How to Keep Writing? Take a Break

Hands OnHow to keep writing when you don’t have time?

I fear that this post hits at a tragic time for me. I have some time, but I’m reporting from the abyss, from the famous 65,000-word black hole of self-doubt and hair-pulling that occurs in a novel first draft when you start a book—and write pretty much the entire thing—without knowing how it will end.

Pantsers of the world, unhinge!

I could hide behind the fact that I have a novel being published. You would probably take me at my word if I said, Oh, sure, here’s how you do it.

Except that feels disingenuous to me right now. Because this? This is how you do it.

At least, this is how I’ve done it before. While writing The Black Hour, I got bogged down at just about 65K words into the draft, and had no idea who, how, or why things had happened.

Now, here I am again with my Work In Progress. Just about 65K words into the draft, THUNK. That’s the sound of me hitting a wall, face first.

So how did I finish that book, a book that will shortly be available for purchase in your finest bookstores across the nation and your favorite online book retailers?

1. I stopped writing.

2. I got out a notebook.

3. I scribbled lots of thoughts and connections and bad ideas.

4. When I hit on an idea that wasn’t half bad, that solved the novel problem in a way I liked, I went back to writing.

5. I finished the book.

I’m supposed to tell you how to keep writing, and I just told you to stop? Go ahead and ask for your money back.

But it’s true. Sometimes I need a break from the Word doc. It’s the forest for the trees in there, you know?

I stop. I make a map. I figure out where I am. I figure out how far off track I’ve gone. When my internal GPS kicks in and I know where I’m going, I get back on the road, and get to my destination all the faster for having had the break.

That’s me. Your mileage may vary. I know for a fact that my fellow Debs and our guest this Saturday will have better, more professional advice for you, so standby for them to tell you something you can take to the bank.

But if you’re lost, and continuing to write seems to be taking you further from the road, go ahead and take a minute and get out the map. (You have to draw the map, actually.) There’s no shame in asking for directions: read an author you admire, call a writing friend for encouragement, take the dog (or yourself) for a walk, take a shower or a drive (all the best ideas arrive this way), or go back to the beginning of your book and remind yourself why this story matters. Find the way-finding tactics that work best for you, and then make friends with them.

Because it’s likely that you’ll need them for your next book, too.

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Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

13 thoughts on “How to Keep Writing? Take a Break

  1. Well, I’ve always been leery of professional advice anyway. 🙂

    This is similar to what I do (though I no longer use pen and paper as regularly as I used to). When I’m stuck, mostly I write ahead. If there are scenes I can imagine further on, I write them.

    This is not the same thing as planning, since I may never get to those scenes (as I recently found out: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=4510), but I find it helps to write them. It helps to see where the story *might* go (“oooh, let’s see if we can end up over *there*!”), and it can clarify how the characters might act in different situations.

    • Exactly, Anthony! Be leery of professional advice. Writing ahead would be AWESOME…if I knew what my end game was. This is why people plot novels, I think. Maybe I’ll play the “what if” game to see where it might go.

  2. Oh, I’ve been there. I think this must be one of the most frustrating yet most rewarding parts of the writing process; to feel SO lost after having come SO far, but somehow getting yourself out of it to keep moving forward. It’s like hitting that runner’s high when you’re on the point of exhaustion (or so I’ve heard. I can’t attest to that because I hate running).

  3. It seems counterintuitive, but I so agree — take a breather! And funny, I’m about at the point in my revision, and I was so stuck. I must have just blasted my way through it on the first draft. Now I’m paying the price!

  4. I’m still writing, but I guess my point is that I’m having trouble doing all these 1000K or 1300K a day challenges (let alone NaNo, which is ridiculous) because I haven’t given myself the space to think about about happens next. So. Space. Revision on this one is going to be brutal!

  5. I can relate. Even though I’m a plotter and not a pantser, I hit those points mid-draft when I just KNOW it’s not going to work this time. Like you, I take a break, watch the fish, go get a gingerbread latte, or do something else that’s totally not-writing-related until I can come back to the thing with fresh eyes.

    Sometimes, to go forward, you go back. 🙂 Great advice!

  6. I love this, because it’s true. Isn’t that meditation is about? Yoga? Bible reading? Torah study? It’s about taking a break – resting – so that we can connect to our true purpose. Often times this restores the brain to do more than we thought possible. I am WITH YOU on this. Today, I’m “working” from home. I’m getting a coffee with my hubby. It will help me reframe so I can get back to my work (which happens to be writing for a website) and then, tomorrow morn, I’m back to the journaling again!

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