Let It Brew

If you’ve heard any of my recent kvetching, you may know I just finished a 210-page accreditation report for one of the schools where I teach. From early December through last week, I was working as much as eight hours a night after I got home from work, and pulling 13 or 14 hour days on the weekends, no days off.  Needless to say, fiction writing just wasn’t happening.

This weekend, though, I was free (well, free after catching up on all the neglected laundry and dishes—honestly, the piles were so high it was like we were playing dish Jenga—and visiting my mother-in-law and going outside with the kids and the dog and seeing the high school musical before it closed and scrubbing that funky new nasty smell out of the bathroom tile and everything else I’ve ignored while chained to what I now fondly refer to as “that $@#&$@#^!!! report.”)

And I got back to fiction writing.

And I did feel a little rusty at first, seeing as I hadn’t touched my story since the end of NaNoWriMo.

In fact, I hadn’t given it a single conscious thought while I was up to my ears in bureaucratic lingo and charts and graphs and educational data. Not to mention that, at the end of NaNo, I was pretty fried. I’d been banging away at the story for 30 days whether I felt inspired or not, and by November 30, the unfinished edges felt dry and frayed, and there was no juice left for moving to the next part.

But as I sat down this Saturday and read through the story again, a curious thing happened: I realized it had grown in my head even as I was completely ignoring it.

I understood the characters better, I knew what still had to happen, and I was full of ideas for finishing my half-finished scenes.


Reminds me vaguely of my athletic days, when for one reason or another I’d skip playing tennis for a couple weeks, and when I came back found I was playing better than when I stopped.

Maybe this is just my ADHD at work, but maybe there’s something more to it.

corbettIt just so happens I’m in the midst of reading a book recommended by a non-romance writer friend: David Corbett’s The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV. Early on in the book, Corbett talks about the mysterious places our characters originate, and the way an initial vague and ghostly impression slowly grows into a fully-formed human being.

He talks about discovering the true depths of his characters just by sitting down and writing scenes of conflict for them, but he also acknowledges the role of the unconscious mind:  “What returns to me the morning after I [stop writing]…for the day is often richer and more concrete than what I left behind.”

He goes on to quote the psychologist William James (Principles of Psychology, Chapter 4, “Habit”), who said we learn how to skate in the summer and how to swim in the winter–i.e., when we can’t actually physically do those things. Corbett explains James’s insight this way:

he meant that only after arduous and often futile conscious effort does  our unconscious have what it needs to help us solve a new and difficult problem—a problem we will, ironically, solve once we step away from it. The same is true of characterization. Only by diligent and often frustrating effort, working out the specifics of a character’s history, circumstances, and situation, can we supply the unconscious with the raw material it needs, raw material it will fashion into something less clumsy and deliberate, more organic.

So THAT’s what I was doing.

Anyhow, if you’re working away on the Winter Writing Festival right now, and sometimes feeling like you’re just flogging a lifeless story, keep on going until you’ve got as much out on paper as you can manage. And then step back and take a break. (Though I don’t recommend writing a 210-page accreditation report. I’m sure you can find a much healthier use of your time. Like maybe starting that next story that’s feeling fresh and exciting and luring you on.)

When you come back, your unconscious will have done lots of good work for you. (And you should reward it. With chocolate. The unconscious mind is really into chocolate.)

Anyone else have this experience? Are your stories richer after you’ve stepped away for awhile?

17 responses to “Let It Brew”

  1. Hope Ramsay says:


    I’ve had this experience many times. In fact I had it with the book I turned in on December 1. (My unofficial Nanowrimo book, and yes I wrote 50K in November.) I was not happy with that book when I turned it in. The revisions came back in mid-January and my editor had only one or two suggestions, she didn’t seem to understand why I was so unhappy with the hero’s character arc. But when I turned to it again, I saw exactly what the problem was. I had clearly been working on the problem subconsciously for six weeks. BTW this is the first time my editor missed something that I knew was a flaw. She always finds every problem.

    Which allows my subconscious to spend more time dreaming up new stories than fixing the old ones.

    Let me just say that editors rock — both the subconscious ones and the living and breathing ones!


    • Elisa Beatty says:

      That’s such a cool story, Hope! I hope you were able to make all the changes your subconscious clued you in to!

      I don’t remember who said this, but I remember reading some writer (when I was in high school) saying that after he wrote something, he’d always put it in a drawer for seven weeks and not think about it. Then he’d pull it out and do revisions. Nothing would go to the publisher before that. (Obviously, this is in the days before computers.)


  2. Absolutely! The subconscious/unconscious keeps working when my consciousness is focused elsewhere – and what a relief that is! That’s why I joke about taking a nap being work (by necessity, my naps are always quick – just 20-30 minutes). But when I have a tough scene to work out, I almost always wake up with new ideas.

    And when my first two kids were very young, people asked me how I wrote a book. Washing dishes, folding laundry, scrubbing the floor…all of those mundane tasks help free other parts of my mind to do the heavy thinking. Then, at night or during nap times, I’d put the thoughts on paper.

    Looks like an interesting book!


    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Oh, yes! All those little breaks that let the subconscious take over. For me, it’s best if it involves water: going swimming, having a shower…suddenly fresh ideas flow.


  3. Addison Fox says:

    This is such a cool post and that book sounds awesome. And YES – it’s so amazing how sometimes walking away can bring a new and richer perspective when you return to the story.

    And congrats again on completing the report!!!


  4. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

    I’ve learned that giving myself some little time away from my characters is an enormously productive part of my process. My best insights invariably come to me while I am driving in my car, listening to music chosen by my angst-y teenagers. The Essex sprigs have grown accustomed to me asking, “Can you grab my writing pad and jot something down?” as I make my way through traffic.

    Thanks for relieving my guilt at taking time away from the manuscript. 🙂


    • Elisa Beatty says:

      You have amanuenses!! Automobile amanuenses!

      I remember John Updike saying part of a writer’s job is just staring at the sky for long periods. It’s really true.


  5. Rita Henuber says:

    Yes! This happens all the time.


  6. Debbie says:

    It’s got to be a relief to have that report off your back. Welcome back to writing for your muse, Elisa.

    I can be watching something totally unrelated to my story or hearing something on the radio that will spark an idea or make a connection while I thought I was immersed in someone else’s story or song. And there’s something about running water that unlocks my creativity. I discovered my Chinese horoscope aligns with water and I’m Acquarius, so maybe that’s why.


  7. Vivi Andrews says:

    Interesting post, Elisa. I’ve definitely found that giving a story time to “percolate” (funny that my word is so close to your brew!) is a necessary part of my process. It’s amazing what our subconscious can do when we’re not looking. 😀


  8. Oh, yeah, Elisa. It happens all the time. I spend days procrastinating because I THINK I’ve hit a wall. But when I sit down to write, suddenly I know exactly what needs to happen.


  9. Lila Gillard says:

    Holy heck yes–I am experiencing this phenomenon right now. Just before Christmas, I *finally* finished my first book. Crawled away, couldn’t bear to think of it, or even sneak a last lingering look.

    Started the query process in the new year and was stunned to see requests for fulls roll in. wondered, should i go back and tinker before submitting? Nope. Couldn’t. I was d.o.n.e. Long story short, rainbows parted, unicorns sang, I signed with an agent. And She had a page of revisions.

    Avoidance was no longer a valid option. So I’ve gone back and suddenly, I can see clearly now. All the obstacles that I’d tiptoed around (hoping no one would notice) have become surmountable. Flat scenes are springing to life. My heroine finally is says interesting thinks before I want to throttle her. Somehow it was all there simmering away.


    • Elisa Beatty says:

      That’s awesome, Lila!!!

      It’s amazing how much clearer it all can seem when you’ve just gone away from it for awhile….

      Have fun revising!!! And congrats on the agent!


  10. Lila Gillard says:

    amazing anyone gives me a license to type…sorry if I made eyes bleed from the above typos. i was just so excited reading the post! the creative process is mysterious indeed 🙂


    • Elisa Beatty says:

      LOL…as I said, I’m a teacher, so I can make sense of far, far worse typos than yours!! (“Romeo and Juliet are a pair of cross-eyed lovers”…that sort of thing.)


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