When I began writing the book that would become my debut, I promised myself I’d write every day until I had a full draft. At 1:00pm when my kids took their naps, I sat my butt in my chair just like Anne Lamott told me to and tried to get out of my own way and put words on the page. When I felt tired and uninspired, I reminded myself what Stephen King said: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Those words and that ethic helped me finish my first draft. I was proud of myself—for a few minutes. Then I started thinking about revision. Then I got overwhelmed. When I reached out to an author friend who’d published multiple books she gave me this advice: Take a break.
I laughed and said of course and nodded my head yes and thanked her for her wisdom. And then I went straight back to the first sentence of the manuscript. After all, real writers write! They put their butts in their chairs! They get up and go to work!
It took about five pages for me to feel like my brain was going to explode: Had I changed the main character’s voice and tone completely from the first page to the last? Did the plot make any sense? Did this sentence make any sense?
It wasn’t easy for me to take a break. I felt like a failure. Like if I didn’t write for one day I would lose my momentum and somehow all the words would disappear. But I also knew I wasn’t getting anywhere. So I did it. I saved the file. I closed the window. I walked away.
When I finally opened the file about a month or so later, a few things happened: I was able to read the manuscript without stopping to revise on the sentence level; I was able to feel the pacing; I had enough perspective to make meaningful observations. Suddenly it became clear to me that this secondary character is more interesting than this main character. This plot shift is abrupt. This emotion doesn’t seem earned. The second half of this book needs to be rewritten.
Taking that break saved me. It saved my book.
So I’m giving you this pass: the next time you finish a draft or a big revision—or if you’re simply stuck on the same sentence or scene for 30 minutes and you’re not getting anywhere—stop. Take a break. Get up. Go outside. Have a snack. Go for a run. Distract your brain. This is what will get you off your hamster-wheel logical loop. This is what will free you up for new ideas. This is what will give you perspective. Because sometimes the best thing for your writing is not writing.
Marcy Beller Paul is a young adult author, former editor, and full-time mom who still has all the notes she passed in seventh grade (and knows how to fold them). She graduated from Harvard University and lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. Her debut novel UNDERNEATH EVERYTHING will be published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, in Fall 2015.