This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working.
Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:
What needs to start?
- Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
- Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
- Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.
What needs to stop?
- Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
- Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
- Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.
What needs to change?
- Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
- Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
- Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?
The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.
Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.