Whoa! TIME-OUT, Story!

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.

#33 Let It Sit

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.

But WHY?!
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!


2 thoughts on “Whoa! TIME-OUT, Story!

  1. Nolie Alcarturiel says:

    My first NaNo story I let sit for one month precisely before sending it out to beta-readers, which was a bad idea. I didn’t even revise it before sending it. Then I sent it out a chapter at a time, and worked on the chapters as I got criticism in, again without letting it sit.
    And then I started another story and lost interest in that one, and I learned so much by writing the new novel that the old one lost its shine, and I saw how already I’d outgrown the writing style I’d been using, and I learned about some major historical inaccuracies, and it wasn’t satisfying me at all anymore — not the plot, not the characters, nothing. I gave up on it. The new story was taking over at this point, and I figured that the NaNo novel would sit in a corner and gather dust: the idea had been good, but I’d completely failed to do it justice.
    With the result that it sat for an entire year before I so much as glanced at it again. And then I said the idea was good, and worth my trying to do it justice (again). So here I am, re-writing the entire thing. The plot is still mostly the same, but deeper, characters change more, the theme is more developed, the morality is a lot less iffy, and the writing style is a lot less juvenile. (It’s still not perfect and will need a second round of beta-ing, but it’s getting closer to the ideal story in my head.)
    When I got back to it I was rather reluctant to, but that urgency you mentioned was definitely there, and it was, as you said, a lot like the feeling that comes with writing the first draft, only different. A more realistic view of things, maybe.
    Because I tend to switch between projects and have several going on at once, in different stages, it’s usually easy to let a story sit for a while and work on something rather different, so I come back with fresher eyes. It can be switching to a different genre that does it, or sometimes only a different time period, so I come back to the one set four hundred years later and (even though it’s still 950 in the past) it suddenly seems terribly modern, or something. I learned the hard way with my first NaNo story not to rush the waiting period.

    That was a long way to say this is great advice. Listen to it, people! The last four Harry Potter books (which I read this summer and am not suffering through again) would have benefited from a long break (and substantial revising). The Inheritance Cycle would have benefited from the authour leaving it for a few years while he matured some. People like Lewis, who wrote one of the Chronicles of Narnia every year, are a tiny minority. It’s usually better to follow Tolkien’s approach.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. intuitivewritingguide says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting! It was great to hear about your experiences with letting books sit.

      A few years ago, I wrote one NaNo so fast that I burned out on it 5 days before hitting 50,000 words, kept going on momentum alone, put it away once I reached the goal and didn’t look at it for at least a year afterwards. (That was 3 years ago and I still haven’t gone back to it yet.) Most of my problem with it was that I needed to broaden the setting quite a bit, because the narrower focus was choking the scope of the story. One of these days I’ll restart it, because the base plot is one of my favorites. But letting it sit for a long time has been a huge benefit to it and me: it let me grow by leaps and bounds since then, it gathered more ideas, and it taught me so many things both in the writing and in the sitting.

      Oh stars, yes, the Inheritance Cycle. I couldn’t even make it all the way through the first book. I just skipped around to read the gist of the story.

      Thanks again for your comment and for reading!


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