Letting Scenes Sit On The Back-Burner

Oftentimes I feel like the writing advice is that we all need to write as fast as we can—write that crappy first draft in seven days or else what are you doing, don’t you want to be a real writer? Sure, there are a lot of times I’ve gotten angry at myself for not writing faster. It should be easy, shouldn’t it? I know the story, I have it vaguely outlined, and yet the words don’t come.

To quote Daniel José Older, aka someone much wiser than me: 

I don’t write 5000 words in a day, and sometimes I don’t even write 50. That doesn’t make me any less of a writer than someone else who does. I think we often forget that writing isn’t a competition. There isn’t some quota of words you need to write per day so you can be part of the Writers Club. It doesn’t matter if a scene takes you one day or three months (calling myself out right now), what matters is you writing it.

I’ve always been in the habit of letting my scenes simmer; I let them work through on the back-burner while I go throughout my day. Maybe it takes a week or two for me to fully realize a scene the way I want it to appear on the page, the emotions behind my characters that I want to make clear. Sure, I could wait to make that happen for a second draft, but who would I be writing quickly and messily for? Myself? Or for others so I can seem to be the type of writer I think they want me to be?

I think that simmering involves letting go of preconceived notions about speed being the best way to write a novel. Sure, speed is nice, and I commend people who can do it. As I’ve talked about before, I’m a slow drafter, and while I know this is not for everyone, there are benefits to slowing down for a moment.

Let’s circle back to a chapter taking me a few months to write. It took me two-ish months to draft a ~4k chapter in my book (Chapter 25, calling you out!!!!) When I initially began the chapter, everything was smooth sailing. I knew the setting, what needed to happen after the previous events in the book, and everything was set up for my success! Then character X had a huge emotional reveal that was stronger than I had anticipated it would be. I was at a crossroads of sorts; I could either keep writing despite not knowing how his emotions would impact the scene and fumble my way through it, or I could take a step back.

I chose to step back, which is not necessarily the popular, tweetable choice.

It then took me about two weeks to unpack character X’s emotion—how would he react after this reveal? I wrote character X’s reveal, a couple hundred words, and I had to stop again. How would character Y act? How would X and Y play off of each other after everything was said? Fast forward to two-ish months later: I finished the chapter.

We could look at this (and I certainly have on a bad day) as a failure. Yes, I finished the chapter, but think of all the other words I could’ve written in this amount of time! Still, this chapter is one of my favorites. I think it’s one of the strongest I’ve ever written and no matter what edits I need to do in the future…the emotional heart of this chapter is there. And I found it because I took my time.

The chapter wasn’t ready in October, but it was ready, albeit slowly, over the course of the next few months. Sometimes the most valuable thing we can do for our work is take a break and think about things on the back-burner. Like Daniel José Older said, sometimes the story isn’t ready to be written yet and that’s okay. Good even. You might impress yourself with what you come up with during that time.

So to everyone thinking and simmering on some scenes, plots, characters, etc.—you’ve got this, I know you do!

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