Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Importance of Distance.

One of the best pieces of writing advice ever was given to me by my creative writing teacher many years ago. It was to put away a piece of writing for as long as possible when you have it to the point where you think it is finished. At the time I was sceptical. I had finished my first story and it was polished to within an inch of its life, wasn't it. I had sweated over every word, every comma. What possible difference could putting it aside make? I should be sending it out. Shouldn't I.

Fortunately I was a beginner and writing had yet to become something I tackled seriously and professionally. In the next few weeks Real Life intervened and I was too busy dealing with that to even look at my writing. When I did I was stunned - and embarrassed - as flat writing, over-writing and just plain indulgent writing all jumped out at me, not to mention the parts where, assuming the reader knew what was in my head, I had not put it on the page.

I redrafted and edited and took it back to my teacher who suggested I send it to a national writing competition. I was hesitant, sure I would mess up on manuscript presentation or some other critical aspect of submitting but with Pam's gentle pressure I sent it off to the Alexandra Hasluck Award - and came first. I can't tell you the emotions when I picked up the phone and was given the news. I was overwhelmed.

After I calmed down I realised what a valuable lesson I had learned - and my enforced break from writing while I was on holiday recently has reinforced it. Before I went to Aussiecon 4 and then on to holiday in Tasmania I had been struggling with my current work in progress. While I was happy with most of it there were sections that just were not alive and I couldn't see how to fix them. Now a month later I have just returned to it and already I can see so much that needs to be done.

It's easy to fall in love with what we write but we need to distance ourselves because sometimes what we love does not help the story. It may even damage it. When you've finished your story, put it away and give it some time to mature. When you come back, I promise you will see it with fresh eyes.

PS It works when you are blocked too.


  1. it's a tough lesson, because there's always the fear that you'll hate it all when you come back!

    I agree though. I've been working on the novel that I started years ago (yes you know the one!) and there's a lot that's ending on the cutting room floor. But it's not just the writing, with time the flaws in the plot have been revealed. Feels a bit too like the characters needed time to grow as well.

  2. I guess if we were to write the same story at a different time in our lives it would come out differently, too. Going back to a work after a few years break can be positively cringe-making!

  3. Yes, wise advice, Helen. I find, with the current novels, returning to them after nearly twenty years was interesting (at first mortifying), and now fascinating. With something that's this old the writing has an almost 'journal-like' quality in that it represents the emotions and understanding of a much younger me. The fascination (and challenge)is in seeing how to utilize that writing, without destroying it and without being too precious, in line with my current perspective. It's like coaxing a very old friend to learn the steps of a new dance, to hold their hand and encourage them to try walking different pathways.