Last week, I went pretty much off the grid in my native southeastern Illinois. One of my joys was running or walking at Red Hills State Park, just outside the small town where I grew up. Aptly named, the park has a beautiful lake surrounded by rolling hills. Accustomed to running and walking the flatlands of central Ohio, I had a few adjustments to make in order to climb those hills. Actually, only one adjustment did the trick. I didn’t look too far ahead to see the top of the hill, Instead, I kept my eyes on what was immediately in front of me as I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I’m thinking now this might also be good advice for any writer working on a longer project. Invariably, we all have to climb some pretty steep hills to get to the end of a first draft. We may be tempted to give up. We may spend long periods of time away from the work. The long form, just like the long hill, requires a forward momentum in order to keep the writing moving.
Here, then, are three tips for keeping yourself going while working on a book-length project. I imagine they could also help with shorter works.
- If you feel that you’re stuck, back up. Read over a portion of what you’ve already written and enjoy the pleasure of working on a sentence level. This is really micro sort of work. Find a few sentences that you think you could strengthen. Concrete nouns, active verbs, sentence variety, etc. Often doing this small line by line work can bring you back into the world you’re creating or documenting in a way that will make moving ahead an exciting prospect for you. This micro editing can more fully connect you to voice, tone, character, and the sequence of events being narrated until you can’t help but continue.
- Re-read a scene you’ve already written and ask yourself whether you’ve included enough sensory details. Often, in a first draft, we’re so focused on the action that we neglect the texture that those details lend a piece. Don’t privilege one sense over the other. Mix them in a way that will make the scene have more vibrancy. What sounds, smells, tastes might you add to a scene? What about the tactile sensations? Make it your objective to enhance the senses? Such work will not only make for a more fully realized scene, a few of those new details may also suggests scenes that you haven’t yet written.
- Take one of your main characters and ask yourself what you still don’t know about them? Ask yourself what people would be surprised to know about that character? Your objective here is to add another dimension to that character, something contrary to what people already know, and in that way to make them take on a life that might lead to actions and scenes you may not have considered. Another way to think of this is to ask yourself what the characters don’t know about themselves. Write the scene in which that contradictory layer rises to the surface. Then ask yourself what other scenes you need to write in order to build to that moment.
When I run a hill, I narrow my focus to only what’s immediately in front of me. I never let my gaze tell me how far I still have to run. Such close work in the way I’ve described above can keep writers moving ahead, a step at a time. That’s the way we finish a manuscript. That’s the way I run a hill. That’s the way we keep ourselves going.