Friday, December 1, 2017

Why You Need to Step Away from Your Manuscript

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

On a whim, I opened an old manuscript the other day. The writing surprised me. In good ways and in bad. I felt like my sentences were too stunted, but the pacing was good. I'm not entirely sure I love the protagonist as she's written, but the first chapter sucked me in. And I think that's a good thing. Especially since I know the story better than anyone on the planet.

The experience got me thinking about how healthy it is to push a manuscript aside after it's been drafted. Not forever, but for a time. And I thought, today, we could talk about why.

For those of you who completed National Novel Writing Month just hours ago--CONGRATULATIONS!--and for anyone who's ever written their way to THE END, this one's for you.

I'm going to give you five totally LEGIT reasons why you need to step away from your first draft. It's possible that not all five will apply to you, but I'm guessing one or two will. And the honest truth? Any one of them is good enough reason to tuck those words away for a while.



1. You're tired. If you've been deadline writing or manically striving toward that ending, your creativity is exhausted. If you attempt to edit your story now, you'll catch some things, sure, but laziness will inevitably take over. You'll read your manuscript with all the feelings you had as you penned those words still fresh and bright in your mind. The sentences and paragraphs that you worked so hard on won't be doing the heavy lifting. Your already engaged (albeit tuckered out) imagination has expectations and freshly painted images plastered to its walls. You'll see things that aren't really there in your work. To reset, you need distance. You need space. You need to think about other things for a while so that when you come back to the page you can ensure the words really are doing their job.

2. Your story is your new BFF. All those characters you created, those set pieces you fell in love with, those scenes that made your heart flutter as you wrote them? You love them too much to hack them to bits. If you've been on a deadline or working to fill a quota, each word carries some exaggerated sense of value to you. It's true that every image you fought so hard to get on the page was vital for your story making process. But it may not be vital for the reader's story reading process and you're way too close to the creative side of this to be objective. Walk away, find a book to read, a Netflix series to binge. Beta read for someone. Pick up a hobby. Do your homework. If you must write, write something else. Let that be your BFF for a while. The time away will make you a better editor.

3. The well is dry. Sometimes when we finish a story, an influx of adrenaline catapults us forward and we think we can and should start editing immediately. Rarely is this the right course of action. And the reason is simple. You are out of good ideas, friend. If you weren't, you would have already fixed that plot problem you skated over on page 83. But the truth is, you've earned the right to be out of good ideas. You worked yourself empty. You left it all out on the field. Good job, kid. Truly. Now it's time to fill yourself up again.

4. Stories have a way of growing when you're not looking. I finished a new book not long ago and I mean FINISHED finished. Like, oodles of edits and beta readers and feedback from my agent and more edits. In all honesty, I thought the work would never end. But here's the funny thing: Now that it's out of my hands, I have this new layer I think I could add in that would deepen the world building and add richness to the characters. The idea fell into my head one day and I don't think I could have handled it when I was so immersed in tackling edits, but it's an exciting option now. Crazy, right? It's this strange phenomenon. When your brain is engaged elsewhere, when the book stops feeling like WORK, suddenly the details come into focus and it becomes fun again.  

5. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Sometimes. Now that your story is sort of completed (let's be real, first drafts NEVER feel completed), you owe it to yourself to figure out if you want to continue with this project. The truth is, sometimes we draft because the writing is good for us. The discipline is a necessary part of becoming a writer and you worked your tail off to acquire some. I'm proud of you. But now it's time to decide if you want to see this baby through to completion. The best way to figure that out is to put this thing you worked so hard to create in the desk drawer for a while. Neither your exhaustion nor your passion can be trusted at this point. Put the pages away. Set a time frame, say six weeks, and don't come back to it until then. Your own emotions will help you here. I rarely say that, friends, because emotions can lead us astray sometimes, but if you cannot find passion for this project that devoured your writing time for so long, it's okay to move on. If, despite its flaws and its gaping holes, you can't keep yourself away from it, you might have a winner here. At the very least, it would not be a waste of time to dive in again. Now, if you're working on a contract and a publisher has paid you for the book in the drawer, you're going to have to finish regardless. But if you're not there yet, enjoy the freedom that comes with being pre-contracted. It really is okay to move on.

Rumor has it that agents' inboxes industry-wide will spike in the months of December and January. Of all the excited NaNo'ers who've written 50k words in 30 days, a chunk will think their book is ready to be considered for publication. They're wrong. Every book needs to be edited. Yours does too. I promise. Give yourself a nice fat holiday break and jump back in come January. You and your manuscript will be better for it.

Tell me, do you have any experience with this? Did you NaNo this year? What are your editing plans?


17 comments:

  1. I didn't have the chance to participate in NaNo, but I have (what I thought was finished, I've wound up adding a new plot line and increasing the story so my 'end' is now in the middle) finished a first draft and stepped away. It really helped, but I'm also experimenting now with not doing it in drafts, editing as I go. I still haven't decided which is better for me.

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    1. That's just real, friend. This life is all about trial and error. Giving one tool a try and then putting it down to give another one a go. It's a very good way to learn who you are and how you write. Wishing you the best.

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  2. Love love this post, Shan! Your reasons/suggestions are SPOT ON. Alas, though, my book IS contracted and the MS is due for editing in February...and I already know the beginning needs re-working. Realistically, though, how much time should I take off from it before I edit?

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    1. Yes! Contracted projects come with their own hurdles. Timing is always one of them. Any time off is time well spent, honestly. If you can sacrifice two weeks, you'll be better for it. Even a week can add a little gleam to your eyes.

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  3. I was wondering if you could recommend a good book on rewriting. I have a book I finished a long time ago. I keep coming back and trying to rewrite it, but I don't quite know what I am doing or how to implement the changes I know need to be made. Mostly, I am just daunted by how work I know the book needs. So do you know of a book that could help me with that?

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    1. Have you read the book Jill and Steph wrote called Go Teen Writers: How to Turn Your First Draft Into a Published Book? It's the absolute best resource for rewriting.

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  4. I didn't do NaNo this year, but this advice is THE MOST HELPFUL. I find that all of these are true for me ... if I try to edit when I'm too close to my work, it's exhausting and unproductive and so not worth it! Space is a gift in more ways than one! Thanks for this :)

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  6. I NaNo'd for camp in July and... I haven't touched the doc since. I get what you're talking about because I've done it with other projects, but with Belles I have the opposite problem. I know it's bad so I'm afraid to touch it. I spent a month on it and now I don't want to look back and realize that the time was wasted. Any advice?

    -novelistinthedark

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    1. My advice is to make yourself a large cup of cocoa and open that baby. Maybe do it when you have some time to just sit and read. Take some time to read the beginning and maybe your favorite parts and then be honest about what's on the page. All first drafts are messy, I promise. But you might find a few golden nuggets and surprise yourself. It's all part of the process, friend. No shame either way. You're growing every time you write.

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  7. Lovely post! I did participate in NaNo--sort of--but made my own goal of 25,000 instead of the full 50.

    And I've definitely had that happen, where I've had to walk away from a manuscript to know how to fix it. It was several months before I cam back, but everything came together SO MUCH EASIER once I did, and it was actually fun again, whereas before I was almost sick of it.

    Great tips! Thanks for them!


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbosityreviews.com

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    1. Yes, exactly! Congrats on hitting your goal!

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  8. Thank you for these tips! I am making my way slowly but surely through my first draft, and I am already thinking about how to edit it, since I have never finished a first draft before and I am very new to the whole editing novels thing. I wrote 9000 words for NaNo this year (I did the young writers' program) and although the reason I chose a goal that is so easy for me is that I knew that I had a lot going on and I would not have much time. However, I did not write for several days in the middle of November, and after that, I had to write a lot of words after that. It was a good lesson that I can write more than I think I can.

    ~Mila

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    1. Absolutely! Our writing teaching us a lot about ourselves. I wish you luck as you edit your baby.

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  9. I recently looked at my project from last year's NaNoWriMo, which I abandoned shortly afterward, and discovered that it wasn't that bad after all. This blog post really speaks to me, because I usually get disenchanted with what I'm working on, and looking back it's just because I didn't take a break from it.

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