[Update 03/05/2016: This was one of the articles I migrated from the old blog site. Some of the formatting zigged when it should have zagged. I’ve fixed it. Also, I did some additional editing. Why? Because I write gooder now. 🙂 ]
I’ve been absent for several weeks, but let me assure you…it was by design. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I post a Tweet every couple of weeks that reads as follows:
Sometimes you just need to step away for a while.
As I prepare for at least two more weeks of hiatus, I’d like to delve a little deeper into that Tweet.
Look out, mouse! Here I Come!
Changes in Latitude – Changes in Attitude
I grew up in a Catholic household. I can’t speak for other religions or denominations, but we Catholics don’t need many excuses to go on retreat! For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, retreats are a period of prayer and reflection. Sometimes they are performed in a solitary way. But most of the time, they involve small groups of people working under the guidance of a minister or spiritual counselor.
Retreats differ in content and quality, but (ideally) they share some things in common.
- They take the participants out of their normal environment (geographically, when possible).
- They eliminate cell phones, watches, and outside contact.
- They offer a safe, distraction-free setting where people can reflect on things they otherwise wouldn’t.
In other words, people on retreat step away from their daily life—and whatever rat race they’re a part of—for the purpose of taking a look at the bigger picture.
I’m not saying everyone should go on a retreat. Not at all. Whether religious or not, however, we can learn from this concept.
There comes a time when you need to step away from your work. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s a lot of good that can come from it.
The very language of “stepping away” conjures images of a body in motion. When you get up and move, you change your physical perspective. As you stand and step away from your desk, your work area looks different than it did a moment earlier. You’re seeing it from a different angle. And not only do you see the same old objects on your desk in a different light, you sometimes catch a glimpse of things you couldn’t see before.
The same holds true of metaphorically stepping away from your work. When you’ve been looking at the same work-in-progress for two years or more (or whatever period of time is too long for you personally) you start to miss the forest for the trees, pardon the cliche. I had become so entrenched in what I was doing, that the words on the page began to take on a sacrosanct aura. I knew I had a lot of cutting to do…but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Now that I’ve been away from the work for so long, it seems as if it were written by another person. I’ve achieved a level of detachment I didn’t have a couple of months ago. I’m not married to every word and comma like I had been. It’s not as difficult to cut words when you feel detached from them.
Engage Your Hidden Problem Solver
Software Engineers have known for many decades that solving the most difficult of problems often involves…video games.
I’m serious. Video games…or whatever happens to be your favorite form of recreation.
Within each of us is a hidden problem solver. They’re dormant, however, waiting to be engaged and turned loose on a problem. But they rarely get to…because we’re too damned busy getting in the way! The longer you stare at a problem and fail to come up with a solution, the more frustrated you become. This leads to even less of a chance of solving it. It’s a downward spiral into impotent frustration.
There’s a simple solution: step away.
The human brain is a mysterious organ, but one thing we know for certain: it’s massively more powerful than the most powerful super computer on the planet. By far. I mean…it’s not even a contest. But the part of our brain of which we are in conscious control is merely the tip of the iceberg of our cognitive abilities. Yet we sit, sometimes for hours, struggling to think our way out of a problem.
It’s like hiring a carpenter to build cabinets in your kitchen, and then limiting her to only those tools which you provide. You’ll end up with something that passes for a cabinet, sure. But it’s not going to be pretty…and it may not stay up on the wall for very long. Your brain, like that master carpenter, is capable of building some beautiful cabinets. But you need to get out of its way and let it do its job.
I’ve lost count of how many times I left the office in frustration, feeling incompetent because I couldn’t solve a complex logic problem. Then, without spending a single moment thinking about it, I’d return to the office and solve the problem within 5 minutes of sitting down at my desk. The solution simply presented itself to me as if by magic.
It wasn’t magic at all, of course. It was my subconscious going to work, finally able to engage itself once I disengaged my conscious mind from the problem…once I stepped away. I was too close to the problem. I was micromanaging my brain.
Once I got out of the carpenter’s way, she built me some amazing cabinets.
Now, with several weeks of perspective and distance, I’m eager to return to my work-in-progress. I know that those seemingly insurmountable problems will melt away when I sit down and fire up Scrivener once more.
But not so fast. Next week I’m headed to Florida for a wedding and a week at Walt Disney World with my family! If a 12-hour break can help me solve complex logic problems, I’m betting a week at Disney will make the sequel write itself!
While the sequel didn’t write itself (they never do, do they?), the vacation was one of the best things I could have done. As a result of the vacation, I returned with a clear head and renewed focus. I was able to wrestle Necromancer Awakening
down from 180k words to just under 120k. Was it worth it? In its first month, it climbed the bestseller lists in 5 different Amazon categories.
Have any of you found it helpful to take extended breaks from your work? What effect has it had on your works in progress? Let me know in the comments below.
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
I’m constantly aware of this need but you’ve got me wondering how often I listen to myself! With 4 draft novels now at similar stages I think they’ve had the space, they now need some focus before I draft the next one..
I’m not sure I give myself enough retreat time though. Thanks for the reminder.
It creeps up on me from time to time. I’ll usually “sprint” for a while, say a few months, then just need a break. Sometimes the break is only a week long, sometimes it’s a month (depending on how long I’ve been going). It’s well worth it when you managed to carve out the time!
Great article, I find myself so frustrated at my writing at times and realise I just need to take a break and look at it later in a better frame of mind.
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Shamelessly shared on the Insanowrimos Facebook page. This blog is one the most engaging I subscribe.
Thanks so much, Kat. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog!
Totally agree with your perspective here. I am a big believer in stepping back and taking a breath or two.
It’s amazing how much it can help!
Once again a great Article Nat Russo.. I am enjoying Your Useful and valuable post.
Very well said The longer you stare at a problem and fail to come up with a solution, the more frustrated you become. This leads to even less of a chance of solving it. It always Happened to me as my Boss gives a task/project to complete in a day but sometimes i Found it Boring to stuck at one work whole day whenever i feel that i usually switch to social media(Facebook,Twitter,blogging).
You definitely need a breath of fresh air from time to time, so to speak! I’ve also noticed that when I suffer forced breaks (due to health or work issues) I tend to come back stronger than before.