Dear Editor: How do I get away from world building and get back to the actual content of my story?
This question comes from /u/HaydenPS, which was originally posted here: https://www.reddit.com/r/writing/comments/4s3hjw/getting_lost_in_writing/
So working on my novel, where the protagonist time travels about 80 years or so into the past. I've gotten lost and obsessed in technicalities such as working on the "Victorian-Esque slang" of an older man he meets. How do I get back to the actual content of the story?
Let’s get something sorted right out of the gate: in order to get back to the content of the story, you sit down and write. It’s that simple. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
“But Editor!” you’ll say, raising your palms to the sky, “I need—”
No. You don’t need. You’ve become distracted—it happens to us all, so don’t fret—and the only way to get back to writing is to sit down and write. There will be many more distractions in the future. Don’t allow them to sap your time. Nike had a neat advertising campaign a while back. It was a simple phrase:
Yesterday you said tomorrow.
A week from now you’re not going to remember what it was that caused you to skimp out on your daily writing. You won’t remember why you didn’t write on Wednesday or Thursday, you’ll only know that you didn’t, and you’ll have cheated yourself and your current work-in-progress. Before I go to bed each night, I ask myself: Did I write my daily goal? If the answer is “no” then I don’t go to sleep. Sometimes that means I stay up until one or two in the morning. Of course I’m exhausted the next day, but I use that as motivation to make sure I write earlier on so I’m not having to stay up late to get it done. Now, I already know you’re going to balk at this. You’re going to tell me that some days it’s just impossible, and while I know of course you’re right and the same is true for me, for all of us, you can’t entertain the possibility. If it doesn’t happen then it doesn’t happen, but that’s the difference between sabotaging yourself by planning on an excuse, and the acceptance of reality. The former is something you do to cheat yourself and ends up growing into a monster of excuses piling one atop the other, and the latter is just life (you get sick, your kids keep you up all night because they’re sick, you’re traveling out of state, et cetera).
Now, I know that wasn’t your question, but it’s something you needed to hear. We all need to hear it from time to time. I took the time to go into it because while you didn't ask it explicitly, your question about obsessing over details sounds like you might be dangerously close to the territory of the distracted. A distracted writer is often an unproductive writer.
As to getting lost in the technicalities of novel: a lot of times this can be fun. Creative writing is enjoyable. I like writing character sheets and world building and defining the rules for the story I’m writing. Tolkien invented whole languages for his—how’s that for world building? I think it’s okay to indulge in that, but it’s a little bit like eating sugar, isn’t it? We like it, it tastes sweet. But you need your meat and potatoes, too. You can’t eat candy forever. And if you could, would you want to? Would candy taste sweet to you if that’s all you ate?
Try this: eat your candy for a week straight. Start on Sunday. Don’t do anything but work on the technical details of your novel, as long as you hit your daily writing goal. Take a piece of technology you’ve been obsessing over, for example, and write a short story about it. Or, don't write a story, write pure exposition about your technical detail, playing with the bits and parts of it and writing out its description and function as if you were detailing a technical manual. Anything so that you're working on those fun little details of your world while also hitting your daily goal. You get the idea. Challenge yourself to make it the whole seven days like this, eating your candy, and see if you can make it. My bet is you won’t be able to get half-way through Wednesday before you’re craving for those vegetables, before you’re desperate to return to the real guts of the novel.