Ten challenges, one reaction: Do Nothing!

The other day I went to my favorite café for a work session. I took the following materials with me:

  • my computer;
  • a large notebook, which I use for free associating, creating mind maps, and exploring ideas for new books;
  • a three-page letter from my editor, asking for a last round of revisions to my forthcoming novel Backtracked and requesting that I cut four or five chapters out of my manuscript—with a two-week deadline;
  • printed comments from the members of my critiquing group, with feedback about a new novel project;
  • a print-out of three rejections yet another novel of mine, W.W. Werewolf, received through my literary agent;
  • and a letter from a publisher in England asking for an very short story to be submitted to an anthology, again with an urgent deadline.

I laid out my notebook and pencils, opened my computer, and ordered an espresso. Then I nursed my coffee for a long time, watched people at the café, and refused to do anything else whatsoever. I didn’t write, didn’t read any of my materials, didn’t even think much at all.

It’s one of the best exercises a writer can ever do: Put yourself face to face with all your challenges, and learn to do nothing for a while. No reactions, no ambitions, no feelings, no love, no hate, no resentment, no hurry. Niente. Nada.

Once you clear your mind of preconceptions and fears, you’ll be in a much better position to actually meet the challenge. An editor has rejected one of your submissions? Rejections are part of the job, and indeed part of everyone’s lives. Read your rejection letters dispassionately, separate yourself a little from your work, realize the editors in question are turning down your book, for now; they’re not turning YOU down FOREVER.

Your editor wants you to amputate some of the best parts of your book? Calm down. Put her letter aside. Take a few days to think about it. It doesn’t matter how strongly you feel about your book; given enough time and space and intelligent feedback from seasoned professionals, you might quite possibly change your mind and agree with the cuts.

Your crit group floods you with suggestions of all types, complaints, musings, contradictory remarks? That’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. Your job is to use a mixture of intuition and intellect to find some order in chaos, discern those ideas you can and must discard and those you can and must explore—in due course.

Urgent deadlines? As long as you’re freaking out, you won’t be able to work constructively. Take your sweet time to pull yourself together, then you might be able to write that short story in an hour. It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six hours sharpening my ax.”

My espresso was delicious, the people in the café were friendly and entertaining. After twenty-five minutes of doing nothing, I started working on my editor’s suggestions. She’s absolutely right about those five chapters. They must go.