#119: Separation Before Revision, Part One

Dear Story Nurse,

I have finished the first draft of my novel (coming of age, romance). It took a year, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. The characters became so real that I started to ‘see’ them in the street, and looked forward to getting back to spend time with them every day.

I understand that this draft is just a beginning, and I also understand that I need to leave it alone for a while before starting to revise, revise, revise.

But I am missing my characters, and I am sad that their story is complete, as in I know what happens, even though the novel is far from finished.

So my question is what to I do now? Start another novel (or at least start collecting ideas)? Get revising so that I can get back to my characters? Something else? How long should I leave my draft before getting back to it?

In the early stages of writing the novel, I took time out to write short stories, collect ideas, do writing exercises, but in the last six months, it’s been all consuming and I just don’t know what to do!

—Hazeliz (she/her)

Dear Hazeliz,

Congratulations on finishing your novel! It sounds like you really fell in love with it, which is a wonderful experience.

That depth of emotional connection is exactly why writers are often advised to take time away from their drafts before revising them. A little distance makes it much, much easier to assess a book’s strengths and weaknesses—and that’s what you must do, as dispassionately and thoroughly as possible, when you revise a book. Without a degree of separation between book and self, revision is far more difficult, and may be impossible.

Writers often talk about books the way we talk about our children. We craft them from parts of ourselves, we have desperately strong feelings about them, we adore them, we fight with them, we build up our hopes for them, and then we send them out into the world as ready as we can make them, knowing that they have to stand on their own.

As children grow, one of the first and most important things they do is learn to differentiate themselves from their parents. Your book, not being a sentient entity, can’t do this; you have to draw that line, as gently and firmly as a parent walking away from a child on the first day of school.

It’s very hard! You feel a powerful identification with your work right now. Your characters are reflections of you—perhaps of the parts of yourself that you like the best, or of your aspirations. You’ve had a wonderful time immersing yourself in being them. Now you have to come back to being yourself, and that’s challenging. You might be feeling grief over the loss of that immersive experience, or anxiety that the magical bond you have with your work will disappear. Or you might simply be sad, as you say, that a phase in your relationship with your book is over and you now have to make the transition to the next phase. These are real feelings, and they need to be handled with appropriate respect.

So I would not advise rushing back into working on the book, nor rushing forward into the next project. Instead, I suggest taking a little time to sit with how you’re feeling about this part of writing. Journaling about it might be useful, or talking it out with a friend or fellow writer. Once you’re through the first big rush of it, then it might be healing or distracting to work on something else. But don’t be surprised if you can’t get that drafting high right away with a new project, even if it’s a spin-off or sequel or prequel with some of the same characters. These things happen in their own time.

You’ll be ready to come back to the book and revise it when you can start thinking of it the way a reader thinks of it: as an object, a thing that is experienced on its own terms without much or any reference made to the writer’s experience of writing it. Revision is probably not going to give you that same feeling of inhabiting your characters; it generally comes from a more intellectual, less emotional place. Only you can say when you’re ready to shift into that mindset. It may help to work with a beta reader or editor who can keep nudging you in the direction of doing what’s best for the work, even if that means taking out parts that are deeply meaningful to you (but that don’t serve the story or the characters or the reader’s experience).

I want to close by reassuring you that the book will always be your book. You will always have the memories of how glorious it felt to swim in it and inhabit it and be one with it. Even after it’s published and being read by people to whom you are only a name on the cover, you’ll know that it’s yours; you’ll read through it and smile at references that only you get and remember how despondent or triumphant you were as you wrote a particular scene or found just the right word. You haven’t lost that, and you never will.

I wish you peace in this time of transition, and happy revising when you’re ready for it.


Story Nurse

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