The benefits of not doing the job

An authorly colleague of mine has been extolling the virtues of a writing holiday. Not one of those ‘give us a thousand quid and we’ll bunk you up in a villa in the Mediterranean’ things, but a total and complete break from writing. This I don’t really understand; my writing routine very closely follows my paid-employment pattern: five days a week less bank holidays and other odd days here and there. But this Christmas – very nice, thanks for asking, hope you had a good one too – gave me seventeen solid days away from my computer. An almost unheard of length of time. And by the end of it – indeed, even as the missus was driving me home – my mind was bursting with new ideas.

This is something I firmly assign to the subconscious. The time spent turning and twisting and working the mind into new shapes, with new (or even old) sights and sounds and understandings causing bursts and ripples and puffs and echoes into new formations. This is what generates ideas. A mind that’s used to seeking patterns, to seeing stories, can be stimulated by almost anything. This is the benefit of your writing break. Simply allowing the mind to unhook itself from the project you’ve been buried in will cause it to generate new insights, will make your writing better in ways you couldn’t ever have imagined.

Ideas are treacherous beasts. I once made the mistake of telling my beloved an idea I had. Never again. The look of incredulity on her face, the simple demolition of all I thought significant – the pain lingers, my friends, it lingers.

How many ideas does it take to come up with a story anyway? I always get vaguely grumpy when I hear authors being asked where they get their ideas from. A plot isn’t an idea. At best it’s a series of ideas, carefully picked at and worked-through and cost-benefit-analysed. Plot is a consequence of character and setting and tone and concept. A rich backdrop. A protagonist that steals your heart. A villain (who, of course, is the hero of her own narrative) who thrills. A McGuffin that carries the fate of the world. These are your ideas, and the way you put them all together isn’t. It’s work. It’s hard work.

At any given time you carry a number – a large number – of ‘ideas’ around with you. A story only develops when these elements have rubbed together for long enough to beat the rough corners off each other and have moulded into one simple concept. This, then, is the advantage of taking time off from the daily effort of writing: to allow these elements to fuse and simmer and merge.

But it’s useless unless you get back behind the desk as soon as your break is over. Take your holiday by all means – go, live life, be guilt-free and gluttonous with your experiences. But the work still has to be done. Which is why I’m writing this now; warming up for another spell in the editorium and getting some of my holiday ideas out onto the page. Because if I didn’t I wouldn’t be a writer, I’d be a dreamer. The world’s got plenty of those already.

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