Writing Excuses 17.38: Oh No I Lost The Thread
Key Points: After a break? Try rereading the last writing session. Do minor edits. Then see if you can pick it up again. Play with the characters again a bit, just free writing to get to know them again. Understand that you are a different writer now. Pick up a different thread. Take it apart and use it for parts. When you know a break is coming, or someone interrupts you, drop yourself some breadcrumbs to help you when you come back. Remember, there’s always another thread.
[Season 17, Episode 38]
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Oh No I Lost The Thread.
[Chelsea] 15 minutes long.
[Marshall] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary Robinette] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Chelsea] I’m Chelsea.
[Marshall] I’m Marshall.
[Mary Robinette] And I’m Mary Robinette.
[Howard] I pitched this topic because I lost the thread. Prior to Gen Con Indy, I was 90 miles an hour making my way through the manuscript of a murder mystery… Cozy murder mystery comedy novella. Then I had to stop because I went to a convention. Then I came home from the convention and had injured my hand, and I had to copyedit, so there’s a bunch of other things. It’s now been almost… At this point, it’s been almost 5 weeks, and I have lost the thread. I… What do you do? What… How do you even…?
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Right.
[Howard] What is the process?
[Mary Robinette] So when Howard pitched this, we were all like, “Ooh. Yeah. Me too.” So I have… I’ve got a couple of thoughts on this. There’s a number of different reasons that you will lose the thread. Sometimes it’s because you took a planned break, sometimes it was a forced stop. So what I find is that it helps me to come back and kind of… Usually I’ll start with the lowest possible buy-in, which is that I’ll just reread what I wrote in the last writing session, which is a trick that I learned from Dan Wells. Then do minor edits on that, just to kind of exercise some muscles. Then I’ll start writing again. If it hasn’t been a long break or if it’s a shorter work, that’s usually enough. But, oh my goodness, the days when that does not work are months long.
[Howard] The days when that does not work are months long is hurtful and I feel seen. Marshall?
[Marshall] No, so, it’s funny that we’ve started this topic. I have been forced to take a break from my current work in progress because I decided to go to grad school. So I started grad school. I’m going… So I’d put my novel down. Now I’m working on a brand-new novel. I’ve outlined it. Everything is great. That other novel is still sitting in the back of my head, and I real… I cannot go back to it. It’s going to be over… Well over a year before I can even think about going back to it. So I appreciate this conversation. I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do when I go back to this other project. But somebody that I… Someone else in my writing community suggested playing with the characters again a bit. Like, doing some free writing around just getting to know them again. I think that’s what I’m going to have to do. Because after a year or more of taking a break from this book, and writing a whole nother book in between, I’m going to have to do something.
[Chelsea] That’s absolutely solid. I’m having kind of the same thing. I have been attempting to write a book for literally a couple of years, and what keeps happening is, I keep not being able to work on it for months and months and months at a time. I got frustrated with this way back in May, and it was the same ideas. Like, I have to like get into this, I have to write some no pressure stuff, I’m going to explore the characters. What I’m going to do is I’m going to write about their lives the day before the first page of the story. Honestly what happened is that because I had spent so much time with the characters, what I wrote as kind of like a nothing burger writing exercise is now actually the opening of my story, because it’s way better than what I had before. One of the things that I have to accept is that I have this huge chunk of text that I wrote when I was a different writer who wasn’t as skilled as I am now. I have to go back and fix it, and I don’t want to.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah, I think that that’s really hitting it on the head for me, is that one of the things that I have realized when I take a really long break is that I’m a different person than when I wrote it. So kind of a novel called The Dragon Question, and for long listeners, longtime listeners, you’ve heard me talk about this before. This is The Dragonriders of… Alfred Hitchcock does The Dragonriders of Pern. Well, I wrote like three quarters of the novel and then had to put it down for years while I wrote the Lady Astronaut books. Then had a break and went back to it. I’m like, “What is even this novel?” There’s two things. One is my skills are better, and the other is I’m fundamentally different… Interested in different things than I was when I wrote it. I’m not the same person. So there’s stuff in there that just… Like, some of the questions that I was noodling on, some of the stuff like that, those aren’t things that are interesting to me anymore. So it makes it… Part of what makes it hard to pick up is the thread is… It’s not a thread I’m interested in tugging on. I want to pick up a different thread that’s attached to the same tapestry.
[Howard] So maybe, and this is going to be a really stupid idea, the way to tackle this is to do your nothing burger writing epi… Writing exercise where you write about the Mary Robinette Kowal who is interested in writing that book.
[Mary Robinette] But that’s only like if I want to go backwards.
[Howard] I get… I totally get what you’re saying, and I only suggested it because if someone had offered you money for Alfred Hitchcock does Dragonriders, then, hey, we fall back on craft and we learn to write the things that don’t interest us as much anymore.
[Mary Robinette] I did finish the novel and if someone would like to offer me money for it, that would be delightful.
[Chelsea] You heard it here first.
[Howard] Sweet. Hey, Marshall, do you have a book of the week for us?
[Marshall] I do. So I read a book a couple of weeks ago. I’m actually going to work with this author in my grad school program, which I’m really excited about. His name is Ayize Jama-Everett and the book is The Liminal People. It’s the first… I haven’t read the whole trilogy yet, I’ve read the first book. I don’t want to give too much away. But, essentially, the main character has a power to heal himself and others. He’s working for basically a crime Lord, and his ex calls him asking for help. He ends up having to help her daughter, who also has powers. It’s kind of got touches of The Matrix, a little bit of X-Men, a little bit. Some people have power, some people don’t. But I don’t want to give away the plot. But it is absolutely phenomenal. It is fast-paced. It took me like… I think I read it in two days. So definitely pick up The Liminal People.
[Howard] Awesome. Thank you.
[Howard] I want to pose a question for this august body. What are the times when you’ve tried to pick up the thread and failed the worst? Do you have an example of that? Because our listeners learn from our failures.
[Chelsea] I had this idea. I wanted to write a book, and I had the idea and I wrote like enough to basically get away with a proposal. To have a book accepted with an outline and some sample pages written. Where I had a art historian specialist looking at a work of art that basically to her trained eye was the work of a particular artist in her history. But there was one problem. The actual materials that were used were… They were too modern. They had actually been developed after this person had died. It led them into a mystery. That was like really cool. I had written like the best fight scene I had ever written is in this. I put it aside, and I came back, and I had to go back and say, “I’m sorry. I can’t write this. I can’t. I can’t. It’s no good. It’s not a good story. I’m sorry, I have to do something else.”
[Mary Robinette] So, mine. I’m… Mine is a story that I kept picking up and putting down. Every time I pick it up and put it down, my idea of what the story is changes. I’ll put it… It is such a mess that… It’s like five different stories that have the same characters in it. And sometimes different characters. Because I’ve changed my mind about who’s in the story and I’ve changed my mind about where the setting is. I’ve just kept writing it as if I’ve fixed the things. But I haven’t fixed any of them.
[Mary Robinette] It’s like… It’s so bad. But I really… There are pieces of it that I really like, and I want it to work, and I’m stubborn, so I keep picking it back up and I’m like, “Surely. Surely, I will be able.” I have an outline for it. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t help at all.
[Mary Robinette] Every time I pick it up, I’m like, “Oh, no. This is bad.” I write a new outline for it, and just keep writing with the new outline. But this is… I’m really tempted to… You know what, I think I may… I will have to look at it, but I may… I might share it in the liner notes, because it is just… It is very instructive in like what is even happening here.
[Howard] In the 1980s, there was a jigsaw puzzle… A line of jigsaw puzzles. I don’t remember which one it was. But all of their 500 piece puzzles in this little series used the exact same cut template for the pieces. Which meant you could shuffle the puzzles together and have Mary Robinette’s novel.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. Yes. I mean, it’s a short story. A novella, maybe, by now. I don’t even know.
[Mary Robinette] It’s… Yeah. No, it’s terrible. It’s really bad.
[Howard] So it’s a 100 piece puzzle, not 500.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s a 100. Maybe 25 pieces. I don’t even know. It’s…
[Marshall] So, I guess for me, it’s a little bit different. I wrote a novel… Fantasy novel, years and years ago. Even printed it out and everything. I was very happy with it. It’s horrible. But the upside to it is now that I’ve been tinkering in other genres and stuff like that, in grad school and in my writing community, I actually took part of that world… Because, like Mary Robinette was saying earlier, there’s something about my level of writing then in my level of writing now. Right? So I’ve actually taken part of that, basically a character and a concept from that, and turned it into a short story for the end of my last semester that I was in. Now this semester, I get to turn it into a novelette. So I’ve picked up the thread, but it wasn’t… It’s not that novel. It’s a different thing. I’m sorry, Mary Robinette, for your thing…
[Howard] Okay. Your solution is a really, really good one. I want to come back… I hope I typed this correctly. I took notes. Your pull quote. “I was very proud of it. It’s horrible.”
[Marshall] Yeah, that’s accurate.
[Howard] Because… Raising my hand now… I think we all feel seen by this.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeah.
[Howard] So proud of something we’ve done, then we realize, “Oh, that really wasn’t very good.” But the recognition when you go back to pick up the thread and you recognize, “Oh. This isn’t good enough. There are two or three pieces in here that are good, but everything that connects them is garbage, so I will take this apart and use it for parts.”
[Mary Robinette] Yup. Yup.
[Howard] You just need to… A character, a fight scene, whatever.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I have definitely done that. So one of the things that I do want to give people, if you have a planned break coming up, so, like, you know that the thing is… You know that you’re going to have to set it down, like, say, you’re getting ready to go to World Con or something like that. You know you’re going to have to set it down for a little bit. Or if someone just comes into the room while your writing and interrupts you. Because we’ve also all had that, where you’re in the flow and someone breaks your concentration and you come back and you’re like, “Oh, I knew exactly where this scene was going and now I no longer do.” One of the things that all do is that I will drop breadcrumbs to myself. So, like, I’ll just be like, “Alma and Nathaniel canoodling, sexy fun times, interrupted, lights up.” I’ll come back and, like, when I look at it again, I may or may not remember what exactly those things were. But it gives my brain kind of a Rorschach where it can interpret it based on where I am now and it’s got enough connection to what was happening before that I can use it going forward.
[Howard] Okay, so last question. It’s not really a question, but it is an ask. We have listeners right now listening to this episode this very moment who have lost the thread. Do you have encouraging words for them? After the encouraging words, maybe we’ll do homework.
[Mary Robinette] You’re not alone.
[Marshall] There’s more threads.
[Howard] Here’s what I’ll offer. I’m so sorry. I know this hurts. It happens to the best of us. Or so I’ve been told. I’m not actually among the best of us.
[Mary Robinette] I mean, yeah. This is an unfortunate and really annoying part of being a writer. The good thing, and I will say this, the good thing is that it feels like in that moment that you’ve lost something deeply, deeply precious. But there’s always another thread, there’s always another story. So, just because you’ve lost that one, usually it’s because you are in fact ready to move on. So it’s not always a terrible thing when it happens. It just feels bad.
[Marshall] I like that. There’s always another thread.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The brain has a terrible UI.
[Chelsea] I am a knitter and I have dropped a work in progress and come back to it and said, “Now, what was I thinking? No, I can’t do this.” It doesn’t matter, the yarn is still good. I can unravel it, [garbled I can put it in a hank], I can wash all the wrinkles out of it, I can rewind it into a ball, and I can knit it again. That’s why I love being a knitter.
[Mary Robinette] Nice.
[Chelsea] This is a metaphor.
[Mary Robinette] Yup. Those words are not wasted words. You’re a better writer now because you… Because of the words. Right. So…
[Howard] Okay. Homework, Mary Robinette.
[Mary Robinette] Right. Homework. So, you’ve lost the thread. You need to start writing again. Before you look at the manuscript, I want you to write down, to the best of your knowledge and your thinking of where you are right now, to the best of your knowledge, what you think the thread is. Like, what you think the book is about, what you think was supposed to happen next, kind of anything… Just brain dump. This can be a sentence, this can be a paragraph, it can be… However long it is. But just what you think is supposed to happen. What you think that thread is. Then I want you to actually reread the thing. Write down what the thread in the old manuscript was. What that old thread was. Then I want you to reconcile the two. Because you are not the same writer you were when you set it down. You are more skilled, you are in a different place, you have different concerns. Reconcile those two things. Then see if there is a new thread that you can write forward with.
[Howard] That is a beautiful assignment that I hate because I did not want to admit that I’m a different person than I was just six weeks ago.
[Howard] But I mean it could be six hours. It could be… Yeah. Hey. Fair listener, we’re all very sad that you’ve lost the thread. We’ve all been there. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. There’s always more thread.