Inspirations Scrapbook · Rewriting · The writing business · Writer basics 101

Back to work – reboot your writing brain after a break

If you took a break from your novel for the holiday season, how will you ever get back into it?

Sometimes it’s good to take a break from our novels – especially at the end of a draft. But those are the breaks we’ve embraced. The purpose is to forget everything we knew about the book. An enforced break? That does the same – right when you don’t want it to.

It’s not that I’m shouting ‘humbug’, but before Christmas I was working through some notes from a publisher and Dave was deep in a first draft. Now, festivities over, we both have to get back into our writing, which isn’t easy. We don’t book many holidays compared with the normally employed, but somehow as departure looms, we grouse more and more about having to stop writing.

To make a good job of a book I need to know its every nuance. I need to understand how every scene and simile will reverberate through the whole thing – the way a note played on a piano is not just one sound, it quivers the strings of the whole instrument from highest tink to lowest rumble. When I come back to my novel after a break, I have to find its harmonics again.

So here’s how I do it.


First of all, I make sure I’ve got a summarised version of the book. This could be

  • the scenes on index cards if it’s at the planning stage
  • a working synopsis
  • a beat sheet, if revising.

(For a full explanation of these, see Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.) I use these documents as cribsheets to reboot my understanding of the novel from beginning to end. The structure, the character arcs, the tick-tock of the timeline, the threading of the subplots.

Beat sheet with extra writer fuel

You’ll probably have seen from my other blog that I make soundtracks of mood pieces that have inspired major scenes and characters. Whenever a song snakes out of the radio or my headphones and tells me something about the novel I’m working on, I put it on a playlist. When I’m trying to reintroduce myself to my book, I take the soundtrack for a spin.

Trust the process

In a recent comment here on this blog, Fredrica Parlett made a wonderful remark that I’d like to put on a T-shirt – ‘if I can trust the process and not panic…’ Experience of writing’s ups and downs gives you faith. Faith that you have lost the thread before but you can pick it up again. Courage to get through the first day, when you don’t feel like going back to work after the holidays. Yes, that day isn’t easy. But the next one will be a lot better than you think it is going to be. And before you know it, you’ll be back in the swing.

If you’re thinking 2012 is the year you write your novel, you might like this multimedia short course I co-host with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. More than 4 hours of audio with 86-page transcription and slides. And there’s also my book, Nail Your Novel

Thank you for the vintage ad pic JBCurio

Do you have any tips for getting to grips with your novel again after a break? Share in the comments

20 thoughts on “Back to work – reboot your writing brain after a break

  1. When coming off of a break, I like to go back through previous parts of the novel to get an idea of what’s going on and take off from there. If I’ve made any notes during the break I check with those and incorporate the new ‘intel’ 🙂

  2. I love the idea of having a soundtrack to launch you back in to your story. I hear the songs of my novel, but I don’t actually play them, so thanks for the tip… because I did wonder if I was the only one staring at my work-in-progress and wondering how the hell to get back in. Thanks!

  3. Hi Roz! It’s a hilarious paradox, isn’t it? – When the hols start you curse the fact you have to stop writing, and when they’re over, you curse the fact that you have to start again. 🙂

      1. Just realised that didn’t read as I intended! I meant, ‘at least the rest of us deserve our fugginess because we had a good time, and you, poor thing, got the fugginess without a good time’! My writer brain really isn’t working yet!

  4. I found a solution: don’t stop writing during the holidays. It helps that we don’t travel anywhere at this time of year, but even if we did, I’m sure I’d be tapping away on the laptop while everyone else slept late in the morning.

    1. Happy new year, hooded man! Yes, that’s probably the best solution but Dave and I have to lock our computers away when we decide it’s time for a break. Otherwise those hours get swallowed up with ‘just another little tweak’.

  5. I find that whenever I’ve taken a break from writing, sitting down and reading the synopsis, or even skimming through the chapters can put me back into it. I can’t sit down cold and start writing again. I’ve got to have a reading time where I reabsorb the novel I’m working on. I also put all my note cards on a science presentation board, and if I pull that out, open it up, and go over the cards again, that can help me target a spot where I can start writing again. Thanks for this post. It’s something everyone goes through, but no one wants to talk about.

  6. I returned to only half-finished beat-sheets after roughly ten days’ holiday from writing. I resolved to finish them. I saw glaring horrors regarding (as I’d suspected) Chapters 1 and 2. The holidays had also meant that a slight nagging twinge of doubt about my current ending (far too ‘busy’ with characters all over the place, FMC not given a chance to show how she’d grown/changed, not dynamic enough) led to my giving my penultimate chapter to OH to read.

    He agrees that my alternate ending was the best and fulfilled all the criteria lacking in the one I had written in November. I’d probably been a little too frightened to use my originally-conceived but unwritten ending but we both think it’s the best and ultimately most satisfying way, for characters, reader and writer.

    For me, the time away from directly writing it and, instead, looking at the glaring gaps on the beat-sheets when I returned to them helped enormously – both for mental cogitation/imagination and in a practical sense. I had been frightened that, after a break, as you say above, I wouldn’t be able to get cracking again. After beat-sheeting and rethinking certain areas, I can’t wait to get going on this second draft. Eek! Sorry, long post but your book helped enormously.

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