Breathing Space

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, musing today about the most useful trick I’ve learned in over thirty years of writing novels—giving myself breathing space between drafts. Deadlines being what they are, this isn’t always possible, but whenever I can manage it, I like to set aside the first complete draft of any work in progress for at least a month. That way, when I go back to it, I have some perspective. I can be objective about what needs fixing. I’ll have had time to find answers to those pesky research questions I didn’t anticipate and for my subconscious to come up with solutions for troublesome plot points. I try to take longish breaks between each revision, too. To accomplish this, I pretend that each project is due several months ahead of the actual due date. This isn’t always easy to do, but I have a good reason to try.

original cover

original cover

Back when I was writing historical romance as Kathy Lynn Emerson for the now defunct Harper Monogram line of paperback originals, I was offered a three book contract. Great, you say, but what was not so great was that the senior editor wanted the second story I’d proposed ahead of the other two and she wanted it in three months. I’d already started writing the first story. Finishing that one wouldn’t have been a problem. But the second novel I’d proposed, Firebrand, existed only as a title and a one-page synopsis—a very vague synopsis. The hook was something along the lines of “Today she’d be called a psychic. In 17th century New England the word was witch.” Never attempt to go from 300 words to 100,000 words in ninety days! Oh, I made my deadline, but I had a stress headache for almost that entire stretch. More than anything else, that convinced me that it is far better to incorporate lots of breathing space into the writing process . . . and not only because it will result in a better book.

e-book cover

e-book cover

Nowadays, having learned my lesson, I try to plan well ahead. When everything goes smoothly, this allows me to continue to write two or more books a year. While I work on project one, project two is “resting” and vice versa. In very rough terms, for just about anything I write under any name I need about a month for research and figuring out where to start, another three months or so to complete a rough draft (with several trips back to the beginning to revise and reorganize), three to four weeks for a complete read through/revision of the rough draft, and one to two weeks for a “final” revision that usually doesn’t end up being all that final, since there always seems to be tweaking that needs doing.

scottidogIn the breaks between those steps in project one, I work on project two. Most recently, I’ve been alternating between revising Kaitlyn’s 9th Liss MacCrimmon mystery, tentatively titled The Scottie Barked at Midnight and due September 1st, and working on the rough draft of the second Mistress Jaffrey Mystery (w/a Kathy), due January 15th. When I can, I take a break from both to add to my online opus, A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, or dig out one of the many projects I’ve started and abandoned over the years. A contemporary short story is the current “back-burner project”—a manuscript that isn’t going to sell in its present form but still has potential. As with the novels, if I let enough time pass before I take another look at that story, I may just think of an absolutely brilliant way to revise it.

Murder in the Queen's Wardrobe coverOf course, there is one caveat. Interruptions are bound to occur in even the most carefully planned writing schedule. Some might be personal—everything from a bout with the common cold to helping care for an aging parent. Others derive from the editorial process. The dreaded revision letter from the editor may require five minutes of tinkering or five weeks of major rewrites. Dodge that bullet and there are still copy-edits to deal with. And then there are the page proofs, what used to be called galleys, to review. Since this is the author’s last chance to catch anything that still needs fixing, that means it’s necessary to drop everything else and get it done. All three of these stages are likely to take up large chunks of time, but the real problem is that you never know exactly when they will demand your attention. As of today, August 18th, the manuscript of Liss #9 is due on September 1st and I’m about to start one last read through. I think it’s in good shape, but what if I find some previously overlooked error that requires rewriting an entire scene? Meanwhile, the copy edits for the first Mistress Jaffrey Mystery, Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, are scheduled to arrive “toward the end of August” and my responses will need to go back to the publisher ASAP.

I think I can guarantee that, despite my best efforts to create breathing space, I will be feeling the pressure of those deadlines for the next two weeks.

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3 Responses to Breathing Space

  1. Barb Ross says:

    Great advice, Kaitlyn. And so true about gaining perspective with time. Now I just need to find the discipline to implement it! It’s around here somewhere.


  2. Lea Wait says:

    Good luck, Kathy! At least 3 of us have manuscripts due September 1 .. you and Dorothy and I .. and none of us are quite as far along as we’d like. (“Quite” being a weasel work. The sort of word we need to drop when we’re editing.) That “breathing space” may come in September .. before the next projects go full blast! (But, as my husband reminds me, “this is what it’s like to be a writer. This is what you always dreamed of. And, of course .. he’s right!)


  3. I don’t know how you manage all of it! Thanks for the insight!


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