Thursday, 16 March 2017

Time - it's on Your Side

Writers are always moaning and bitching about time. We all have stacks of unfinished projects, and many of us have 'day jobs' that take up a good deal of our week, or children to look after, or what have you. There are whole courses and books written about time management for writers, and how to carve out writing time from a busy schedule (combat), and how to make the time you have count for more with techniques (subterfuge), and in general we've a rather adversarial notion of time. Literature is full of it - the White Rabbit's pocket watch, Kiplings 'unforgiving minute', the fateful sound of midnight striking as Cinderella rushes from the ball. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair, says time, and we accept this as our lot.

But time is just time. It has no personality, no axe to grind. Time can be your friend, if you know how to make it work for you.

The Value of Rotdown

Let's talk about cooking. Bear with me; it will have something to do with writing, eventually.

You know how when you make a stew of any kind, or any made dish really - spaghetti sauce, soup, anything like that - it's always better on the second day? Thicker and with a richer flavour. This is such a truism that if I have time, I'll make something like that the day before I plan to use it. A subtle alchemy takes place in cooked food when it's allowed to stand. No, Virginia, not going off. I am referring to what I believe people in the culinary world refer to as 'the flavours combining'.

This is just one  way in which you can make time work for you, without your having to put in any effort at all. With the passage of time, your casserole gets better and better, and all while you were sleeping/going out and getting wasted/reading your Bible. Of course there are limits - it doesn't go on getting better forever. All food has a finite lifespan. But up to about 24 hours is usually a good thing.

As with cooking, so with writing, there are ways in which you can make time work for you, and foremost among these is what I call Rotdown.

When you have finally finished the first draft of your novel (or novella, short story, screenplay, etc), the first thing on your mind is probably celebrating. I know it is for me, especially when I finish something substantial, a novel or novella. I've been working on it for a long time and my immediate thought is to pour myself a tall glass of something congratulatory, put my feet up and binge-watch the television for the next 48 hours.

If the thing I've finished is something less impressive, such as a short story, I tend to think coffee is sufficient.

Coffee is enough if I've finished a short story

Because otherwise Ferret is going to be silently judging me.

Be that as it may, at some point in the following day or two you'll be sitting back at your desk and saying to yourself, "What's next, self?" And yourself may well reply something along the lines of "Let's get that mother published!"

This is where you need to stop. Stop right there and have second thoughts. Fools rush in, and all that. Of course you were going to do edits and revisions before actually publishing, submitting or whatever. Of course you were. But you can make the time spent on edits and revisions count for way, way more value if you wait.

That's right - just wait. You need to put that manuscript away - whether you put your printed ms in a drawer, or just close the folder on your computer, whatever. Tidy away all your notes and any physical materials you have associated with this work. And then you leave it to rot down.

The reason this works for you is that, after you've been away from your finished work for a considerable time, you will have an emotional distance from it that you cannot hope to achieve right after you finish your draft.

Now it's not just the passage of time. If you are sitting there and looking at your watch and looking at your calendar and thinking about your finished book and just itching to get on with your rewrites, then you're not going to get the full value, or perhaps any value, out of your rotdown period. It needs to be out of sight, out of mind. That's easy for me, because I was brought up by cats, but if you're a proper human, you may need some help with this.

The best way, I have found, to get anything right out of your mind is to fill your mind with something else. If you're serious about your work, this will mean working on one of your other projects.  That's going to drive the one you just finished out of your thoughts for sure. If you haven't got another writing project (a state I can't imagine, but different strokes), perhaps you've a reading list you've been meaning to get to (I have several), or a really special television series you are dying to binge-watch, or you've been meaning to remodel your kitchen or go on a spiritual retreat. There's bound to be something absorbing awaiting your attention, and now is the time to give yourself to it.

You can plan your next big project...

Go on the tiles and then spend three days recovering...

Reconnect with your spiritual side...

Start your next book...

Catch up on your reading...

Or just take time to smell the roses.

How Long Should Your Rotdown Be?

Stephen King, if I remember rightly, advises at least six weeks. I'm too lazy to go and look it up, but I think that's right. Terri Main, of the Writing Academy, says a month. Remember, though, these are minima, not best case. I myself recommend leaving things for at least six weeks, and preferably several months, especially if it is a full-length novel. I commonly leave a book for a year or more. Of course, I'm writing other stuff during that time. What you are aiming for is to be able to read your work in the same frame of mind that you would bring to it if it had been written by someone else, and that requires a substantial amount of time. It's not wasted time, though. Once you have a number of completed first drafts, you'll find they all interleave quite nicely.

Other Applications

It is not only on completion of your draft that you can take advantage of this technique. There are many places in the life of a project where it's of benefit:

  • After edits, and before you start on first revisions. This is something I learned from Terri Main in her wonderful course, Macro Editing. You make your notes of what you need to do, and then you let it sit for a few days, Main says. It works well.
  • When your book is three quarters written, but you're having trouble with the ending. This is a big one for me, because endings are my cross - they always give me trouble. I find leaving it for a few months, or a year, can make the ending quite easy to write; it all shakes down in my brain and comes together.
  • After you've come up with your concept, before you start on your detailed outline (or your draft, if you don't outline). This is like brainstorming in your subconscious.
  • After you've had beta feedback, before you start on Second Revisions. This gives you space to overcome any defensive reactions, if your betas criticised something, and to bring a fair and impartial mind to your assessment of what, if anything, needs to be changed. Remember, too, always thank your beta reader. Even if you think he missed the point, or your feelings are hurt. That person took time and effort to read your book and give you feedback; it's an incredibly generous gift, and should always be appreciated. 
  • When you have run into plot troubles - you've written yourself into a corner and can't see a way out, or you feel some major part of the book isn't working.
  • When you have the Writer's Funk - that crisis of confidence that often overtakes us half, or two thirds, of the way through the draft. You know, the one where you think it's all rubbish and you can't write for toffee and you should just throw it out and forget it. It happens to us all. For this one, a shorter period is all you want - perhaps a week, or even a long weekend.
If you don't believe me, and you question the value of leaving your work to lie fallow, I suggest you try one of these in the list above. Just see if it doesn't help. I am very confident that it will.

1 comment:

  1. All great, but what about those of us who will allow time to pass after the opening sentence, or just put the MS away for this season? Some writers set schedules to avoid simply 'not writing' when we reach the 'hard part' (editing, rewrites, proofreading, and the like)