One of the advantages of working for a university is that they like to close between Christmas and New Year’s. For years, I’ve taken advantage of that perk to give myself a two-week writing vacation, starting the week before Christmas and going through New Year’s Day. That was the plan this year as well.
Things looked especially promising on the writing front, in fact, because I had finally figured out what was causing my heroine to dig in her heels and developed a plan to solve it. And although I was sad that the Filial Unit and his beloved were unable to join us for the holidays, that too gave me extra time to focus on Songs of Steppe & Forest.
More accurately, it should have. But I’m a Scotswoman, and as our national poet assured the world a good two centuries ago, “the best-laid plans of mice and men aft gang aglay” (the last three words are Scots for “often go awry”). The first sign of potential roadblocks was the promise of three editing projects.
Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I welcome freelance editing projects—especially now, as I prepare to fund my retirement. And all three of these were exactly the kind of books I enjoy working on. The first came with lots of forewarning and was not due back until late January. The second was supposed to arrive in early December and be done before my break began. I actually turned down one from the third editor, so as to protect my writing time, even though I’m still establishing myself with that particular client. But when I received a second offer from the same person for, as I thought, mid-January, I said yes.
That’s when Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) kicked in. Nothing really went wrong, of course; I chose to accept the projects and would do so again. But they did arrive on a schedule I wasn’t expecting. Editor no. 1 sent her files a couple of days early, with the same deadline, just as my break began. Editor no. 2 ran into a traffic jam, so her files arrived on the same day, with an extended deadline. At that point, I started to feel a bit crowded, but I thought I could still manage most of my writing vacation before I started on either one. Then it turned out that I had misunderstood Editor no. 3, who needed files back by mid-January. That was when I realized that this would be the writing vacation that wasn’t.
The important part is that I did manage to finish my rough draft before I went back to editing. And since I didn’t have the constant pressure of emails to answer and of having to be at my desk for a certain, specific number of hours, I did get a vacation as well a real view of what to expect in retirement. And I had the chance to work with three fascinating manuscripts—two fiction and one a study of the post-Soviet culture that is supporting Putin’s war on Ukraine.
My point in this post, however, is somewhat different. Taking a vacation to write can be very rewarding. If, like me, you don’t do well with detailed plot schemes and character maps but need to let the creative juices flow, then having a full week, better two, with minimal distractions is a gift. It’s vital, in fact, because the characters wake up, ideas flow, dialogue appears as if beamed in from elsewhere, and a story can be created in an amazingly short period of time. Almost all my rough drafts are written in those moments of quiet, when it’s just me and the computer and my thoughts.
But once the rough draft is done, I actually find it helpful to set the novel aside for a few weeks. Doing so lets me step out of my own head and re-approach the story as a reader will, without preconceptions. For me, the first set of revisions is a joy: I know I have a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. As I go through the book, I know what needs to be clarified so that the ending flows naturally and what can be jettisoned because it doesn’t add anything to the novel and, given that I write about a little-known world, will prove more confusing than enlightening. And unlike that first rush of inspiration, revisions can go more slowly and fit into weekends and holidays.
So, in that sense, even the writing vacation that turned out to be a vacation from writing has moved my story along.
Images: Portrait of Robert (“Rabbie”) Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787, public domain via Wikimedia Commons; cup of coffee atop a pile of books purchased via subscription from Clipart.com.