The One-Day Stand: Cheating On My Manuscript

I knew that story was trouble the second it walked through my door.

Confession time: I’m taking a day off from my manuscript.*

Not because it’s not going well. Actually, aside from a few surprises—where did that guy come from? Why does she keep flirting with her? What the hell happened to that guy’s head?—it’s chugging along like a well-run train filled with liars, killers, and the occasional standup guy who’s wondering how he got there.*** Things are coming together.

But the day off is neither congratulatory nor a desperate attempt to break free of the project before it destroys me. It’s necessary.

This is a trick I learned from some writing book a long time ago. I can’t remember which one, though I’m tempted to say it was something by James Scott Bell. I can’t check, though, because a couple of those books got lost in one of the many, many moves in which I’ve participated. I tried Googling, but either my Google-fu is weak today or it’s just not out there.

The advice is this: when you reach a certain point in a manuscript, take a break. One day away. Step back from that relentless forward momentum. Then, after that day, look at what you’ve done. Is it living up to your expectations? Is it following the path you laid out in the outline, or the re-outline? Is it shaping up, or is it just plodding along?

And of course the big question: what’s wrong with it?

I find that a good place to take that break—at least the first time—is right around the time when the first act ends. That’s usually at somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 words. If you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell and the monomyth, it happens when the characters leave the old world behind and enter the new. It is the tipping point. And as such it suits the needs of this break very well.

I reached that point the other day—27,000 words, for anyone who’s interested—so I’m taking the break to review what’s happened so far. Do I need to make a new outline? Do I want to keep this character that just kind of popped up last week? Should I make those world-building changes I was thinking about yesterday? And so on.

This is why I distinguish between the zero draft and the real first draft. The zero is all about forward motion; never look back because you don’t know what might be gaining. The first draft, when you go over the path you made before and make it something worth following, benefits from a little backwards gazing. You can check to see if others can follow. You can make sure the right elements are introduced. If anything strange comes up in the first draft, you can decide if you want to carry it through to the end or kill now before it has a chance to breed.

And once that planning is done, you can move on with confidence.

*”Day off” in this context meaning “day where I work on a different project like the no-good, roundheels** bitch that I am”.
**I was made aware the other day that no one else has used this word on a regular basis since 1956. That’s what I get for reading all that pulp noir fiction.
***HAHA I PUT YOU THERE. SUCK IT.

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3 thoughts on “The One-Day Stand: Cheating On My Manuscript

  1. I just hit 28k on this rewrite and it’s just about the end of the first act. Thanks for affirming that I’m doing something right, anyway! 😉

  2. Good idea. And I think you’re right about distinguishing between the zero draft and the first real draft. I heard an author call the former the “discovery draft.” That’s where I learn important things about my characters.

    **Gale Godwin used this word in the novel Father Melancholy’s Daughter (1992). That’s why I’m not having to google for a definition. 🙂

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