Monday, August 02, 2010

Stewing Time

I got an email the other day from someone who had taken one of the workshops I gave at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference a couple of years ago. He had a great question that I thought I’d talk about here.

In the workshop, and repeatedly on this blog, I talk about the importance of setting your manuscript down for a couple of months to get the distance needed to be able to see its flaws. His question was, when do you take this break? Especially if, as you’re finishing up your first draft, you are already forming a long list of what you need to do in the revision.

My answer was that if you have a list of things you know would make the manuscript better, go ahead and make those changes before setting it aside. Essentially, you want to make the manuscript as good as you know how to make it before putting it in that drawer.

I think ideas improve from some of that fermenting/rising time, too. In fact, now that I think about it, my last three story ideas (Theodosia, Nathaniel Fludd, and the YA I’m working on right now) have all benefited from some seriously long fermentation time. I think that long slow formation of a story idea can really add to its depth and layers.

I first thought of the Beastologist idea about five or six years ago. The see came to me in a flash; a story about a boy who discovers he is supposed to take care of the world’s mythical creatures. I loved the idea, but it was a pretty small seed of an idea to be sure. And for me, half the fun of writing stories is playing with and examining all the different directions they can take. So I thought about it for a few weeks, jotting a handful of ideas and possibilities down in a notebook, then ignored it for months while I worked on other projects. Every few months I’d pick that notebook up and add a few more ideas or layers. He would come from a long line of explorers and cartographers. Hm, he’d be sent to live with an obscure relative. What nature of mythical creatures existed in that world? What would the setting be? The time the story takes place? All those things were slowly layered in over months and months and years of playing with the idea.

Theodosia was the same way. I worked on that first book and building her world over a two to three year period. This current YA I’ve worked on sporadically for the last four (God, has it really been FOUR?) years.

Which is just a long way of saying that there are many junctures of a story’s life where it will benefit from some stewing time. In fact, that is why I like to have three or four story irons in the fire, so I can move from one to the other, layering a little in at a time, yet always making progress toward completion at some future date.

So if an idea feels green to you, consider allowing yourself to put it away for a few months and see how you hidden mind plays with it. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Mel said...

Fantastic comments.
I just returned from the LA's SCBWI summer conference and had a thought, actually I mentioned to a staff member that you should teach some of those workshops at the summer conference because you are so darn good. Then, the staff member told me that you already do that locally.
Never the less, I am grateful to this blog. It is chock-full of great insight and feeling. Honestly, I learn something every time I stop by.
Cheers to you Robin!

Robin L said...

Hi Mel!

I'm so glad you enjoyed this post, and that you feel you learn something each time you stop by. That is exactly what I hope for whenever I write a post! And thanks so much for mentioning me to the SCBWI staff. I have proposed workshops for national before, but they haven't been picked. Maybe your recommendation will add weight to my proposal next year. :-)

Lori W. said...

I have yet to try the national conference, but I agree that your workshops are wonderful. I use your worksheets again and again. This post, by the way, makes me feel so much better about putting in the time. Four years working on a book?! Well, go easy on yourself, because you've had some fabulous other books come out in those years. :) Still, thanks for sharing that. It has taken me a year just to learn how essential a longer Stew Time is for me.

Also, I am reading the first Nathaniel Fludd to my kids this very week!