Today’s post could also be titled: ‘Patience is a Virtue’, ‘Let It Sit’, or ‘Slow and Steady Wins the Race’. However I say it, I’m referring to a key part of the story process: letting the story rest.
So, you’ve finished your first draft. You take a break of a few days or a week, and that’s enough to allow you to recover from the final dash to the finish line. Then you’re champing at the bit to start revising.
*reins you in* Whoooa there. Just a minute, writer. Don’t start jumping hurdles and racing over the ground just yet.
Once you’ve finished your first draft, it’s best to force yourself to let it sit for a while. Walk away from it. Lock it in a deep, dark chest and ask someone else to hide the key. Tag the folder on your computer bright red to remind you to leave it alone. Hide it inside a folder with a warning name like Arrow Poison Frog, Rattlesnake, or Scorpion.
That’s all a liiiiiittle dramatic (writers are NEVER allowed to be dramatic, you say sternly… what planet are you from anyway????) but the motivation behind it is serious and vital to your writing health. This is even more important if you wrote a lot of words in a short time, for NaNoWriMo or any of the Camp NaNos or self-invented NaNos.
You need the mental and emotional distance that time and space bring. You might have a fabulous story. Maybe it will be a bestseller. Perhaps you wrote it very well and it won’t need much revising aside from the requisite rounds of edits + a proofread.
You can’t objectively decide this when your brain is still fresh from having written it and your heart is still in love with the story. You need time away from it to expand your perspectives and to give yourself a break. Otherwise, you’re running a twofold risk: a) not publishing as great of a book as you could, and b) burning out somewhere in the middle of the process.
But what do I do in the meantime?!
Read books – lots of books in various genres and types. Watch movies. Catch up on your favorite TV series. Go out with friends and interact in the real world. Write other things, whether another book (or two), a short story, poetry, an essay, or a bunch of blog posts.
Taking in other fiction and interacting in the real world start your brain thinking along different lines than when it’s locked into story mode. Writing other things shifts the writing gears into other speeds, which will stretch your mind and (writing) muscles.
When you do go back to the story, you’ll come back with a different perspective. You’ll be able to examine the story more critically and objectively. Sometimes you’ll find out that you could say something better, or hide a twist differently, or that you don’t really need that subplot after all.
How long do I have to let it sit?
I recommend at least a month, though I think three months is best. For myself, I prefer a period of 3-6 months. I need that much time to distance myself from all the overthinking that happens after I’ve finished the book and to let everything gel properly.
If you have trouble sitting on yourself that long, ask a friend or family member to help keep you accountable, including locking you out of the house or clobbering you over the back of the head, if that’s what it takes to keep you away from it. (Violence is bad, kids, which is why we call this… discipline.)
When do I know it’s time to go back?
If you think you’re ready to get back to it, you probably aren’t.
You need to KNOW without a shadow of a doubt that not only are you ready, but you’re able to commit again for the whole time. It needs to have been pushing on you again for a while, nagging at you, not letting you go, feeling almost the same way it did when you started writing it (it won’t be exactly the same because revising is never exactly like first drafting, but close).
Waiting until it’s this urgent usually prevents you from being 1/3 the way through and discovering that you actually aren’t ready and it has to sit longer.
Personally, I also advise letting a story sit after its major revision (if it needs one) for about a month before beginning edits (if edits were not a part of the revision) or the publishing process.
This advice mostly targets novice and amateur writers. Experienced writers with many years + books under their belts will often have to do less of this. Also, this doesn’t apply to authors who have a publisher’s deadline looming. To you, I say: ‘best wishes’… possibly accompanied by a pitying maniacal smile.
Have you practiced letting a manuscript sit before? How long did you wait before diving back into it? Did you see a difference in the way you approached it after a longer rest?
Merry Writing… and may all of your books come out the stronger for having been in time-out!