Let It Rest

I’m going to tell you something that you don’t want to hear. I know you don’t because I don’t want to hear it either. But here goes.

Stop reading your novel.

I know I’ve said this before, but this time, I really mean it.

My Teachable Moment

Yesterday I had a very interesting day of writing. It had to do with a quick revision I’m doing on my latest novel. This was to be a kind of once-over before I send it to a trusted reader. I don’t want to do a huge, picky edit, just one that picks up the chunks and smooths out the prose a little.

By happenstance I hadn’t read the beginning of the book for six or seven months. I had been pulled away on other writing projects and the book got strung out, and so here I was revising material I hadn’t looked at in a very long time. And–drum roll–I knew how to fix everything. I had a clarity of insight that was remarkable. I cut out fat, clarified scenes, and completely rewrote a few of them, the God-awful ones. I’ll  own up that I had a few. People had said to me before, “What is this scene about, really?” And I thought they were, you know, a little slow on the uptake.

Today I saw exactly what they meant.

I’m telling you, all that advice I’ve been preaching here about not re-reading your manuscript, suddenly was blindingly true. (Of course, I knew it was, but now I really, really know it.)

You’ll Know More Later Than You Do Now

I not only saw where the weak points were. I knew exactly how to fix them. I had the structure, the through-line, the characters all screamingly clear. I felt a giddy sureness. I couldn’t type fast enough. I slashed and reshaped, just knowing the path. I had the big picture. It was like I was looking down on the Monopoly Board of my story, and knew where to put three hotels. How to pass Go and collect $200.

Was it magic? No, it was that by the end of the first draft I had much more insight into my story. And the real clincher: I hadn’t become inured to my own story by too much familiarity.

Now, more than ever, I am convinced that a huge secret to creating a great story is: Stop reading the manuscript over and over again. Let the damn thing sit. I think I’ve been telling you to let your material rest a month. At least a few weeks. No! Not good enough! Today, I’m convinced it has to be several months. It’s the only way to escape revision blindness, bad writing, self-loathing and general confusion about your novel. I’ve written here before about how you can’t count on others to advise you on your novel. (Ask them, sure, just don’t take it too seriously–either the criticism or the praise.) It’s your own feedback you need, not other people’s, and there are many reasons for this, most of which I cover in my post, You Can’t Give it Away. Therefore anything that allows you to step back and see the flaws in your work and then do a superb rewrite is worth billions and billions of dollars.

OK, I’m a little pumped up. But what an amazing day I had.

I’m tempted to try to explain all the insights I had yesterday, but really, it wouldn’t make much sense to you if you don’t know my plot. The clarity I experienced had  to do with things like when to reveal secrets, what people would really be talking about, what the dialogue had to cover, and what was a total waste of time. How to get on with the story and not indulge in non-essentials. If your rewrites tend to focus on cutting adverbs and tightening a line or two, this advice is for you.

Make It Hard to Get

Take your partial manuscript and put it in a manila folder with one of those big, long rubber bands around it. If you absolutely have to see a scene on paper, you must take the rubber band off. It’ll be your little reminder that the impulse to read your material and reassure yourself that the story is really good, is not only a little nuts, it is going to work against you in the end.

So, I beg you.

Stop reading your manuscript. As you go, revise here and there if you must and sweep through yesterday’s scene with a quick hand. But then write on to the end.

Then let it rest. End of story.

10 Responses

  1. Thanks Kay.
    That is good, simple advice. Why are simple things so hard to do? I will try though. Once I finish this latest draft (heightening some plot elements and raising the stakes some), I will let it sit and start another novel instead of revising this one again.

    Again, thanks for all your advice.
    Mark Andrew Edwards

  2. Tiyana says:

    “I felt a giddy sureness. I couldn’t type fast enough.”

    I love that feeling!

    It’s been so tempting going back to that re-reading cycle but I’ve realized how counterproductive that really was. All sorts of insights come to you when you put the novel out of your mind for a while. Great advice, Kay.

  3. Tom Hopp says:

    Nice insight, Kay. Another thing that happens sometimes when I’ve been away from a manuscript for that long is the occasional, “Wow, I really got that one right!” It’s important to validate yourself by allowing some sunlight of satisfaction to shine in now and then. When you’ve been grinding on a piece, it can get to be a big siege of dissatisfaction about one thing and then the next. It’s important to sit back occasionally and understand the strengths in your writing, so you can do it again and again. Sounds like that kind of self-recognition was part of what was working with you on that noteworthy day. Congrats. Many more.

  4. Kay says:

    It is just so natural to keep wailing away at a novel. And trying to convince oneself that the fictive dream does come alive upon reading. I wish it were easier to pace oneself. Good luck!

  5. Kay says:

    It is a giddy feeling, isn’t it? I wonder if neuroscience will ever explain why insights come “when you put the novel out of your mind.” Counter-intuitive. But works like a charm.

  6. Kay says:

    Hey Tom, nice hearing from ya. And you’re right, the good overview gives you a glimpse of the successes, too. Those are heartening, but the danger is really always not to see the issues. Thus all the terribly weak manuscripts that every contest jury and agent sees. But still, point taken. Let’s not beat ourselves up. Love the phrase, “siege of dissatisfaction”! Ooh, let’s avoid that!

  7. Guy Stewart says:

    January 2006, THE WRITER — I read and collected articles from TW, WRITER’S DIGEST and other magazines. I was stuck in the middle of my first attempt at writing a “real” SF novel, INVADER’S GUILT, hopelessly bogged down. The article by Kelly James-Enger, “How To Writer Your Novel In Three Drafts”, opined that the first step was “Write Like A Shark”. I took her advice, finished the novel in under three months, revised according to plan and I am now shopping it around. It was good to see you (whose work I HAVE read!) echo the wisdom of that short article! Thanks for your insight. I don’t usually comment, but couldn’t resist this time!

  8. Kay says:

    Thanks, Guy. Glad to hear she’s one of the good ones!

  9. This is what I call “letting the novel cook.” When you lift the lid again, it has changed and so have you. You have to correct the seasonings. I’ve let mine simmer for a year, and the reduction is so good you want to die.

    That’s my long-winded way of saying, I agree with you, Kay.

  10. […] not alone. Here are a few others: CG Blake; Kay Kenyon. The idea is that, after a break, you’ll hit your work with fresh […]

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