Wednesday, January 19, 2011


It's very quiet in my head at the moment. Nobody's talking, nobody's fighting, nobody's going to war.

This is a bit hard to get used to, but after almost two weeks of deliberately not writing, not thinking about writing, not doing anything writing related, I'm getting used to it. I've found myself with free time that I never noticed before, which must have previously been filled with writing. I've read four books in the last week. I've baked banana cake. I've watched missed episodes of Dexter and Top Chef and Bones.

I don't feel like both my arms have been chopped off anymore. That's how I normally feel when I'm not writing, and it fills me with panic. How will I ever get back into it?

The panic is what stops me taking a break, most of the time. Besides, why would I need a break? I'm in the zone. I wrote more than 50,000 words in each of June and November last year. More than 20,000 in each other month. I was at a point where I knew my characters and my plots more intimately than ever before, and I was ideally placed to smooth it all into a final draft.

Wasn't I?

Turns out, I wasn't. Not because the story and the characters weren't ready, but because I was lacking the perspective to edit this thing objectively. And at this stage of the game, objectivity is what you need. Being submerged completely in the story is brilliant, when you're writing it. But when you're done, there's no way you can see the forest for the trees without taking a big step back. Even if you think you can, you'll always be looking at it from a particular angle. You might need a new one.

The major reason for this, I think, is the emotional attachment you have to the story. You're committed to the plots and the characters as they are. You think they're pretty good. They might well be. But pretty good still isn't pretty great, and to get there, you just might have to kill a few darlings. You need to keep re-examining everything that happens in your story, and sometimes you need to rewrite. Sometimes you need to re-route in a different direction.

Can you do this when you're in the thick of things, convinced you already know best? I'm not sure you can. To use the old saying, it's a little like trying to do an engine check on an aeroplane while you're in mid-flight.

But here's me, who throughout university used to infuriate my husband and other friends with my lofty, "I don't do drafts" attitude. I believed that the research came first, then the planning, and what went on the page was final. This worked for me throughout my undergraduate degree, but when it came to a thesis, I had my first stumble. Turns out that a lengthier work needs more consideration than that, and there's always something to improve. Putting down one idea is one thing; putting down a string of connected ideas for a coherent whole is another. Without perspective and distance, it's hard to see what needs to change.

Because the first-draft-is-final mentality is still lurking away in the back of my brain, I find it hard to just walk away. So I have to trick myself into it, in the end. I tell myself I'm taking a weekend off to read a book, and I'll go back to it next week. Next week, I tell myself I need a holiday from writing, and I'll use it to play with another hobby for a few days. By the end of that week, I can start to consider when I'll get back to it. Not yet. I'm finding other things to distract myself- including research for the work in progress- but I'm not writing.

I can already see the benefits. For the first time in a while, the idea of making a major change to the novel feels neither scary, or immediately necessary, for that matter. I don't feel the urge to run in and rewrite- I can sit back and keep thinking it through, without worrying that it's the wrong way. The idea that parts are sub-standard at the moment doesn't sting the way it did a fortnight ago. The idea that particular characters Must behave in one way or another no longer carries the weight it did before.

I'm not sure when I'll get back to it- within a fortnight, I think. But when I do, it's going to be from the top down, and it's going to be objective.

In the end, writing tens of thousands of words is a great thing to do- but writing none can be just as powerful.


  1. "In the end, writing tens of thousands of words is a great thing to do- but writing none can be just as powerful."

    So very true, says she who has barely written a single word in the last twenty-odd days. I can already see ... no, make that feel ... so many bits of the WIP that need to be changed, for the better (I hope!) thanks to that space and objectivity. It's like being a parent, in many ways ... you love your children to death, but eventually you have to face the fact that they're just not perfect - in fact, they may be contrarian little buggers - and they need some tough love and stern words and discipline to mould them into a functional, socially acceptable, human beings ... a tough gig, but so very rewarding when it all works out.

  2. But it's scary, she whines. I'm always frightened to step away - but what is it I'm really frightened of? I say it's because I'm afraid of coming back and finding out that my writing is crap. But is that the truth? Not really... I think what I'm afraid of is that if I step away and come back, there'll be lots more hard work ahead, fixing plot holes and adding depth and layering.
    But why should hard work be frightening? All you have to do, is do it.
    Let me just finish this draft first...

  3. I still want "first draft = final draft." That's what's been bothering me. As I read the rough, handwritten, first attempts at my wip, I see the inadequacies and I hesitate to cut and polish. It's a good story, but...So I'm trying to take it in bit by bit and letting the first flush of the idea behind the scene carry me along. I'm whining with Deniz. Why does it have to involve so much *work*?

  4. I went through that process in November, when everyone else was furiously writing for NaNoWriMo. It was hard, especially hearing everyone's word count updates almost hourly it seemed. When I got back to the editing in December I didn't change nearly as much as thought I might need to. I hope that's because it truly didn't need it, and not that I didn't gain enough perspective! Unlike the novel before it, I plotted this one out much more thoroughly ahead of time and it came in right in the word count ballpark (133K, trimmed down now to 122K). That's likely one reason it didn't need the extensive editing Kindred did.

    I was nodding right along on all your points here. Great post!

  5. Claire, thanks for the perspective. I've been on a writing hiatus too. Some distance from the wip helps at times to re-focus on what I was trying to accomplish.