This week, I completed a 9-day DIY at-home writing retreat. My husband was out of town visiting a hospitalized family member, which gave me lots of time and space for the kind of purposefully unbalanced work marathon I’ve always needed, a few times per book.
I didn’t talk to myself out loud, but I did pace around, thinking and reveling in the fact that no one would interrupt my concentration or expect to eat dinner at a normal time.
Weeds popped up in the garden, doghair accumulated in the corners, my weight seesawed (whoops, too many potato chips!) and I forgot to take out the garbage and recycling. Sorry not sorry!
In nine days, I wrote over 14,000 words of my latest novel’s first draft, nearly completing it.
I share this not to brag—or even to advocate for ignoring chores or eating too many potato chips—but to reassure. Because many times this summer, I wasn’t writing at all.
For a while in June and July, I’d open Word on my computer, and see the list of my latest files, none of which were my book-in-progress. I’d briefly forget where I’d stashed various drafts in various folders. Even my Google search history would have proven that I had not been thinking about my novel.
Or should I say: normal writer.
Half of my summer was used on emergency tasks like traveling to another city with my husband to empty out my mother-in-law’s apartment, where she lived for 28 years, in order to settle her into an assisted living facility. We were nearly finished with that job when my mother-in-law got COVID-19, from which she hasn’t recovered.
If it weren’t the pandemic, it would be something else. Most of us have either children or parents or sick pets or mental health slumps or floods or fires or a million other looming distractions and disasters.
If we lived protected, isolated lives, spared these kinds of crises—and let’s not even get started about politics—what would we write about? How would our novels, memoirs or essays reflect the world in which we live?
I’m not really a bad writer for breaking my creative stride this summer. But I should have remembered the strategies that have served me in the past.
Resolved to recover momentum, I did two things.
I doubled down on an accountability check-in I do with another writer, by email, every Friday. I committed to giving my friend a work update, even if that update was “no progress/zero wordcount on novel” or “read my work but didn’t write.”
I reminded myself that even when I don’t have time to write many new words, I do have time to “touch” my work-in-progress.
Touching the work
“Touching” the work can include:
- Opening the file and rereading my most recent scene(s).
- Writing when I have only 20 to 30 minutes, for example, on a ferry ride or between other jobs.
- Downloading the whole book to a Kindle (my favorite brainstorming and revision trick) and taking it with me to the bath or the couch, to re-read parts—not the whole thing at once, just dipping in, here and there.
- Opening my writing journal and making lists of future scenes I plan to write or things I already know I want to fix.
- Continuing with background research.
- Consciously thinking about where I left off, as I’m falling asleep, and trying to “play” the next parts of my novel in my mind—though note, this only works well if I’ve opened my WIP and actually read it within the last two to three days.
You’ll see that most of these ways of “touching” involve opening a document and reading my own words. That’s important. I need to keep the actual language of the novel in my own head, even when I can’t be adding to its length.
It doesn’t do me any good to do too much research, or read books by other authors, if I don’t have the voice and plot of my book, fresh in my mind.
Advice for longer absences
Let’s say you’ve left a manuscript for months or even years and it’s become an albatross. Just opening up the whole thing for a full re-read, or diving directly into revision, may be too overwhelming. I’ve been there.
Come up, instead, with your own list of lighter ways to “touch” the work.
Come up with a re-reading schedule, and step in slowly. Dedicate one day a week to getting to know your old project again. Read only a chapter. Stop early, even when you’d like to keep reading.
Make the experience pleasant. If you feel less pressure in a café than at home, for example, then bring your work out of the house. Treat yourself. Don’t give in to the feeling of “I should have finished this damn book years ago” or “where do I even start?” Pretend you are dating your project. Buy a fancy coffee or pour yourself a glass of wine.
During this “dating period,” start a new journal. Make just a few notes each time about what parts of the work still shine or excite you. Delay criticism. Don’t feel pressured to list solutions for every problem. That will come later. This is the honeymoon phase. Let yourself fall in love again.
If you haven’t tried the playlist trick, try it now while you are in this honeymoon phase. Find songs that match the work, and then play those songs when you’re driving, doing dishes or exercising. Remind yourself that much of the work of creative invention happens away from the screen.
Later, you can come up with a more regular schedule—a few days a week, with time to start moving forward again, keeping count of either hours or wordcount. (A time-based goal can be more forgiving than a pages- or wordcount-based goal.) You spent two hours on your project this week? Fantastic!
Among my book coaching clients are many people who wrote a draft of a book, set it aside for years, and then picked it up again, determined to finish and revise it. And they do! Often, writers will find that the distance and maturity of those in-between years are exactly what was needed to revise successfully.
Whether you’ve slacked off for a few weeks in order to enjoy summer, or months in response to COVID-19 emergencies, or years because that’s just what happens, I wish you an easy and joyful re-immersion.
I’m certain that my recent productive spell was made possible by the fact that I’d eased back into the work gradually, with self-compassion. When I finally had an uninterrupted chance to dive back in, I wasn’t really leaping into the cold deep end. I had already waded in, acclimating myself and finding new optimism, thanks to a series of “touches.”
What’s your best trick for staying connected with a writing project when you can’t give it much time?
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of five novels, with a sixth coming in 2024. She’s also a book coach who helps writers finish and revise their books, as well as an aspiring Ironman triathlete who sees parallels between endurance sports and the writing life. Follow her on Instagram at @romanolax or check out her new Substack Ironman newsletter, UNLIKELY, at https://andromedaromanolax.substack.com/.