I was listening to a writing discussion with Jennie Nash and Allison Williams the other night and Allison made a comment that the writers who succeed are the ones who can put the work down and come back to it with a fresh eye.
I know from personal experience how important that fresh eye can be. I’m working now on a book that I struggled with five years ago – and it broke my heart to put it aside when I couldn’t make it work. I’ve just picked it up again and – lo! – I’m loving every page, every sentence. Now I can see what the book means to me and what I want it to mean for the reader.
Neil Gaiman has said that when he first tried to write The Graveyard Book he struggled, and had to put it aside, and he did – for ten years. He admitted that he didn’t know how to write it, that he didn’t have the chops, until ten years later.
I’m not advocating for a ten year hiatus, or even five, but a break is essential to really get a grip on your work.
When To Take a Break
- After that terrible first draft – and trust me, all first drafts are terrible, like it or not – is the first time to take that break.
- Take a break whenever you stop truly loving the story. You’ll be fighting with your spirit if you try to muscle through.
- Take a break as soon as you hit send to your critique partner, agent, editor, book coach. You’ll be better able to take their edits if you’ve stepped back.
And how long to take that break? I think three weeks minimum, six weeks maximum – unless like me and Neil you are just not ready to write that particular story. Some books are harder to master than others.
When To Find an Editor
If you feel that you can’t leave the story behind, and you know something isn’t working but you can’t put your finger on what it is, and if you don’t have a critique partner or you aren’t getting enough feedback or getting confusing/mixed feedback, that’s the time to find an outside editor.
An entire industry has grown up in the past three-four years around editing. I’ve got a book coaching business in which it’s my job to help a writer write, finish, and polish their book. There are dozens and dozens of fine book coaches and editors who will help you polish your work. I’ve hired one myself, so I truly know how invaluable a service it can be.
Here’s where you can start looking for that perfect-fit book coach (plus lots of writing support): Author Accelerator
What’s Happening on Page 50
Allison said something else that I found particularly interesting, and though it doesn’t bear directly on the subject of setting the work aside, it does bear on editing.
So many writers begin their story too early, with a lot of what we call “throat-clearing”. We writers think the reader needs to know all sorts of stuff so we pad it in there up front, in the opening pages.
Allison suggested that you hand your manuscript to a trusted reader and ask them to start reading on page 50. Are they confused? Are they lost? Is there information they need that they don’t have? If the answer to these questions is yes, then your earlier pages may be needed. But if not…
Revision is my favorite part of writing. Put your work aside, start something new, take a break, and come back fresh. You’ll be glad you did.