Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Writer's Diet

Announcement:  I finally broke and decided to join Twitter. If you’re interested, my handle is @adelethelaptop. (Bet you never saw that one coming.)


During the 2014 November NaNoWriMo, I told myself I would return for the 2015 April NaNoWriMo and probably write like, a hundred million words or something (maintaining sanity is not high on my list of priorities—why do you ask?). However, after three months of extensive revisions, I finally sent my current work in progress to my first round of beta readers. And unfortunately, as I’m realizing now, my optimistic self of last year cleverly ignored the existence of fatigue and burnout. So, as with other Aprils before, I shall not be writing any new novels just yet.

In other words, I’m forcing myself to take a vacation—forcing, because I don’t like taking a break from the baby I edited during every spare moment I could snatch. Over the past quarter of a year, I unleashed my inner psychopath and hacked that 130,000 word darling down to a measly 60,000. And I’m tired. My brain feels drained—I’m drawing on the last dregs right now. Frankly, it doesn’t help to know that there is much more work to be done, that character arcs need to be strengthened, scenes need to be added and fleshed out, motivations need to be clarified. Oh, and let’s not forget the ending; I’ll need to rewrite that at least twenty times. I love doing these things, don’t get me wrong; I just don’t like thinking about them all at once.

The hardest part of this process is stepping away and resting. I realize I can’t expect my brain cells always to operate at peak efficiency. But now that I’m not writing, I find it difficult to fill my time with other activities. Even though the well of words has gone dry and I’m not sure I could construct another coherent sentence to save my life, the habit is burned into my fingers, into my soul. I’d rather do anything than give it up.

Maybe some of you are in the same boat. All around you, people are writing their Camp NaNo novels while you linger around the outskirts, wishing you could ransack their virtual tents and steal their virtual s’mores. After polishing your darling novel to a high shine, your eyes are stinging from the glare. Or maybe that’s just the virtual smoke from the virtual bonfire. You might be too tired to write something new just yet, but you’re still itching to finish your current work in progress so you can move on to the next exciting project as quickly as possible. Besides, with your story so fresh in your mind—all the emotions and plot twists and whatnot—you’re tempted to start querying agents immediately though your head knowledge tells you that’s not a bright idea. (What do you MEAN my book isn’t perfect? I just spent, like, ages on it!)

Resist the urge and let yourself rest! You are so familiar with your novel, you could probably quote it word for word—backwards. Which isn’t a bad thing. I mean, it’s good to know the topography of your work (this is especially important in case your hard drive crashes or in case you have to beat off an armed robber with your laptop). But it also means you’re starting to exhibit that glazed-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights behavior.

If you want to get a better picture of what this is like, try staring at a block of color for several minutes. After a while, the rods and cones in your eyes get tired and switch to autopilot. You still see the red or the blue or whatever, but your brain is economizing. (Note:  This is a very simplified explanation.) So when you look away, you see a ghostly block—an afterimage. In the same way, with your story, your mind is probably going into energy-saving mode. When you reread after just two days away from your project, don’t expect to see an accurate representation of what’s really on the page. Give yourself enough time to recover, and don’t jump the gun by boarding the query train too soon. The last thing you want is to fall off and get smooshed.

After reading and polishing my rough draft for so long, my brain struggles to differentiate between good and bad writing. This is unfortunate because it means I can no longer trust my judgement—at least, I don’t believe I can. But I can’t just step away, drink coffee, surf the web, and mope around. I need to prime my brain for the next round of edits.

Cue another lame analogy. Following an exercise routine, it’s not the best idea to eat a heap of junk food. Your muscles are tired and strained. They need to rebuild themselves, and in order to do that, they need the proper materials. If you munch on something healthy and carbohydrate-rich, like a granola bar, that energy will be stored in your muscles, waiting for you to access it. What you do now determines how well your future workouts will go. (Or so I’m told. Sometimes my most taxing physical exertions involve lifting my coffee mug to my mouth, drinking the coffee, and setting the mug back down.)

In other words, while you’re taking a break from writing, it’s a good idea to watch what you put into your mind. While it’s all well and good to jump into a bunch of beta reading for all your writer friends (I do this myself), it might be smart to limit that. Now I want to be careful here because I absolutely don’t want to offend anyone. I have proofread some AMAZING pieces. And I learn so much from giving advice—I pick up on issues in my own manuscripts this way. But usually I’m not giving feedback on a polished product, which means the work will have a few rough edges. So I’m not really letting my brain rest from editing as much as I should. It’s important to step back and force myself almost completely out of that mindset for a while.

Over the next few weeks, I’m setting my own goals and assigning myself some homework. With most writing vacations, I build a list of classic and contemporary novels that I plan to read and analyze. Then I figure out what I like, what I dislike, and why on both counts. I pick apart the pacing, examine the dialogue, and weigh the plots. With the classics and other bestsellers, I pay special attention to what the authors were saying and how that might have clicked with the public. While I doubt I’ll ever write the next HARRY POTTER or DIVERGENT, and I think it’s detrimental to work with fame in mind, I do believe it’s possible to learn from other authors’ successes. Basically, my aim is to figure out again and again what it is that makes a novel—how a book is more than the sum of its parts.

So, whether you’re vacationing, writing, or neither—good luck with your endeavors this fine month. And may your coffee never run out.


  1. NaNo is hard like that (and same with track and field, which I'm both doing at the moment simultaneously)! It's so unbelievably hard for me post-NaNo because not only do I have enough free time on my hands once again, I am also trying to calm down from writing about 2,500 words on average those last several days.

    I hope you rest up until the next NaNo session! Writing is a draining, overwhelming process but in the end it's all worth it!

    xoxo Morning

    1. Yeah, I agree--there's always this drop after doing NaNo, or after doing a bunch of editing, or after doing a bunch of track and field. Like, you want to keep on with the same habits even though you know you're tired and you know you need to rest.

      Thanks! Same to you too! And thanks for dropping by!

  2. This. is. so. excellent. YES I COMPLETELY AGREE. Taking breaks is so good and so needed. Although my "break" has passed on into procrastination territory. ;-) Heh! I had a set back with my last project and shelved it and now don't feel like writing. :O It's sadness. I promised myself I'll get over it soon and use May for writing again. XD Omg, I crave coffee now.
    And *whispers* You are clearly incredible for getting your book from 139 down to 60K! THAT IS SO GOOD. My fantasy baby went from 100K down to 60K and I was so pleased. xD
    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!

    1. Thanks! And no judging here--I procrastinate like my life depends on it. I hope May turns out to be a good writing month for you. Hey--craving coffee isn't the worst thing that could happen, as long as there's coffee nearby.
      Thanks! Congrats on chopping your own book so far. Personally, I love chopping so much it gets a little extreme. :)
      You're welcome, and thanks again for stopping by!