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Topic of the Night: Restarting Your Writing

Restarting Your Writing

All of us, for one reason or another, stop writing for a time.

Sometimes it is health reasons, sometimes it is family reasons, or sometimes it is because we just forget, which happens right about now for a vast number of writers.

For me, I stopped about thirty days ago to focus on opening a new collectables store, comic book store, and book store combined. Great fun. And even though I thought about writing along the way since I was teaching and still around numbers of writers who were writing, I really flat didn’t want to write.

And I didn’t force myself.

And I had no illusion that getting restarted would be easy. Far from it, actually. I knew how hard it would be. And I was only off for about thirty days. And I had kept my mind on the writing, even though I wasn’t producing new words.

At least that focus on the writing because of the workshops made this restart easier than it would have been.

The Major Problems of Taking Time Off

Here are just a few of the major problems that come about when we take time away from our passion of writing fiction.

1… Our minds keep making stuff up.

However, what it makes up now is how important the writing is, how we want to get back to it, how stories are major and important, and so on.

The key word here is “important.” When our writing or a novel or story starts becoming important, it’s like slamming open the door to the critical voice we all fight. The critical voice won’t let “important” writing get finished because it’s too hard to do and besides, you would never get it right anyhow. So don’t start.

Without actually typing out stories, our minds make up how important the stories we aren’t writing will be when we get back to them.

Oh, oh…

2… We lose the time habits.

Writing consistently is something we all carve out of our days to do in one form or another. And when writing consistently, that seems normal and easy. It is a daily habit you give so much time to.

When you take time away from the writing, the world fills in that empty time like water flowing from a full area to an empty area. And it fills up very, very quickly.

There were many days over the last month I would drag myself to bed wondering how I ever found the time to write. I actually had that thought. Not kidding.

Carving out time to write is like setting up dams around yourself to the time pressures of the real world. Those dams are holding and maintained as long as we write, but the moment we stop for any length of time, the outside demands of time flood in and the writing time seems to just vanish under the waves of the real world.

3… We think we forget how to write.

Yeah, as silly as that sounds, when you lose the time, and you lose the habit, and you make your writing “important” while not doing it, what happens is the mind starts believing we have forgotten how to write.

I have seen this happen to more writers than I want to admit, and sadly, it happens to me every time I stop for a long period of time, longer than what I just did. When my friend Bill died and I stopped writing for about eight months to deal with all of that, I really, really believed I had forgotten how to write.

Again, we are fiction writers. Our jobs are to make shit up and when we don’t have the creative outlet of putting that made-up stuff into stories, we direct it at other things. And one place that made-up stuff gets directed is into fear that we won’t be able to remember how to write ever again.

4… We become afraid.

Fear makes us stay away longer than we actually need to. And the fear is based on numbers of things. Thinking we can’t write any more, thinking we can’t control or find the time anymore, and so on, all critical voice working to stop us.

But the largest fear is an amazing fear I have felt numbers of time over the years. It is the fear that because we stopped, we have “ruined our career.”

And in this modern world of regular production needed to maintain income streams at higher levels, stopping can really impact the money. It doesn’t ruin a career, but it can sure make it feel like it has.

Fear has many, many heads. And wow do they poke up like a bad game of Whack-a-Mole when trying to restart your writing.

5… Why Bother syndrome hits.

I see this the most often with those coming back from the time of great forgetting. It’s August, new patterns in time have set in, the writing feels impossible and important. So the response is like this: Why should I bother now? I got too many things to do. I’ll just wait and restart with the November writing challenge.

So the writer is off for two or three more months, with all the problems building and building with each week that goes by.

That “why bother” thinking can really delay the restarting. It is a great critical voice ploy to keep you from starting again.

And it also comes up when sales are still low early on in careers. You are off for a few months, then look at your sales numbers when you come back and think, “Why should I go through the pain and effort to restart? Why should I bother? No one is buying my work anyway.”

Deadly, just deadly.

But when you are writing regularly and having fun, those thoughts seldom hit hard, if at all.

What Can You Do?

The five things above are just general categories  that lots and lots of problems with stopping and then restarting fall into.

So what can we do when we decide or are forced to stop for a time?

Some simple suggestions:

1… Stay partially focused on the writing, even though you are not actually producing new words. Workshops, conferences, writers books, or writer’s blogs. All will help if you do them regularly.

2… Look forward to the fun and play of writing again. Notice I said fun and play, not the “important” aspects of doing your “art.”  You have to watch out for making the writing important, but instead make sure it stays play and fun in your mind.

This is critically important when it is a nasty life event that has caused the stoppage. Don’t drag the writing into the life event. Let it be the escape place, the fun place when the life event eases.

Also, if you keep the focus of play and fun with the writing, you won’t think you have forgotten. No one forgets how to play.

3… Don’t watch your numbers fall. If you stop writing, stop looking at numbers at the same time. Watching numbers any more than once every three months is a fool’s game anyway, but if you are a number watcher, make sure the watching the numbers is shut off when the writing shuts off.

Then use the lower numbers when you come back as a positive incentive to write. This is all a game inside your head. Play it.

4… Plan ahead for your restart. Clear the time decks, make sure your family knows you are restarting. Plan the restart days and days ahead, and make sure it will be fun. Don’t make it important, make it something you want to do.

We all wanted to go out and play as kids. The “important” stuff was no fun. So make your writing play and look forward to it.

Things You Can Do On the Actual Restart Day

There are ways to really mess with your mind when trying to restart. One of which is thinking foolishly that you are going to dive right back into the middle of book four of that huge series you are writing.

Uhhh…. no.

Memory sucks after time away, and that makes the writing too important.

So on the day of restarting, do the following:

1… Pick something to write that is fun and that takes little or no preparation time.

For example, tonight I dove back into a novel I was working on. It took me all of forty minutes to read through what I had done quickly, getting the characters and structure back in my head and check my notes.

Easy. And quick.

2… Just write the next sentence.

After looking over the early part off the book quickly, I took a quick break, sat down and said simply, “What’s the next sentence?”

And I wrote it.

And after asking that question a few more times, off I went.

The key to this is not try to keep the entire book or story in your head. Just writing the next sentence takes away all the fear of not being able to handle something so big.

3… Remember your old writing schedule and time and imitate it. 

I normally, on good writing nights, liked to do a session before going to watch some television, then come back and write until I got too tired. So on the first night of restart, I just imitated the old pattern.

Took almost nothing for my body and mind memory to drop into the routine again.

4… Make sure your environment isn’t new if possible.

Some people think that starting in a new place or on a new computer will help with a restart. It won’t.

Go back to old writing habits when the writing was fun and moving quickly. The mind and creative voice will remember that. You can change to some place new or a new computer when you are up to speed.

5… Keep all negative thoughts out of the writing time.

Nothing critical about your writing. Really watch your thinking. The writing will feel clunky and not good. Of course it will. Duh. You haven’t been doing it for a while, remember?

Go ahead, sit without moving for five or six hours and see how walking feels when you stand up. Writing is no different, so keep the negative thoughts out, just laugh and have fun and the feeling of unease and clunky typing will quickly be forgotten.


I sure hope these suggestions will help some of you get restarted with your writing. I only intended to cover the basics. I got a hunch there is an entire book here of how writers slow themselves down in restarting.

And I imagine I will reprint this column in late July as writers come back from the time of great forgetting and are wondering what happened and how to restart.

The key to all of this is keep having fun. Make the writing fun and a focus. Even though I never produced new words for the last thirty days until tonight, writing was still there for me every day.

And that made tonight fairly painless and a lot of fun. I don’t think I even whined to Kris once about this restart. I was actually not dreading it, but looking forward to it.


Have fun.


  • Mike Jasper

    I’m holding up both arms in a “touchdown” sign like you were the other day outside your store after reading this post. Excellent tips and analysis, especially the need to create “dams” for your writing time.

    Great post! Thanks.

    Now I gotta get writing. 🙂

  • Vera Soroka

    This is where I am at now. I’m still struggling to get my back list out and move forward. I should have been almost done but now I have a bunch of novels to get out by the end of June before school is out. I was going to start writing in July but I can see I will still be preparing novels for publication. I’ll write anyways. It will just be one session a day until I get the others published. I also want art time of which I have been giving time for that. I find that relaxing. Just need to wrap my head around things and figure stuff out.
    2016 has certainly been a challenge from the start.

  • Chrissy Wissler

    This is just perfect. Thank you! After two months off from writing to do a house move with a 3 and 1 year old, I’ve been feeling both the itch to write again, and the pressure to get back to it (the latter in a not positive way). Lots of critical voice going on. Lots of fear. Ugh. I’ve already rewatched your Starting/Restarting Lecture (I swear, I’ve seen in 6x by this point over the years) and now I’m going to print this whole post out and keep it by my desk.

    I think I’ve had 4 or 5 major restarts in the past four years because of starting our family, and you’d think it’d get easier… nope. At least I’m happy to see that my awareness of what’s going on (fear/critical voice) and how to make this as successful restart as I can. Just last night I decided to not do one of those fun things that would flow into writing time (and mostly energy time) because I knew I wanted to restart the writing. I started putting up the dam and then realized what I really needed to do this weekend was clear the decks. Finish off everything leftover from the move, make THAT my goal.

    It was great to see that so many of my thoughts were echoed in your post (because wow! I am still growing and learning even if I’ve taken a looooong family break), and also new ones to help me move forward with the restart.

    If you ever write a book on this topic, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. In the next couple days, though, I’ll work on shifting my focus to the fun and do my best to shove aside the ‘importance’ my brain is trying so hard to hammer into me as the restart date gets closer.

    • dwsmith

      All sounds great, Chrissy. And you are right, it never gets easier unless you keep writing in mind and keep it fun while distracted. Hard to do. But sounds like you are on the exact right path. Have fun. Keep the writing a fun thing. A real key.

  • James

    One of those points really hit home for me: “We think we forget how to write.” I’m stuck in a variation of that mode right now: thinking I’ve forgotten how to write anything longer than 1000 words.

    When I went back to grad school, most of my creative energy went to writing academic papers (which are almost all critical voice after the original ideas are laid out), so the only time I found for creative writing was flash fiction, little pieces here and there, ranging from as few as 33 words to no more than 600, based on the prompts provided by various websites.

    Now that grad school is over and I’m trying to restart my writing, I’m finding it very difficult to write about any one story idea in a longer form. The thing is, I’ve kept reading short stories and novels that whole time, so it’s not as if I’ve lost touch with those longer stories, and I’ve written pieces as long as 50,000 words in the past. There were times I could write a 6,000 word story with no trouble. I just can’t remember what I was doing to keep a single story idea going for that long. I’m gradually figuring it out, though. I recently finished a story which made it to 2600 words, because the submission guideline required it to be between 2000 and 6000 words. That might be a technique to write longer stories: choose projects with minimum word requirements.

    Ah, well. For me, the summer is my restart time, because February through mid-May is the busy time of year for me at work. I’ve figured out how to carve out some time, too, so we’ll see how the writing goes. Should be fun.

    • dwsmith

      James, a good idea on picking projects that are longer. But you know how to write longer, you now just have to believe it again. And when that belief sinks in, your creative voice will switch into longer works.

      I usually hear this from the other direction, people complaining they can’t write shorter. They can, they know how, they just don’t believe they do. Belief is critical in restarting.

  • John D. Payne

    Thanks, I needed this post. I’ve been needing to restart my writing on a novel that I set aside some months ago. Last night I ran out of excuses and realized that I was just afraid. Time for me to face this fear head on. I’m getting of the internet and opening up my word processor. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. And don’t forget to have fun, right?

  • Harvey

    Dean, I’ve listened to your Starting and Restarting lecture. This is just as good, just as valuable. I hope you’ll crash those two into each other and write that book. You’ll be doing an invaluable service to thousands of writers.

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Harvey. I actually forgot I had done parts of this topic in a lecture. Might be a good idea to get it into book form after all. Thanks!

  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    3… We think we forget how to write.

    Ha! I totally relate to that one. My last release was 5 books on the same day, and prepping for it took me months, during which I did not write. I missed the writing, but I’m not yet so facile at all the publishing tasks that I could do them for 5 books and write. (Note to self: Do not release 5 titles on the same day ever again. Just release them when they are ready.)

    But after 5 months with only a little “fix mistakes” writing, I really did feel like I’d forgotten how to write. I told myself I’d start next week. I mentioned this to a writer friend. She said, “Start tomorrow. I’ll ask you!” Thank goodness. With the requirement that I report to someone, I started. And it felt clunky and wrong and like I really had forgotten. I didn’t get many words on the page, but I did get some. Some counts as a win.

    I reported success to my writer friend (bless her for keeping me accountable) and then – not really knowing why – I reviewed my notes from the Depth workshop.

    The next morning, as I ran over the previous day’s writing in order to continue where I’d left off, it fairly leapt to my eye that there was hardly any character opinion down on the page. But I felt relief, not chagrin, because I knew how to fix that. (Thank you, Dean!) I layered in what now seemed perfectly obvious – character opinion that had been in my head, but not gotten into the writing – and on I went, quite merrily. The second day of writing felt much better than the first. And the second week felt much better than the first.

    Now I’ve hit the typical one-third bog-down (I think), which was not fun, but I think I pushed through it today. It was certainly fun again by the time I stopped. I didn’t want to stop, but family duties called. 😀 I’m going to bookmark this webpage for the next time I have a hiatus in writing. Because, sooner or later, I will. For one reason or another.

    • Harvey

      I’m an accountability type too, JM. In fact, back in October 2014, I actually started a daily blog similar to Dean’s. It goes out to only a small group, but feeling that “place to report” has kept me writing when I otherwise might not have. Your friend is a very good friend.

  • Jamie DeBree

    Wow – I needed this about a month ago (but I’m not complaining – I’m just happy to see it now). I stopped writing unintentionally when one of my dogs got very sick last December, and we spent the next two months trying to save her (lost her in February). The whole time I could not focus enough to write, but I kept trying to, and kept sort of mentally berating myself for not keeping up with at least some words daily – my first mistake. Then when I finally had the head space to start again, I did exactly what you said – I made it far too important in my head, and tried to jump right back into two drafts I’d been working on before.

    It wasn’t until I back-tracked and started just writing little snippets of unrelated fiction during my regular writing times, not caring what they were or how they went, that I finally started feeling like “normal” with my writing. And it’s only been the past couple of weeks that I’ve been able to finally make progress on those two drafts again. Thank goodness. Writing is such a release of pent-up creative energy, as you said.

    Thank you for putting all this down so succinctly. I couldn’t really describe what was happening when I was going through it, but you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head (as usual).

  • Ken

    I didn’t write for about 14 days recently. (I’m doing better now.) The biggest hurdle was formatting and uploading. It was like my hands knew what to do before, but lost the ability to do so after the break. It took a little while to get back on the horse.

    Thanks for the post!


  • Michael Alan Peck

    Thank you for this—it’s getting put into Evernote (along with a number of your other posts) and will be given a shortcut so I can easily find it. Right now, I’m only writing on weekends, which means I face a number of these issues nearly every time I sit down.

    I don’t want to say that the suffering and difficulties of others makes me feel better, but it’s a comfort to know that someone with your level of experience has to deal with these challenges, too. Sometimes, it’s-not-just-me helps quite a bit.

    So again: thanks. And with that, on to today’s goal.

  • J. D. Brink

    This is a timely post for me. I’ve started in a new department at work which has resulted in 60 hour weeks these last two weeks, thus feeling frustrated and having no time for writing. And looking at my numbers lately, I feel my critical voice sliding into “Why bother?”

    But I’m mounting a recovery. Part of it is getting into the mentality that until I have a complete series and several full novels up, I can’t expect too much anyway. And knowing that summer reading season is coming soon.

    Thanks for shoring us up, Dean.