The Well Needs Time to Refill

Good ideas take time to form. I have to remind myself of this when they’re coming out in a slow trickle, and when they’re pouring out of me faster than I can write. My new habit, to plod ahead at a steady pace, means tightening the reins in both cases. Learning to harness the muse this way has helped me write more and better than I have before.

Sometimes you get burnt out. Even with a whole day to write, I can’t write all day. I’ve spent whole days doing nothing but reading and writing – I reach a point where I can’t read anymore, I can barely think, and I end up going to bed early because my energy is spent. Everyone has different limits, and I’ve been pushing mine a little to see how far I can stretch them day by day, but I have more energy if I spent time on other things. I forget I wrote my first novel around a dreary day job. I’d spend my day on mindless drudgery and run home brimming with ideas. Allowing yourself to be bored can help refuel the tank.

Sometimes you need to write anyway. Especially if you’re stuck. It’s too easy to turn being stuck into a plug in your brain that stops you from writing altogether. I’ve written before about priming the subconscious by engaging with your work even when the ideas don’t flow. The other day I was so stuck on a plot problem that outlining didn’t help. So I wrote a couple character interaction scenes to see if I could find a plot hiding among them. This primed my brain enough that the next day I was exploding with ideas, but I decided not to write it all at once because…

Sometimes you need to leave fuel in the tank. It’s hard to stop writing when the ideas are hot, but many professional writers recommend it because it gives you a concrete starting point the next day. Those people know their shit. Since I’ve started doing this myself I’ve had fewer bad writing days. I also sit down to write earlier in the day when my brain is burning with the next plot point or line of dialogue. I’ve found the best point to stop for the day is when a character asks another character an important question. It gives me time to work on the answer, which leads to the next point.

Sometimes slowing down saves you time. I’ve found when I run away with the first idea I come up with, I waste a lot of time on bad stuff. Since I’ve slowed down, my character motivations are stronger and plot problems work themselves out in less obvious ways. On a sentence level, when I write quickly my words are strewn with typos and cliches. The cliches are stand-ins for better words later, and typos are easy enough to fix. Plot holes and weak character motivations take a lot more work to correct. I will write a wrong scene knowing I’m going to excise it later, but only if I’m stumped. I prod the story just enough to keep it going, and let it rest for the day.

Sometimes it’s better to read for inspiration than write. I once took a whole year off from writing stories, dedicating myself to reading good books instead. When I finally sat down to write, my work had massively improved even though I’d barely practiced writing at all. That’s an extreme case, but it did show how important the advice “read more” is to any writer. I would add “read well” to that, because you learn more from good writing than bad.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

2 thoughts on “The Well Needs Time to Refill

  1. In the process of getting the first novel to publication (almost there), I have learned everything I needed – and far more around it.

    I have found I’m a very controlling writer: no nonsense from the characters unless they’re willing to provide good reasons for why they don’t want to do things my way.

    And I have no idea at all how I write those sentences – only that I tell my mind what has to be in them. It’s a total mystery where the metaphors come from most of the time (and I keep a tight rein on the number of them), or how I know what one character says to another, and where the little twist of humor or irony comes from.

    I thought by now I’d know. I don’t.

    So I keep reading how everyone else does it.

    I can’t write long; I can’t write on a ‘whole day for writing’ in any special quantity; I can’t…

    But somehow I keep poking along, and the next bit is as fascinating as the previous ones, and I love the flow when it comes.

    A ballerina or a professional athlete or a violinist can practice for hours, but then the art must come. I don’t know where it comes from, and it’s more than just time and effort.

    1. I often have no idea where the words come from either. They come out best when I immerse myself in the fictive dream, so I rely heavily on my subconscious. That must be why I’m such a pantser. I almost never follow my outlines, preferring to find my story along the way. Then I look back at what I’ve written and often say, “Oh, so that was where I was going!”

      Of course doing it this way has meant I haven’t yet got back to writing the novel I was supposed to be working on and ended up writing the backbone for three novella-length prequels instead. I might be able to make something of them though, so hooray!

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