Saturday, September 19, 2015

Ma'am, please step away from the manuscript...

Writers love to write. Shocker, right? 

I’m not talking about how I ‘love’ to get a coffee in the morning, or how I ‘love’ to go out to dinner on occasion. I’m talking about huge amounts of endorphin being released when I’m holed up, left to my own weird creative devices for hours on end. I’m talking about having no sense four hours have passed without once glancing at the clock, feverishly typing and/or staring blankly, and that I should probably stretch my legs for a bit. It’s magical, and—as my husband can happily attest—I’m giddy and in an uber good mood.


There comes a time when the magic is just as imaginary as the world I’ve created and I wonder if I’ll ever get that feeling again. Usually this head-meet-keyboard moment happens in the thick of a tough draft or revision, when my mind is gnawing on a story problem like a wild beast on a bloody carcass. No finesse. Just a gory, ripped apart story that gives no indication it was once a graceful gazelle of words. I’m harried to get to the answer, so I can back to the magic.

That’s one of the moments when I remind myself to step away. Or I don’t remember to remind myself at all, I just do it, because my other options involve destruction of personal property. My own property… don’t worry. Other times, the need to step away is immediately after completion of a revision or draft.

At first, it stepping away feels like cheating the process. It feels like quitting and giving up and rolling over to show my tummy to a predator and other things that are pretty much anathema to me.
The initial tearing away of me from the manuscript has run the gamut of emotion between ‘thank-God-I-can’t-look-at-that-crap-another-second’ to ‘my-poor-baby-she-needs-me-she-needs-me.’ I have had times where I wanted to look at it again, but knew it was like Pandora playing peek-a-boo. Bad, bad idea.

Writers need time away. Plain and simple. The time away could be any number of things. Could be just time away from that book, but starting another. Could be researching agents to query for that book. Could be not looking at a keyboard at all. *shrugs* It’s what you need, in that moment. I’ve done all three of those things, at various points. They are all productive and okay uses of time. Even the doing nothing. I’ll say it again for my inner Type-A…even doing nothing is okay.

This concept of time away has been taught in many seminars and conferences I’ve attended. A question I’ve heard asked, then, the follow up, is, ‘how long away?’ Great question, complicated answer.

It’s fair to say I’ve been writing some version of Pledge of Ashes since I was about thirteen. It’s my first story, in some ways, the one that never left me, the one I feel compelled to tell. My abilities with craft at thirteen (despite doing a paid correspondence course with a Writer’s Digest mentor) were, um, limited.

As I went through my teens, then my twenties, I would return to the book at various times. Pull it out, read it. Laugh. Cry. Then, sometimes, take another stab at it.  Until sometime in 2011 when I read it again and decided…now. I would take this thing seriously and get to it.

I honestly have no idea how many times I’ve stepped away since then. I can’t tell you the real number of days or weeks or months that worked. Only that, yes, sometimes it was days. Sometimes weeks or even months. I have noted, the more skilled I have become with craft, the less time it seems to take to feel ready to take on the project again. Skill, and the depth to which the revision took me. The harder the revision, the longer I needed to recoup.

I’ve come to think of stepping away from our manuscripts as very akin to the sleep cycle. Sometimes we want badly to sleep, but we keep our eyes peeled open, because, for some reason, we really need to stay awake. Sometimes we don’t want to sleep, we’re too jazzed.  Sometimes we feel lazy because we want a nap.

But the best sleep comes when we recognize we need the rest, and then we take it. No guilt, no internal recriminations. We give ourselves permission to lie down, put our head on a pillow, and not think or work or plot. That, too, can be magical.

Sometimes, that’s when we have the best dreams.

So, go ahead, take a step away. Rest. Before you fall over.