In the last couple of months I’ve talked a lot about how to write, from gritting your way through that first draft to knuckling down and doing the hard work of editing. We’ve talked about how writing isn’t easy, how it takes focus and determination to develop a story from being a cool idea to a finished work ready to find its way out there in the world. But now we come to that part of the writing process that baffles me the most. Yes, this is where I completely lose my footing and start to flail.
After every book, after the hard work and the tears as you rearrange your entire life for your work, there comes a time when you’re just … done. Yep, believe it or not. Whether it’s because your novel is in the hands of the editor or beta-readers or because you’re busy submitting it, or even because you’ve done all the fancy work of publishing your novel yourself and getting it out there, you will face a time when you’re not writing.
Well, not actively writing. A writer is always hard at work on something, even if it’s in their own head. I have a thousand stories that all seem to be going at the same time. Most of them are mere light entertainments in my imagination that help me get to bed at night. Some of them are prototype ideas that may end up being fleshed out and novelized someday. But there are those times when I’m not working on anything in particular at all.
Granted, for me these times are short. They usually come about because I’m waiting for something else. Because I plan to make this weird writing gig my only profession someday I kind of have this sense of urgency. It’s as if every word is a penny and if I don’t write enough I won’t be able to eat or pay the electric bill. Maybe not the healthiest way to look at things, but it is realistic.
So what do you do with this time? How do you make it productive even when you’re not producing?
One obvious answer is to spend this time working on marketing. It’s a good time to write a bunch of blog posts, whether for guest appearances on blogs that support the kind of writing you do or for your own blog. You’re used to spending those hours writing, aren’t you? Why not use them for a different sort of writing?
The problem with this is that sometimes you reach the end of a project and all of that tightly-wound discipline falls apart. You’re burnt out. And as much as you love writing, the thought of sitting down and tapping out a thousand word guest blog post makes you cringe.
Fortunately, just because you’re not writing doesn’t mean you have to write.
I’ve found that one of the very best things to do when slumping between books is to read. Reading is essential to the art and craft of writing. As Stephen King so famously says, if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time and skills to write. Consider it your homework. There is so much to be learned from the simple act of reading a book that will help you to be well-armed when the time comes to start the next novel. Read everything, every genre, whether it’s “your” genre or not. There are always surprises out there waiting for you, but you won’t find them if you don’t open the pages or turn on your e-reader.
Another of my favorite activities while between books is watching movies. For me, movies and a few really special tv shows (usually produced by the BBC) are a brilliant way to study plot and character. I like to see the way characters move and talk and navigate their way through situations. Some people say that tv is the enemy of writers and that you can’t learn from watching it or watching movies. I don’t know. Yeah, I do think you learn more about writing by reading, but I am of the school of thought that says there’s value in good tv and well-done movies too. At the very least, visual stories tell me what my heroes and heroines look like.
And, of course, there’s my personal favorite down-time activity: daydreaming. Particularly while driving or walking. I am a big fan of the Horatio Hornblower books by C.S. Forrester, and I once read an essay he wrote about his creative process. He talked about how his stories all came out of a “primordial ooze” of plot and character that existed with him all the time. I like to think that that primordial story ooze is charged with life in those moments when the imagination can wander off on its own. It’s a kind of meditation, really. It’s something we can both indulge in and learn from.
The time will always come when we must start the next novel. The good news is, if you’ve given your imagination enough of a rest, it can come back excited and stronger than ever. That’s the time to start any new books, when the iron is hot. We heat that iron in those down-times when it looks like we’re not doing anything. But it’s true, a writer is never not writing. It’s as constant as the blood that courses through our veins every moment of every day. Give it a rest now and then, but only so you can jump back into it, ready to go.