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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Literary Pause

I've become more instinctual about my writing, which sounds a bit odd because I don't write from an outline. From the time I was twelve, I plotted a novel in my head and made decisions based on what felt right for the characters. I'm talking more about trusting my instincts in terms of what I need as a writer, because I've found lately that what I need and what the story needs are often the same.

I'm working on a rough draft now, for example, but it's not behaving. Hmm.

(If you're not a writer and stumbled on this blog because of a bad Google search, you're going to wonder how a manuscript can not behave. You probably think a manuscript is a bunch of words on the page, and if it's not behaving, it's really the writer not behaving. And to you I say...hah. I wish.)

Every writer has his or her optimal daily output, and normally I clear 1200 words a day. I know this because graphing it keeps me writing every day in order to "feed the spreadsheet."

(It tapers off at the end there because I stopped drafting and started editing, and I realized it was pointless to keep tracking.  But you can see production is pretty consistent.)

So now when I suddenly produce any words at all, or only a couple of hundred a day, I know something is wrong. I have naturally fallen into what I call a "literary pause."

Ninety percent of writing takes place in your subconscious. Well, my subconscious; I can’t talk about those who devise a road map before they set down the first word. But a SOTP writer is whirling things in her brain as she’s writing, incorporating everything she sees into her story.

For example, while I was desperately trying to trap an injured stray cat in my yard, my protagonist was reverberating against my heart while I stood in the yard calling "Kitty-kitty!" and I realized something about my protagonist and something about my injured stray love. Abruptly it was obvious that my protagonist needed to be feeding a stray, what that action said about her, and how the feeding of a stray cat emblematized another relationship in the story.

Of course, you'll never read that in the text (well, you read it right here, but in the book) but the reader's unconscious picks up on the subtext behind the cat food stashed behind the garbage cans. Before the reader's unconscious can pick up on it, the writer's has to do the same, only in reverse.

So here I am today, literarily paused, and uncertain why because this novel has an outline and everything, but I honored my literary pause and did what the book required: I listened to myself stuck in neutral.

Did it come to me? Well, I'm blogging about it before millions, so yes. I'm at the cusp of Act II, where the MC has just committed to solving the story problem, and as Amy Deardon says in The Story Template, you can't slink into Act II. You have to explode into it. 

What had I planned? Kind of a slink. And the story "knew" this wasn't right, so guess what stalled out?

That's what I mean by trusting our instincts. Don't get me wrong: it's important to focus on the craft of writing so you have every technique you could possibly use right there in your tool box. But it's not just a matter of bringing to bear your sharply-honed skills. You first need to feel through what the story requires of you. It doesn't matter how well you accomplish something: if it's wrong for the story, it's wrong.

When you find yourself slowing down, ask yourself why. It may be, as I discovered, your plans don't match the story needs. It may be that you aren't ready yet to write whatever is coming up. It may be that part of the story question is involved with a question you're asking yourself, only you haven't yet figured out the answer. And in many cases, time is the only answer. Like a bottle of wine, let the manuscript breathe. Step back and see whether something grows that you weren't expecting.

So although you don't want to give up, and everyone says to write every day, I'm going to encourage you to follow your inclinations when a manuscript needs time off. A day, maybe two. But just enough time for you (and your story) to catch your breath and say This. This is what we both need right now, and then knowing that, you can give it.


Jane Lebak's first novel The Guardian will be re-released this September by MuseItUp Publishing! She is also the author of Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells.


Charity Bradford said...

What a great way to describe that process! It's so true.

Cordelia Dinsmore said...

I can't thank you enough for this post. My current WIP has been on pause for months, and I was feeling so guilty and confused about why I couldn't finish it. Then just yesterday something of major importance for my MC's growth hit me over the head, and I realized that I had been waiting for that insight. Your words made it all make sense of a sudden.

Jane Lebak said...

Cordelia, if it's months, then you're not dealing with a literary pause as much as a literary roadblock. I blogged about that here:


A roadblock is on a far lower level -- as you said, it's a major importance thing, and often it has its genesis in unresolved questions within ourselves.

Jessica Shope said...

Very true. Sometimes my work feels like a runaway train, but it usually turns out better than I originally planned!

- Jessica Shope