Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing a novel takes work. Every successful author has had a point where they wanted to stop writing and go eat, sunbathe, bounce a rubber ball against a wall, or do anything that means they don’t have to face more blank pages. But finishing your work means powering through, forcing yourself to work even when it’s the last thing you want to do.
Having achieved this mind-set, it can be difficult to admit there’s a point where the best thing for your work is to ignore it. Difficult or not, ignoring your work is a vital part of editing it into a professional-standard product. In this article, I’ll give you 3 reasons to put your work in a drawer and leave it alone for a few weeks, and guarantee that doing so will lead to huge improvements in your editing.
The second draft can’t start until the first is finished
First drafts can really panic authors. They’re a messy process, more about building solid foundations for your story than telling it in a compelling way. For most authors, they’re the most difficult period of writing, mostly because future drafts have that first draft structure to fall back on. The second draft, on the other hand, is more about refining what exists. Big changes can still be made, but you’re working with a roadmap. Despite this, many authors make the mistake of beginning their second draft directly on the tail of their first.
What’s so bad about that?
Well the second draft requires a completely different mind-set than the first, and you need time to make the switch. If not, you’ll likely end up changing what’s already there at the same time as adding and removing pieces. This can cause huge problems, and leave authors with highly refined sections of text surrounded by barely written connective tissue.
The result is the kind of plot holes that feel impossible to resolve, as the author now has two sections that they’re happy with but, since those sections have evolved separately, no way of connecting them in a way that feels real to the reader. Of course, it’s possible to write in this way, but it’s incredibly difficult. As a general rule you shouldn’t be putting up wallpaper before the house is built. This is where ignoring your work comes in.Only editing your favorite parts? Don’t be surprised if you end up with plot holes.Click To Tweet
Once the first draft is finished, once the foundations are laid to your satisfaction, it’s sensible to put your novel away for a while. A few weeks to a couple of months should do it; enough time to allow you to leave the ‘create and destroy’ first draft mind-set and enter the ‘prune and improve’ second draft mind-set. These few weeks, though testing, will prevent you from creating the worst kind of plot holes, as well as giving you access to the best editor around…
You need your own insight
Why is a month or so the best period for which to ignore your book? Because it gives you just long enough to forget the intricacies of your work while still keeping a grasp on the structure. A month away from your first draft will give you just enough separation to take a more objective view of its problems and merits.
First drafts, with their intensive reworking and sleeves-rolled-up involvement, leave you with an intimate understanding of the story. You can read a passage that makes no sense and, because you’re familiar with every part of the story, think it explains things perfectly. A month’s distance will help shatter this illusion, allowing you to experience the story as more of a reader than you can immediately after working on it. Of course you’re still the author and you’ll still need alpha and beta readers with nothing invested in your reaction, but this new viewpoint is vital to the drafts needed before they see it.A month’s distance from your book will help you experience the story as a reader.Click To Tweet
The bias that the first draft instills in a writer is incredibly powerful and pervasive, leaving them with an unparalleled understanding of the text. This may be a great experience, even necessary to later writing, but it’s something you need time to shake off before trying to create something where the main goal is the understanding of an unfamiliar audience. If you’re not sold on the necessity of leaving work then try it once, and you’ll realize how much better equipped you are to edit the story for others once you’ve had time to untangle yourself.
Things you’d have never spotted before will jump out at you immediately, giving you a great boost going into your second draft. Of course, you’ll also be powered by all the new touches you’ve thought up…
Ideas need time to develop
Because of the familiarity created by your first draft, you’ll be brimming with a new understanding of your characters and world. Though you may go in with a fully formed vision, the first draft will weed out those parts which don’t work in practice and make you consider the realities of those which do. Putting your work away for a while allows these ideas to grow.
It’s from this period of contemplation that the most believable aspects of your story, the tiny moments that ring true, will be born. This is also a great way to deal with plot holes, as often all that’s needed is some time for the creative part of your brain to mull over the problem. Two weeks into ignoring your first draft, your brain will suddenly go ‘got it!’Ignoring your manuscript for a few weeks gives your subconscious room to work.Click To Tweet
Give it another two weeks and it’ll have turned your former plot hole into a great character moment. Creativity is a strange beast, which requires unpressured time to grow and then a focused effort to harness. Skip either stage and you’re depriving yourself of what could have been.
Find the period that’s right for you
Of course I can’t predict the perfect amount of time for which you should ignore your work; every writer is different. However, it will almost always be slightly longer than you’re comfortable with. First drafts breed a kind of panic, and having achieved so much, the last thing you want to do is put your work out of sight.
Understanding that this is vital to later editing success should help you understand that while a lengthy period might not be desirable now, it will be for the best in the long run. On the other hand, don’t leave your work too long. Time apart is water for the flower of your novel. It needs some to thrive, but it’s still capable of drowning if given too much. The aim isn’t to forget your work, but to achieve enough distance to pick it up again with a more dispassionate eye.
For most people, this means that near the end of your sabbatical, you should be thinking about your story two to four times in a week, but for some authors this will never be the case. Think of this pause as the time necessary to collect yourself after the first draft. To regain the energy you spent on it and recover from the insistence of the task. However long that will take is the right amount of time for you.
As mentioned above, you’ll likely be amazed by just how much ignoring your work can do for you. Inconsistencies or clumsy passages that looked fine before will now scream for editing. On top of that, you’ll approach this editing more aware of your readers, and having had time to reflect on the truths of your story.
For more great advice on improving your work, check out Why Reading Aloud Will Dramatically Improve Your Writing and 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book. Have you had any good experiences leaving your work, or is it something that doesn’t work for you? Either way, let me know in the comments.