One of the hardest lessons I had to learn is to step away from my writing. Sometimes, letting the writing breathe for a bit is the best thing for it.
This lesson came in three parts for me. The first is when writing. Sometimes when writing you have a plan. For some this is a formal outline with well developed character descriptions and a pin board full of reference pictures. For others it is a general sense of where you want the story to end up and how you plan to get there.
The thing is, sometimes the story doesn’t agree with you.
Sometimes as you write, the story shifts and slides. A new thought may occur to you as you write and even though it wasn’t part of your original plan it suddenly seems too fabulous to leave out. Other times there will be something you meant to include as a small incident, possibly meant to show a character’s sense of humor, or tragic past, but instead of staying as a small illustration, the story grabbed the crayons from you and elaborated until you have no option other than to finish out the issues that incident raised.
And sometimes no matter how many ways you try to get your character to turn right at the corner, they will insist on turning left.
So to speak.
This isn’t a bad thing.
In fact it can be a great thing.
It means your story is starting to come to life. To breathe on it’s own. Letting it breath may ruin the story you planned to tell, but it almost inevitably leads to something better. So resist the urge to smother it and see where it wants to take the story, even if it means the person you decided was the murderer really wasn’t or the romance you planned turns into a ghost story.
Save the bits from your original plan that didn’t work in this story for later use in another story. Just because this time you couldn’t incorporate an axe murderer into your tale and had to go with a jilted lover and a vial of poison, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for the axe murderer.
You’ll just have to find someone else for him to kill.
Stories can sometimes be stubborn. You want them to go a certain way and they choose another path. Sometimes, they won’t go your way but refuse to pick another path. The characters just stage a mental sit in and refuse to go forward. Sometimes you can work around it, sometimes it is you that needs to take the breath. Put the writing down, or shift to a different project and let it breathe for a moment.
Sometimes not thinking about a piece of writing for a little while helps your brain relax and work out what’s wrong in your subconscious. If you want to take a more active approach, break down your story into parts.
Plot: King Frank wants his son Kevin to marry a princess from a neighboring kingdom so that he can unite the kingdoms under his rule. Kevin is his least favorite son and the King plans to kill off the other king after the wedding and then kill off the princess and Kevin before they have a child, this becoming king of all.
Thus far in your story, things are going well for Frank. Kevin has met the princess and is besotted with her and loves the chance to escape his father and his evil schemes as well as possibly have a kingdom of his own to rule when his bride’s father dies. the princess likes Kevin and agrees to the marriage and the king is thrilled with the potential union (not knowing about Frank’s plotting).
But something isn’t right.
Your plan is to get them wed with all of the fan fare early on so that you can have the bulk of the book dealing with the murder plot and the eventual thwarting of King Frank’s plans. But there is a betrothal ceremony that crops up and for some reason people are acting a little shady. This was supposed to be a short scene. Gifts were to be exchanged and w would show the happy couple, pleased with the upcoming wedding. The plan was to then have flurry of activity in the kitchen, maybe a dress fitting or two and then, boom, the wedding.
But now there is a messenger lurking in the hall. A few of the advisors look worried. Has Frank’s plot been revealed? No. The wedding is still going on, but for some reason no one is leaving the betrothal ceremony. All of the characters are insisting the wedding continue but no one is leaving the room. And they are all looking at you.
Waiting for you to figure it out.
Most of your story has been about Frank and his plots and his kingdom. But those aren’t his messengers. So let’s think about the princess, her father and their kingdom. What’s going on with them? What is that kingdom known for? Do they export anything specific? How’s the weather? Perhaps you might want to take a moment or two and sketch out a map. You know that this kingdom border’s franks. You may even have a piece of paper with two adjoining blobs sketched out and a few towns marked down. But what about other kingdoms nearby?
Do they not like the idea of the marriage and want to stop it? Are their pirates off the coast? Goblins in the mountains?
Taking a little time to flip to the other side can help you in figuring out why your story has ground to a halt. Sometimes when I write I lock down on one perspective because that is the story I want to write and need to take a breather to look at other perspectives so I can better figure out what is going on. Flipping the perspective and looking at the story from a different angle can often get the wheels turning in my head again. Then I can see the whole picture a little bit better, even if I still return to telling the story from Frank’s perspective.
The third time that a breather is needed is when the manuscript is complete. It is tempting to finish a manuscript, dance about for a bit and maybe have a nice lunch, then go back to the manuscript and start editing.
Resist the urge.
First if you have just completed a manuscript you owe it to yourself to take a break. Bask in the feeling of completion. For now the newly completed manuscript is perfect. All the details are there, the plot is perfect, the story is emotionally gripping. And you are fabulous.
Take a little while to enjoy that feeling.
At least two weeks actually.
Then go back and start to look the manuscript over. The reason you need the break is that you have story blindness once you reach a completed draft. You have been swimming in the details so long that you can no longer see them. They have sunk into your skin and branded your brain. Taking a breather now gives the story time to wash from your system. This is important because it gives you clearer vision. Sometimes the things you think you wrote down, didn’t make it onto the page, or they didn’t make it onto the page the way you intended.
If you edit right away, you still see what you intended. You might not be able to see exactly what you wrote. when you go back, you may read through a sentence and realized you skipped a word. Or used the wrong word. Or crafted a sentence that is so long that by the end of it you are gasping for breath. or you could have just put the wrong name.
Giving it time to breath lets you look at it with a clearer vision and allows you to see the things you might not have seen if you edited right away. So take that break, even if you are eager to see what the beta reader you are turning it over too thinks of it. Take a breath, then edit and then pass it to another’s eyes. while they read it, don’t think of the story at all, take another rest. Then get back to the editing once their comments have come back to you. It isn’t delaying. It isn’t dragging your feet. It is a necessary part of the writing process.
So just remember to breathe.