Friday, February 16, 2018

Time Out: Letting First Thoughts Settle Into Place

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

As a routine part of my writing process I give myself days at a time to do nothing but think. Well, not nothing. I'm usually scrubbing the bathroom, or preparing a Sunday school lesson, driving my kids around town, or putting together a conference talk. Sometimes I'm actually out in nature, hiking a mountain or splashing in the ocean. Those are the glorious days, but the truth is, so long as I make it a priority to come back to my manuscript sooner rather than later, these thinking days are incredibly valuable and, in truth, necessary.


If you've been following my writing process on Fridays, you'll know that at this point I've committed to a story idea and I've begun the process of discovery writing the opening scenes. I have the beginnings of a protagonist and the problem she's working to solve. A cast of characters is starting to take shape around her and my storyworld is blurry but is slowly coming into focus.

I've noticed that I've started to contradict myself here and there within the manuscript. Some days my hero has two brothers and some days she has three. Some days her father has a beard and some days he's clean shaven. During my first writing session, I set the story in the springtime, but I've since decided that autumn makes way more sense. I have the frame work of a religious system in place and I'm trying to decide if I want to include magic or not.

What I need to do now is stop and give the story time to become more than just an idea. I need to walk away from the business of writing and let the story settle into place in my gut.

Ever cooked a tri-tip? You pull it off the grill and it smells amazing, but if you cut into it right away, the juices inside the meat spill out and you're left with a dry hunk of cow. What's needed is not more time on the grill or even another dose of marinade. What the meat needs is time. If you leave the tri-tip alone for just ten minutes, the juices will redistribute and every slice will be full of juicy yumminess.

That's what I'm trying to do here. I've done a little cooking and now I need to let my story rest. To let it breathe. To let all the juicy ideas I have racing through my head redistribute. I need them to settle into place. 

When a break like this is successful, I come back to the page excited because I have clarity. The influx of first thoughts that pummeled me during my early writing sessions have begun to settle into place.

I know how many brothers my hero needs and her father's appearance has started to solidify in my head. I'm more certain than ever that I should start my story in the autumn. Like magic, those springtime images of budding flowers and new grasses suddenly become mulch underfoot with orange and gold leaves blustering about on a warm fall breeze. 

Time away from the page allows the warring images inside my own self to adjust organically. As I settle in to write again, I'll go back through my first scenes and I'll tailor the words on the page to match the images I now have in my head. I'll likely come across other things that need to be stewed on, but since I'm back from my thinking break and ready to move forward, I'll just highlight those sections and push on. Remember, this is a first draft. I don't need to figure EVERYTHING out now. Just enough to keep me writing.

Do you routinely take timeouts during your writing process? What does that look like for you? Is it challenging when you come back to the page or do you find a renewed sense of energy?

12 comments:

  1. First off, your writing voice and style is beautiful, I was admiring it while reading this post, and second off, this post was amazing.

    I, as a writer often forget to give myself time to think, it's something I've been working on. I'm sort of taking a break during the school year so I can focus more on my classes, which is sad, but I felt like it was needed.

    So I've been doing some thinking like in this post and outlining, and it's working well I think. So thank you! This was super encouraging to read that I'm not the only one.

    -Gray Marie | graymariewrites.blogspot.com

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    1. OH! Thank you so much. What kind words! I pray that when you come back from your break that you'll be energized and excited and full of wonderful images to dump onto the page.

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  2. This is definitely encouraging. I’m currently waffling over whether it’s a good idea to turn my current four-book series into a trilogy to tigthten things, even though I don’t REALLY want to, so I’m just letting it sit for a couple of days until I can talk to my critique partner and have some pure brainstorming time.

    Lovely post! Good luck with your own story! :)

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    1. Crit partners and time! A fantastic combo for making good decisions. Good luck, girl.

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  3. Shan, this reminds me of Stephen King's "boys in the basement" principle. I don't have a formal time in my process for stepping back from the story and thinking, but it is something I do early on. Excellent post, my friend!

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    1. Yes! That's exactly what it is. The boys in the basement do oodles of work when I'm scrubbing toilets!

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  4. I have this same phase, just in a different part of the process. I'm a little bit less of a discovery writer--I still discover plenty while I write, but I like to have a rough plan sketched out before I start. So, the few days after an idea first comes to me are where things start to fall into place. I let myself daydream about some of the key pieces of the plot, often watching them play out dozens of different ways and choosing my favorite. This is an absolutely critical part of my writing process, I just do it a little earlier on than you.

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    1. Fantastic! We all DO writing a little differently and that's how it should be.

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  5. This sounds like such a valuable practice. I think it can be easy to feel guilty about taking time a way from writing (which shouldn't be the case). I know I can struggle with guilty feelings, but this sounds like it is truly helpful.

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    1. We all deal with the guilt, but if you can assimilate time outs into your process, there's nothing to feel guilty about. You're letting your subconscious do some of the work for you. And that's not worker harder, it's working smarter!

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  6. Yes! Sometimes my best ideas have come to me on a thinking day. In fact, just today I've been setting aside time to ponder about my characters' backstories. I realized that a major part of one of the character's backstory exists only in my head. I even had the perfect place for it to be revealed, I just hadn't thought to do it yet.

    Oh, and I laughed reading about the tri-tip, because I recently justified my thinking days as being like letting bread rise. (I've done the kneading, now I'm taking a step back and letting the yeast have time to work)

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    1. Bread rising! That's a fantastic metaphor! I'm so glad your thinking days have been productive of late. Mine have too.

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