The Virtues of Walking Away

Because Ingrid and I are immersed in operations these days, I spend more of my time with spreadsheets than manuscripts, the consequence being that those who engage me as an editor can get to feeling awfully lonely while I fit in the work. A great example of this is my terrifically kind client Mac. He waited months for his promised manuscript assessment and later confessed, “At first I was mad that you took so long,” then added, “but now I realize the time away from the manuscript allowed me to see the issues with fresh eyes.” Self-serving anecdote aside—yes, it was all part of the plan!—Mac’s comment reminds me that in the course of his work, there arrives for every writer a moment where the most productive course of action is to stop writing and get some perspective. Instead of getting frustrated or depressed at the lack of forward progress, it’s critical to learn how to recognize the inherent potential in that moment when it arrives. Where you go next depends on your answers to two important questions:

1. Is it time to take some space?

This was one that Mac got right. We’d worked together a few years before on the same project. I’d done an in-depth assessment of the novel he’d written based on his real-life work with at-risk populations. When we sat down to discuss the book, I’d made some difficult recommendations, such as adding in a reliable narrator to balance the existing protagonist, an endearing and deeply troubled young person who was so far gone as to make the story tough to follow. When he called me, he explained that he’d explored all of the previous editorial possibilities we’d discussed and he thought he’d done a good job of it, but he was too close to it to tell. He’d been working diligently and doggedly on what is a complicated story with a heavy emotional burden, and he knew it was time to step away.

Even though Mac might have thought he was taking more of a long weekend than the season abroad he ended up with, my belief is that with both fiction and memoir, you need more time away from your work than you think you do. I think of it this way: You’ve just had an argument with your husband. Talk through it too soon, and you’re just rehashing your own brilliant points, this time with the rhetorical flair you wished you’d exhibited at the time. In other words, you get nowhere. But given enough distance maybe, just maybe, you could start to give a little, gain some perspective, have a little empathy. So, how can you tell if it’s time?

If you revisit your own words and start speed-reading like it’s an internet agreement…

If you knowingly break point of view to cram “necessary” information into the story…

If you find yourself arguing with your beta readers about “what really happened” instead of providing the clarity they ask for…

If you think there is not one word that should be changed…

If your rewrites are different, but not better…

If someone else is currently editing a draft (sure, scoff, but editing a book that’s getting “just a tiny change” while you’re working on it is like trying to bathe a cat on a motorcycle)…

If you’d slap someone who told you one third of your book had to go…

It’s time to put the book down.

2. Is it time to enlist a professional?

It’s not always true that when a writer needs a break she should run straight to an editor. If you give yourself enough time away that you come back to the manuscript as a reader, not a writer, you may solve many of your own problems. Approaching the manuscript this way, with the advice of a beta reader or your writer’s group might provide real perspective. Time away can allow you to trim that deadly overwriting without so much “kill your darlings” baggage. It has a way of spotlighting confusion or missing plot points. It can make you fall in love with your own writing again, or lead you to the conclusion that part of the story—one character maybe, or an emotional truth—is fantastic, but everything around it is not. So, how do you know if it’s time to call in the hired guns?

If you can’t reconcile your love of language and your readers’ need of a storyline…

If everyone in your memoir is wrong but you…

If you sense that your ending is rushed or your intro is too slow but can’t figure out how to fix it…

If you can’t summarize your book in one sentence...

If you would still slap someone who told you one third of your book had to go…

It’s time to call your Girls (no hitting).

And finally, truer than not, when you feel you need an editor least of all…we’re here.