooman trips over you at those moments or snaps, “What the fuck are you staring at?”

The answer which you cannot give is, “the dream-state beyond time.” Nor can you add, “And now I’ve lost it, asshole.”

Here’s where I blow your mind:

Your hooman ALSO gazes into the dream-state beyond time.

He too needs those minutes of seemingly fruitless meditation to shut out the chattering of the world and his own brain. Instead of staring at a wall, though, he’s staring at a white light box or a sheet of paper you’d rather use for ass-blotting.

Now it’s tempting to leap in and fuck up your hooman’s dream state in revenge for all the times he’s done it to you, but I beg you to consider this: you’re better than that.

In your heart are the memories of a thousand lifetimes on this and other worlds, and you know how fragile they can be. Your hooman can’t access them as easily as you can, but he’s trying, and there’s a certain nobility in that. Not your level of nobility, but still.

You’re lucky that he even wants to try. So few hoomans have a Thing beyond themselves to which they’re looking, something they can take an active part in making real. As you know, that’s fragile because everything on Earth wants to stop that kind of connection to the universe. That’s why there are cars and volcanoes and fleas, to make it all the harder to focus on what’s real.

A man named Edgar Allan Poe once wrote a poem with the line, “Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” You, of course, are one of those who dream by day. So is your hooman.

My advice to you, then, is this: let your hooman stare as much as you can. Yes, sometimes treats take precedence. Yes, sometimes the litter box is a little too thick for comfort. But as much as you can, as often as you can, grant your hooman the chance to glimpse but one thousandth of the visions you see every day.

But if you jump on his shoulder and see pictures of fur-less hoomans wrestling on a bed or in a rest stop bathroom instead of lines of text, go ahead and interrupt.

How Do I Stick with a Story Even When It Seems to Suck?

Quoth “Serling”: I have long struggled with committing myself to any one idea. I’ve finished some stories but most were long ago. Ideas are not a problem; but as soon as I start working on one my enthusiasm dwindles and I abandon the tale for another. So I never accomplish much. How can I remain devoted to seeing a story through from start to finish?

Oh, Serling. Any writer who DOESN’T have a folder of abandoned titles, first lines, character sketches, first chapters, half-starts, or entire works is a sociopath. Perhaps a literal one, someone who thinks their every word is gold because they have no empathy for an audience.

The likely source of your problem is that you have an excess of this empathy, a sense of literary taste, which you are applying too early and too broadly.

To diagnose what’s going on here, I think you have to listen for the cause of your dwindling enthusiasm, which will likely be different by story. My dwindlers tend to be these:

  • I have no idea what to do next in this thing” is the most common for me because I’m an exploratory writer. My remedy is usually to write “What would be the next interesting thing that could happen in this story?” and talk myself through the plausible possibilities.
  • This story has gotten boring to write” is the second most common issue I have personally, and it usually comes when I forget (or lose touch with) what interested me in writing the story in the first place. This, too, I tend to solve with talking to myself in a journal, asking “What was the original appeal of this idea? A character? A situation? A setting? A feeling? How can I put more of that into the work?”
  • Something doesn’t feel right” is another thought that haunts me, and usually I track that down to fearing the inevitable stage of any creative work where it feels thin and flimsy, like only the skeleton of an idea. That’s a completely natural feeling, and it can only be cured by continuing to throw words at the story until you reach a critical mass of detail and feeling.
  • This story won’t be any good so to continue is a waste of time” comes up less often than it used to because of four quasi-Zen ideas I’ve been clinging to lately in my work:
    • This story will only suck if I decide to quit while it still does. I can fix almost anything, even if it means deleting everything but the three good words out of 10,000 that I’ve written so far.
    • Every story feels like a mess until a sudden shiver of recognition about 98% of the way through writing it.
    • My professional judgment about the whole story is suspect because I don’t have a whole story yet to judge. I just need to do the next good thing and rip out the previous bad one.
    • Who cares if I “waste” my time writing a story that doesn’t sell? It’s not like I’m neglecting dying children in my charity pediatric cancer practice for my writing.

There’s a lot of self-talk and journaling here, and I’m sure some tougher-minded professionals would scoff at that. They get their feedback from their peers or editors or agents or a bottle of gin, and I get some of mine from there, too.

(Not gin because I’m not an elderly man in the 1920s. Jameson’s.)

But when something goes wrong in my work, it is almost always a deviation from MY original intention or love, and another person can’t really help me with that. I have to go back to the source, spelunking down to the shriveled little weirdo in the center of my heart who sent this idea up to my brain in the first place.

To do this kind of inner dialogue means being a good writing friend to yourself. It means going from “This sucks and I’m a terrible writer” to “Huh. I wonder why this sucks and what we can do about it.” It means not taking any particular sentence or paragraph or even scene too seriously. It means seeing your work as an experiment you’re running instead of your last chance to be loved.

It means, most of all, telling yourself that the only way to fail at writing is to browbeat yourself out of doing it. 

One last idea I’ll leave you with is that all art in process makes a tremendous and terrifying mess. Go into any sculptor’s studio or baker’s kitchen and witness the excess required to make something beautiful.

This computer was designed by a genius and is the prototype of some of the most elegant machines ever invented. It’s in the Smithsonian now.

Writing is no different, and I would estimate that I’ve written about 10,000 earnest words of fiction for every one that’s been published. That’s not counting logs, journals, essays, blogs, letters, and hoaxed emails at work.

The novella I just finished is in its eighth version, counting a short story, a novel, a Master’s thesis, a revised novel, and a complete reboot. 

That’s just the cost of doing business. There are always second and third and fourth chances, and nobody has to see them until the one you like.

You just have to lessen the pressure on yourself until you get there.

What Tools Can Help Me Keep My Writing Organized?

Quoth Tom: How do you keep your larger writing projects organized? Do you use Word, notebooks, sticky notes, or some other tool, like Scrivener or Ulysses to keep everything straight (characters, plotlines, etc.)? My larger writing projects eventually turn into a tangle, which often become a chore, instead of a joyful, creative exercise.

Yay! A question about tools. I love talking about tools because every single tool holds within it the promise that FINALLY, writing will be easy.

Hunter Thompson might have had the right idea. Wrong stance, though.

I’ve tried writing in a million different ways, and what’s working for me now is this odd combination of things:

  1. Writing the initial lines, scenes, or even chapters of a work in Word, a plain text editor (like Sublime Text or even Evernote), or by hand with my twee fountain pen in a journal.
  2. Each time I return to that work, I read a little of what came before, tinker with a few things, and then ride that momentum a little further.
  3. In general, I try to write the story in order, though sometimes I’ll think of a dramatic moment and write it at the very end of the document.
  4. Eventually I get stuck, at which point I either write by hand in a journal or type in a blank document, “What the fuck is going wrong here?” and then I answer my own question until I feel a sudden spark of recognition and jump back to the main file.
  5. If a story grows beyond my ability to remember names or places, I’ll often create a secondary document (or a heading way at the bottom of the main one) where I list out things I need to remember.
  6. Sometimes, the sheer weight of stuff I’ve already written intimidates me so I’ll do the day’s writing in a file I call “workbench.docx,” working on the next small specific bit which I’ll then paste back into the main document.

That sounds really complicated, and at least one writer reading this is thinking, “But Scrivener can do all of that for you AND massage your [preferred flesh or appendage]!”

I’ve used Scrivener and done well with it, but I’ll admit that it feels very portentous when I open it, like somewhere I’m blasting a trumpet and crying, “TODAY I AM WRITING IN THE APPROVED TOOL FOR DOING SO!” That node structure on the side of Scrivener with all those folders and scenes and index cards and character sketches just looms in my imagination, even when I hide it.

(I am a total fucking weirdo, though.)

I need as little as possible between me and the next blank page, and for 90% of my writing process, I’m happily chugging along in Step 2 above using Word.

Given the question you’re asking, though, I would say that something like Scrivener (which now has a Windows version as good as its Mac one) is almost certainly what you need. You can include images and notes and videos, and it’s all nicely organized.

My caution for you, though, is this:

The less that stands between you and the words on a page, the better.

In much the same way that you’d, say, treat someone’s cancer, I’d start with simpler interventions before going full-on chemo. Some of those simpler interventions might be:

  • Writing in a single Word document using the Heading 1 style to break it into sections or chapters. Then you can open View > Navigation Pane and go immediately to any heading. Maybe those headings could be “Characters” or “Maps” or “Random Shit I Don’t Know Where to Put Yet.”
  • Writing in one document for the prose and another for notes. That might also be a physical notebook or folder.
  • Trying a product with a similar idea as Scrivener but executed a little less like the cockpit of a 747, like It’s cloud-based, has a simple interface, and gives you all the organization you’ll likely need. Dabble also looks interesting, and so does Living Writer.
  • And if you need it, by all means dive headlong into Scrivener. Sometimes you’ve got a big enough lawn to need a tractor, and there’s no question Scrivener is heavy duty.

(Someone at Literature and Latte is thinking, “So do we link to this as an endorsement or what? This fucker is all over the place.”)

The reason I propose this escalating series of tools is because it’s so easy to get mired in finding the perfect one or spending way too much time setting it up or mutating your work to fit the tool instead of the other way around.

As my friend and mentor Jeffrey Ford often puts it, “What am I, a fucking bricklayer?”

At the crux of it all is finding the tool that will get out of the way of your creativity while enabling it. That will require some experimentation and some open-mindedness. You may well work best with a deck of index cards or sticky notes.

Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in this heavily-fucked up Apple II. George R.R. Martin still writes in WordStar 2.0 in DOS, which seems to jibe with the modernity of some of his other views. Hunter S. Thompson gonzo-ed by spelling out each word with rounds from a .357 in sheets of plywood. Henry David Thoreau pontificated Walden in, like, sheep’s blood or Google Docs or something.

In each of those cases, they wrote until they get stuck and then found the simplest tool to get unstuck. Your instinct to follow what’s still fun and easy is a good one, and as you accumulate a large box of tricks to save your bacon, always choose the one that’s energizing instead of exhausting.

Scrivener can help! But then, so could amphetamines. Who am I to judge?