Letting a Manuscript Sit

desert of maine sept 2008 photo by K. S. BrooksIn this world of self-publishing and numbers, there is always the “rush to press” or to get that book out there as quickly as possible. After all, time is money. Despite that, I have always been a fan of letting a manuscript sit: getting away from it, clearing my head, and moving on to other things. For at least six months.

Most authors don’t want to do this. And I can understand that.

We’ve had plenty of posts here on IU about putting a second set of eyes on your manuscript. What if that second set of eyes was yours?

I started writing the sequel to my first (and fairly awful yet for some reason popular) novel Lust for Danger back in 1991. Over the years, I added to the sequel, writing out of order as I do, beefing it up, hardening my character. I was proud of this book – it was a far cry from its predecessor – my writing style and my main character had matured greatly. In June of 2011, I finally had a chunk of time I could dedicate to it. I did an overhaul, wrote most of the bridging scenes, and found I had accumulated over 60,000 words. 60,000? Well I must be almost done! Finally, publication was around the corner! I would send it on to my editor and betas and this action-adventure thriller blockbuster would be out and knocking people’s socks off by the end of the year! Then life got in the way, as it has the habit of doing.

Thank goodness.

I went back to this project last month. Three years later. I haven’t made it past the opening scene. Ay carumba. What a piece of junk.

Here is what happened.

I had an image in my head of how this book should open. I saw the movie, I heard the soundtrack, and I went with it. I painted a picture of a tough yet sexy Special Agent Kathrin Night in a bad situation. I could feel the heat of the desert, sense her mortality, her grittiness, and the desperation of the situation. I had even been lucky enough to choreograph parts of the fight scene with the amazing Dennis Lawson.

I chose a ridiculously remote and exotic location for the antagonist’s hideout. This normally would be just hunky dory, but since I write faction and am completely neurotic about being accurate, that meant much research was necessary. I spent years and years contacting people about the Nubian Desert. Is the sand hard? Is it red? How hot is it? Does it cool off dramatically at night? What are the Nubians like?  Many wonderful people helped me with my research and I learned quite a lot. I had the details down. It was sexy and stunning and it was just going to wow the pants off people. Are you convinced? I was.

So here was this amazing scene: heat, sweat, blurred colors, tension. But it made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

What happened in the three years between 2011 and 2014 that made me see this scene differently? Working on so many other projects enabled me to completely let go of the emotional – the how I wanted it to “look” part – and gave me the ability to focus on the common sense part of it.

So, when I “cracked it open” last month, I didn’t see the romance of the desert or the intrigue of the exotic location. I saw hole after hole after hole. Why the hell is the bad guy all the way out here? How the hell does he have Internet access? Air conditioning? Water? What is the informant’s motivation to double-cross Special Agent Night? Now, maybe some of these things wouldn’t occur to the reader, but they should at least occur to the agent. And the informant double-cross? Just plain old stupid. It didn’t work at all. There was absolutely no motivation on anyone’s part to make that happen. Well, except for mine: I just didn’t want anyone to like the informant’s character because I coined him after someone who pissed me off back in 2001.

Just wow. A little vindictive, eh? But now I could see that I’d let myself become so wrapped up in the imagery that I’d completely overlooked the glaringly obvious.

Am I saying you should set your manuscript aside for three years? No. Twenty years? No.  But I think I’ve presented a pretty good case for taking a hiatus and moving onto other projects long enough to clear your mind of what you wanted to get across – so that you can see what you actually did manage to express. I know my book will be better because of it. Has this ever happened to you?

Author: K.S. Brooks

K.S. Brooks is an award-winning novelist, photographer, and photo-journalist, author of over 30 titles, and executive director and administrator of Indies Unlimited. Brooks is currently a photo-journalist and chief copy editor for two NE Washington newspapers.  She teaches self-publishing and writing topics for the Community Colleges of Spokane, and served on the Indie Author Day advisory board. For more about K.S. Brooks, visit her website and her Amazon author page.

38 thoughts on “Letting a Manuscript Sit”

  1. Great post, as usual, Kat! My current manuscript has been around for a while now. I’ve been working on it off and on for five years. Each time I read it afresh I find something cringe-worthy. But it has marinated long enough. Time to tighten it and send it off to betas.

  2. When it takes almost two years to write one book (yeah mine are long and I’m slow. So bite me) This gives me the advantage of seeing it through new eyes when I do my first edit. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. Like, hey, maybe I CAN write. Other times a chapter or scene sucks and needs major renovations.

    1. After I read the first page…I thought I was going to have to set the darn thing on fire. Still haven’t made it through the opening scene – had to take care of other things. Will get back to it in May. Hopefully I won’t be writing another post like this one LOL.

      I don’t think 2 years is slow. I think 20 years is!

  3. I’m sorry, Kat, but you just know that many of us are having a good laugh, not just at your process but at our own. Been there, done that. There is a huge difference between telling the story we want to tell and telling the story that wants to be told. But it’s just so easy to get in our own way, especially when we’re really enamored of our character, our plot twists, our own cleverness. You’re absolutely right about taking a break. It has to be long enough to clear out our brains, long enough to let go of the emotions so we can come back to it with fresh eyes. And of course no book is ever done–it’s just done today. Tomorrow all bets are off!

    1. No need to apologize! It is hilarious, especially because of how nonsensical the scene was! The fact I could write something that stupid is laughable. Not sure I could even manage something that bad on purpose! When I read your article (which goes live later today) Serving the Story Part 2 – I had to chuckle. 🙂

  4. I do it all wrong. 🙂 I edit as I go, which everyone everywhere says you’re never supposed to do. But I’ll write a chapter, wait a few weeks and then go back and read/rework everything from the beginning. I do that over and over again every time I add a chapter until the book is finished, then I let it sit for a couple of months and go back and do it again. It’s a very slow process, but for whatever reason it’s the only way I can write.

    1. I know a few people who write that way. I used to do it that way, too, until a good friend of mine pounded into my head to “just get it down” and “stop editing as you write” or I would never finish a book. She was right – for my personality. It’s different for everyone, of course. I still do light editing as I write, but I don’t always write the scenes in order, so that makes it difficult to go back and revisit everything “before” that. You have to do what works for you. 🙂

  5. I have a similar process to Melinda. I edit as I go along and revise and rewrite and then I have it beta-read to death and then make more changes. Having said that, I do see the value in walking away from a project and working on something else and then coming back to it. I’m two years into one book right now and it’s an important work so I won’t release it until I’m totally satisfied with it.
    Good post Kat. Makes me look at my process, and that’s a good thing.

  6. The lesson I take from this is to not piss you off. At least 13 years later getting your dig in wasn’t the top priority. 🙂

    I’ve found setting something aside, even for just a few days, helps a lot in looking at it with fresh eyes. I suspect the longer and more complex a work is, the longer the wait needs to be.

    1. You are a wise man, indeed. But I already knew that. 🙂

      P.S. Instead of having that character be a rat, I just made him really gross as a human being. That’s good enough for me. 😉

  7. Great post, Kat! I have to set my first drafts aside for a while – how long depends on how much else I have going on – until I can come back to them with “fresh eyes.” One sat for about five years. That made it much easier to slash and burn all that stuff I thought was amazing but turned out to be self-indulgent ick full of plot holes.

    1. I’ve never understood the rush to finish thing, but not sure I should have read your comment with a work in progress, Laurie. It’s all the encouragement I need to linger. 🙂

  8. My work is nonfiction, some of it like my Hillbilly Savant essays are narrative and I edit constantly as I go along. I don’t have to worry about plot details like the rest of you novelists because I’m writing about actual events. Still, it does my writing a lot of good to set it aside, even if just for a few weeks. At times, I feel like my own beta reader. Some of those essays, which I hope to publish as a collection later this year were first written over 20 years ago. I’m busy right now with the first proof layout of my book, Bountiful Bonsai due out in December and crafting a new proposal for my agent to sell. Next chore is to pick up my new computer later today, get familiar with a new operating system, Windows 7 and learn my way around my new Microsoft Word 2013. I think I will be busy …

    1. I write non-fiction as well – and I’ve found that since the space for text in educational children’s books is so limited, setting it aside and going back later often reveals better ways of saying the same thing in fewer words. 🙂

  9. I feel like I’m representing the opposing viewpoint. 😀 I used to measure the “ripening” phase of my manuscripts in years. Now it’s more like weeks. Not sure whether that’s a good thing or not, but it seems to be working for the current series.

    Like Melinda and Martin, I do some revising as I write. I will typically start a writing session by rereading at least part of what I wrote the last time, editing and tweaking and moving stuff around. But I also highly recommend a cooling-off period of at least several weeks after the first draft is done. You’re just too close to the material, if you dive right back into it.

    That said, everybody’s process is different, and you have to go with what works for you. 🙂

  10. Thank you, K.S.!! After reading this post, I no longer feel like a freak. I let the second draft of The Tangled Web sit for five months and when I went back to it I thought, what a piece of junk. Only about half of the original chapters remain.

  11. Great post, Kat. I think this might be one of the advantages of never having time to write. I’m lucky if I get an hour a day, and although I don’t like it at all, it means that by the time I come to write a scene, I’ve been thinking about it so long and analysed it from every possible perspective, I’m usually quite confident it works. A novel takes over a year to write with these restrictions, which means I’m constantly going over structure, characters, etc.
    I always bleat that I’d love to be “free” to write all the time. But if I were, I think a lot of what I’d write would be forced and not really usable.

    1. I have faith that you’d still spend a lot of time thinking the scenes through. In the past few years, I’ve found that while I’m working on one project, I’m thinking about another in my free time, hashing over scenes repeatedly… In any case, I think you’d figure it out. You’re a pretty smart guy. 🙂

  12. How right you are some manuscripts need to be sat on for a good long time. Heck even elephants think about it for over a year before giving birth! Why not authors?

    My first novel, Chinese Take-out, which is to be published this week, began life in 1989. Since then I have written and published six books of memoirs but that’s another sort of writing altogether and needs time for checking rather than creating as the story already exists in its entirety.

    B the way, can I ask one question: If you were going to write about the Nubian desert why didn’t you go there and find out for yourself what it was like how red the sand can be, how cold it gets at night and all that? There;s nothing like direct research for getting these things wright in writing.

    1. Why didn’t I go there myself? Because being poor does not allow for travel. This sequel also contains scenes in the Falkland Islands and major European cities. Making enough money from my writing to travel to the places I wanted to write about used to be my dream. Now I’d just like to make enough to cover groceries.

  13. I find it funny that readers love your first Agent Night book but you can only see what is wrong with it. What is making you cringe are details that the reader doesn’t care about. If the story is gripping they forgive easily, and that must be the case. That is just my little guess. 🙂
    I am not a fast writer. Scenes and ideas roll around in my head. When I finally sit down to get them out they are coherent, but I have probably used too many commas.
    I am working on three different projects at the moment. When the first draft of the next vamp installment goes off to the first beta I return to the next murder mystery. There is also a dystopian story that was supposed to be under a dome… darn you Stephen King! I had no idea he used a dome. I wrote it last year, 15,000 words that I have let ferment after the dome scandal. I am hoping that I will see the problems with it when I pick it up again. It is dark and a evil.
    Thank you for pointing out that it is okay to not rush to publish. There was an article recently about an author who is OCD and writes on his treadmill, all day, and published like 25 books last year. That will never be me.

    1. Sounds like you have the perfect cycle going – shifting from one project to another – that will definitely clear your mind and allow you to come back each time with fresh eyes. As far as the author who published 25 books in one year goes – I have to wonder how good those books are. That will never be me, either – I want to be able to percolate the characters, scenes, and chapters until they become umami. 😉

  14. This is an important blog post. I’ve found setting a manuscript aside to be an extremely important writing strategy. I am heartened to read that so many others agree.

    I’ve also found changing formats a lot of help–such as reading on an e-reader, reading a hard copy, single spacing, or reading out loud. Anything that creates a new perspective is important.

  15. I ended up letting my first book sit for a decade or so. After a ton of rewrites (because military technology had changed so vastly) I completed the work. In my enthusiasm and lack of knowledge, I had a vanity press publish it. To this day I’m still wondering how it managed to win an award- it wasn’t edited, and not formatted very well. I was so happy two years later to get my rights back and gave the book an overhaul. More rewrites, more fixes. I’m happier with it now.

    For the most part, I let my manuscripts marinate 4-6 months before looking at them again. That does help a lot. Many WTH moments have been solved by going back and reassessing what I wrote with a different frame of mind. Yes, it helps.

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