In between each draft of a writing project, I make a point of taking some time away from it. I call it a simmering period. (Like making a soup or spaghetti sauce… you need to give it time to simmer so all the flavors can meld together and become delicious… just like merging all the complexities of your story together in your brain. Get it?? … I can never tell if this is a good analogy or not.)
Why Let It Simmer?
Simmering periods are important for many reasons:
1. They give you space from your book so that when you come back to it, you can see it with fresh eyes. When you’ve just finished a book, you’re too close to it—your head is full of it—and it’s difficult to pinpoint its strengths and weaknesses.
2. Your brain will keep working even when you’re not. It’s usually during these down times that my brain starts filling up with new ideas for the story. I come up with a better plot twist to happen during the climax, or a more romantic first encounter for the hero and heroine, or I realize why the villain was giving me so much trouble before and how I can make it better.
For another popular writing analogy: It’s like a well. When you’re writing or revising your book, you’re draining that well, so you need time in between drafts to let the well fill back up again.
3. It prevents total burnout. Writer burnout is a scary thing. It’s like, horror novel scary. Worst nightmare scary. So I try to be conscientious about my limitations and recognize when I’m exhausting my brain beyond what’s healthy. Sometimes you need a break so that when you come back to your book you can be productive and efficient again.
4. It will help you fall back in love with the story. I reach a point in every book where I start to hate it a little bit. (I’ve come to find that all writers feel this way from time to time, so I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it.) Writing is hard. Books are difficult. You’re not always going to be in that happy honeymoon period. But if I can set a book aside for a while and forget whatever was driving me crazy about it, when I return it’s like rediscovering a past love.
How Long is a Simmering Period?
How much time I take off from a project depends on many factors: 1. How far ahead (or behind) I am on that book’s deadline; 2. How far ahead (or behind) I am on other books’ deadlines; 3. How excited or impatient I am to get back to it; and 4. How long it takes for me to feel like the story is fresh in my mind again.
I try to give it at least a week. Ideally, I’ll have something set aside for a month or two, but it can be even longer than that if I’m working on other things and just can’t get back to it for a while.
This year, I’ve had Winter on the back burner for about six months. Why so long? Because the release date was pushed back, which meant my delivery date was pushed back; because I’ve been focused on Fairest and Heartless; and because the fourth draft nearly killed me and I really, really needed some time away from it.
On the other hand, I finished Draft #3 of Heartless on Friday, and I plan on jumping back into it later this week. Why the short simmering period this time? Because I got some new ideas over the weekend that I’m really excited to apply, and also because I’m eager to send this book off to my beta-readers and have it off my plate for a while—so I can get back to Winter!
What to Do During a Simmering Period
Work on Something New. Just because you have one book on the back burner doesn’t mean you can’t be writing at all. I love having multiple projects going on so that I might be outlining one book while waiting to hear back from my editor on another; or revising a second draft of one project while researching something else.
It can be incredibly refreshing to work on something new, get into the heads of new characters, and start exploring a new story world. It also keeps your writing muscles sharp and prevents you from falling into the “endless simmering period”—where weeks turn into months with no forward progress.
Read! We all have a neverending to-be-read list. Simmering periods are a great time to tackle some of those books you’ve been longing to get to! I generally like to dive into a genre that’s entirely different from what I’ve been living in the past few months, and I love light-hearted, fun reads during my simmering periods. But maybe this is your chance to tackle War and Peace? Reading is also great because it can inspire new ideas for your own project and motivate you to get back to it (when the time is right).
Watch TV and Movies. I’m not really a TV person, but I become one when I’m in-between projects. I’ll marathon all those shows that my friends love and I’ve never seen. TV and movies are also great for learning about plot structure and characterization. After all, they’re just another form of storytelling.
Also… sometimes our brains just need a rest.
Try New Things. I become very adventurous during my Simmering Periods. I take classes. I travel. I go do all those things that I’ve been saying for years I want to do someday. I get out in the community. I spend time with friends. I see shows. You never know where an idea will come from, and every new experience has the potential to work its way into a someday-story.
Tackle the Non-Writing To-Do List. I also become super productive during my Simmering Periods. Walls get painted. Artwork gets framed. Cabinets get organized. Gardens get planted. All those things that are forgotten or ignored when I’m neck-deep in a story suddenly become a priority. Use this time to catch up on the rest of your life before retreating back into your writing cave.
When to Stop Simmering and Start Cooking Writing
Okay, I’m officially tired of this analogy. Whatever.
Be careful that you don’t set a project aside for so long that you become an eternal procrastinator. Eventually, you’ll want to dive back in and get back to work! For me, I usually reach a point when I start to get those butterflies in my stomach when I think about a book. It starts to crop up in my daydreams. I start to get excited again.
Then I know it’s time.
Stay tuned later this week when we move on to what is (for me) the most difficult part of the writing process: The Second Draft!