Some writers outline and plot, others “wing” their stories. Some need silence to create, others rely on music to set a mood, or field trips to develop a scene. Personal styles and craft techniques run the gamut of approaches among authors. Yet, I’ve found one practice common across genre and experience level: stepping away from the story.
I think I happened on the tactic accidentally with my first novel. I’d finished the book and so I set it aside to focus on getting it published. When I started getting feedback on the manuscript, I revisited my story and found myself reading it like it was the first time I’d seen it.
Fresh eyes are a wonderful tool. Now the approach is standard for me. Depending on what I’m writing – a blog, a novella, a short story or full-length book – the time for stepping away varies. But it’s necessary. I don’t think I’ve come across a writer who doesn’t do the same. Distance seems to offer perspective you lose when mired in the creation of your pages.
I’m currently reading Stephen King’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes short story collection. In the back of the book he has a notes section where he shares thoughts on writing with his readers. Being knee deep in a manuscript, one particular insight caught my attention.
He was sharing the process of creating the short story Dolan’s Cadillac, talking about how he hates research (and how critics have pinged him for not doing it thoroughly), how hard he worked on the story to make it factual and accurate, and how at the end, after all this work, he hated it. “Absolutely loathed it,” to be exact. So much so that he threw it into a box of “Bad Old Stuff” that he keeps outside his office.
A few years later, a publisher requested an unpublished short story from King. He resorted to his box of “Bad Old Stuff,” pulled out Dolan’s Cadillac and discovered “once again time had done its work – it read a lot better than I remembered.”
I found his simple statement so reassuring. I haven’t reached his stature on the best selling book lists or on store shelves, but I encounter that same loathing and disenchantment at some point in every piece I’ve written. Stepping away from the keyboard – for a few hours while I’m immersed in creation, or days or weeks at the story’s end – gives wonderful perspective.
After a break, I, too, find that I generally like what I’ve written – even if tweaks, re-writes or scene overhauls are called for. Time away reaffirms my commitment to this craft and strengthens my ability to execute. As a writer, if you’re not currently incorporating the practice into your routine, it’s a technique I highly recommend.