How to Gather Distance from Your WIP

Photo credit: Jonathan L D Bennett on Flickr
In my last post I may have said something a little flippantly that went along the lines of if you’re not 100 million percent sure that the beginning of your novel would grab you, it might need some work and I sort of might of accidentally insinuated that getting that kind of distance from your manuscript is not only entirely achievable, but easy enough that I don’t even have to talk about how insanely difficult it is.

So on that count, I apologize for that accidental insinuation, because as I’m sure many of you know, getting that kind of distance from your WIP is not an easy feat. However it’s not impossible.

I mentioned this briefly in a post I wrote a while back about the cooling off period, but I’d like to talk about it again both because I’m currently in that torturous don’t even look at your WIP phase and because I think it’s important enough to talk about twice.

You see, in order to glean the best insight on how to improve your WIP, you need to “forget” that the words on the page are ones that you put there yourself. You need to be able to read the words with a critical eye and look specifically for weaknesses—whether it’s a cliché phrase, a shallow character, lack of motivation, too much or too little explanation, etc.

The question, of course, is how? How do you distance yourself from a novel you’ve practically memorized, from words that you agonized over to get on the page?

Truth is, achieving the kind of wow, I entirely forgot I wrote this distance from you book takes time—a lot of time in fact, as in months to a year of doing everything but looking at your WIP, which probably (but doesn’t have to) includes writing other stories and reading a lot. Don’t panic though, I’m not suggesting that you have to take a year away from your WIP in order to edit it correctly.

I do suggest that you take a month off after you’ve finished writing a draft before you start editing. Although you most certainly won’t forget the words after a month, I’ve found that 30 days tends to develop enough distance so that you can look at your work more critically. Even then, however, you need to go into editing mode with the right mindset.

You see, after a month you will have developed distance from your WIP—distance enough to start editing, at least—but you need to be aware that despite that agonizing month of not looking at your WIP, you’re still about twenty thousand times closer to your manuscript than any outside reader who comes across it. When you start editing your WIP, you need to look specifically for weaknesses.

Before you start editing, ask yourself:

What do I already know needs fixing?

What do I hope to achieve with this round of editing?

Once you’ve answered those questions thoroughly, you can start reading. Even while you’re going through your WIP though, there are more questions you need to ask. Questions like how can I make this situation worse? Did my character respond realistically? Is this situation believable? What are my characters’ motivations? You need to be on the lookout for clichés and lazy shortcuts like information dumping and telling rather than showing.

You need to be aware that unless you proactively search for mistakes, most of them will hide from you.

Let’s be honest, subconsciously, most of us don’t want to find weaknesses in our WIPs. And it’s only natural—we love our stories and we’ve probably already worked on them for ages and the thought of having to do even more work can be a little scary.

Don’t let it scare you.

When you hone in on the weaknesses in your story and it starts to become overwhelming, think of how much better your WIP will be once you’ve finished. Tackle one issue at a time and don’t worry about the other things. Prioritize what needs to be fixed first and cross it off your list when you’ve finished.

Then, when you’ve finished, let your critique partner have at it and start all over again.

What tips do you have for distancing yourself from your WIP? 


Laurapauling said...

I take a 6 week break from my wips but not after the first draft. Usually by the end of a first draft, I already have a list of major rewrites I need to do. If I know what to do - I'll do it. Once I've done the major rewriting, I send it off to beta readers and then get distance from it.

Ava Jae said...

That's really interesting! Taking a break while your betas take a look at it can be a good strategy. Does that mean you send to your betas after a second draft?  Also, six weeks is a great time frame to develop some distance--I applaud you. 

Tasha Seegmiller said...

Isn't it amazing what fresh eyes can see?  Love this advice - great post!

Ava Jae said...

Thank you! It can be tough to have the patience to stay away from the WIP for the necessary time, but it's absolutely worth it. :)

Tracy McCusker said...

Excellent suggestions, Ava. I would preferably like years to pass between projects & their completion (I truly don't want to remember writing those particular words on a page), but that's not always reasonable. Or possible!

For my poetry WIP, I write in a large chunk, then record all of my poems in one hardbound notebook that's devoted only to the poems that I will put in my next chapbook. Then, I put that hardbound notebook on my shelf. I move on to other projects that don't involve poetry--blogging, drawing or design. It's easier to put distance between your words & yourself when you actually switch out whatever "writer's brain" mode that you're in. Writing in prose helps my poetry ear tune out my words faster. In a few month's time, I can return to them and wonder who wrote this (very unflattering term).

Ava Jae said...

Sometimes looking back at old writing can be painful, but then at least you know you've made significant progress to be able to look back at something you wrote and make it significantly better. 

I think it's great that you can take a few months away from your WIP--that takes quite a bit of self-discipline, and I'm sure it's well worth the time away as you have completely fresh eyes to take a look at your work when you come back to it! 

Shakespeare said...

I rarely send out my work to betas until the 4th or 5th drafts (I'd like to keep them as betas, after all). One book tends to last years for me, since I take off at least a month between drafts, and I will revise it and revise it until I really think it's where I LOVE it. 

Only then do I send it to betas. The only exception is when I know it isn't what I want, but don't know why (or how to fix it). Then I send it out and wait for the helpful betas to tell me where the prose falters. It's actually a relief to get back this criticism, for it helps me solve the problems I know must exist somewhere, but can't find. 

Janet Smart said...

I write shorter stories such as PBs and MGs. What I do to get distance from one of my stories is to write or edit on another manuscript.

Ava Jae said...

That sounds like a great strategy. I don't tend to send to betas until a couple of drafts in, either. I'd rather less people see the embarrassing first draft. :D

That's a good point about sending to betas early when you know something's off but you're not sure what--sometimes an extra pair of eyes can pick out what we miss or pin point what exactly is making it feel off

Ava Jae said...

Working on another WIP is a fantastic way to get distance. Not only does it take time, but you start thinking about another story entirely, which really helps. 

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