Editing My Novel: The Value of Taking a Break

When finished the second draft of my novel, The Perfect Traveler, I had a sludge of slow cooked emotions in my pot. Relief, pride, discouragement, frustration, embarrassment, achievement….never has the classic writing advice to, “put it away in a drawer for awhile and forget about it” felt like such a pressure value to me. I took it to heart. The print out was bound, set aside, and forgotten. The intention was 2 months.

I read other fiction, focused more intently on work and family, and when my novel occurred to me I’d jot down a note on a sticky pad, slap it to the manuscript, and close the drawer again.

Shirley Jackson has nearly become a patron saint. I discovered her writing during this season (how did I ever get this far in life without knowing her?) and am still devouring her canon. I wrote a short story to give away to friends, now an annual tradition of mine. I debated never writing again. For three of those weeks, I didn’t.

I didn’t wonder when to pick it up again. Whenever too much time passes without writing, a panicky anxiety presses on my chest. That rose in my throat the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I’ve read somewhere that anxiety is to writers what the wind is to a storm: all that churning spurs the action. It seems essential. I saw a phrase that goes, “write like you’re running out of time” and thought yes, that’s it exactly.

Blackwing Palomino sharpened and ready for the editing ahead.

Blackwing Palomino sharpened and ready for the editing ahead.

I have a new Blackwing Palomino sharpened and ready to go and clarity on the next few steps. Most importantly, the thing I was worried the most about– length and simplicity of plot– has been answered. Those aren’t necessarily hinderances, let alone the hallmarks of failure I feared they were.

It’s as if someone came and shoveled away all the snow that covered my path.

What Flannery accomplished in 2 hours a day, most of us won’t do in a lifetime.

“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”   – Flannery O’Connor

 

It reminds me of another quote I’m fond of, that I can’t remember who said, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”

I’m currently enjoying a bit of a writer’s high. After pounding away for almost a year and a half on a novel that is progressing slowly, inch square by inch square, but by getting up per the habit anyway and inching along, I had space provided when this mysterious muse decided to plop itself down on my brain and funnel its words out of my fingers. I don’t even care that it’s for an entirely different story. The feeling of my fingers airily skittering over the keyboard as words fly out without effort is worth it.

Of course, I say “without effort” and that is the funny irony! I had to first cultivate the habit, which has taken a tremendous amount of effort, much of it not fun and with no promise of any reward but the satisfaction of having done it.

So, here’s to you, 5 am! In the hours I rarely knew waking unless nursing a baby, I now have a fully summarized plot outline, start to finish. I have a cast of 9 crystal clear characters with histories and layers and a part to play in the story. I have a title, a vision for cover art, and have begun a scene spreadsheet. I say weird writer-newbie things on Twitter and sound more like a word nerd than ever before.

The terrain of writing is gradually inclining. Fleshing out all those story scenes is no doubt going to have some arduous progress and probably a few slips and slides backward too. At least I have a plan and a habit. I also have experience with ant sized increments forward. I know I’m optimist by nature but I can’t help feeling I might have a winning formula there.

Incidentally, Jacksonville achieves connectivity through its many bridges over the St. John's River.

Incidentally, Jacksonville achieves connectivity through its many bridges over the St. John’s River.