It has been 125 days since I have written a word of fiction. This is remarkable, given that I have spent virtually all of the last 20 years under a publishing deadline or working on a new book concept to sell. The panic I felt when I first decided to take this break has subsided, replaced by a kind of dreamy calm about what the future might bring for my writing. I feel lighter and hopeful. I feel liberated even. I feel released from the habits of the past.
I needed a break badly. I was exhausted, both from trying to juggle an overcrowded life and from having to breathe life into the business end of my writing. I wanted to stop and get a new perspective. I wanted to enjoy the process again. I wanted to wake up without a deadline or mile-long To Do list hanging over my head. I wanted to feel my days. It had gotten to the point where the days were all just flying by and it felt as if I was chasing the memory of them, rather than actually living them.
What I didn’t realize when I embarked on this sabbatical was that my imagination needed a break, too. When you hear the clock ticking faster with every writing session, there is no way a writer can do anything but go to their default. Your characters end up looking and behaving as they have always looked and behaved, even when you think you’ve made them different. You see your characters as you want to see them, not as they really are or as how your readers see them. Your plots start — and end — where they have always started and ended. It is only the middle but differs and, when you’re on a tight enough deadline, even the middle often looks the same once you peek below the surface.
Generating book after book in order to keep a series going and satisfy a publisher’s deadline is hard to resist. It’s like a bad marriage. You’re loathe to get out because then it would prove that you had wasted all that time and effort you put into it. Even the best of series and the best of authors fall into this trap. Writing about the same themes and the same characters too often, i.e., writing from your default, shrinks the world of your fiction from the start. Oddly, this can be as comforting as a new publishing contract dangled in front of you. Familiar characters in familiar settings provide a framework that makes it easier to build a book around. Too many possibilities, especially infinite ones, are actually limiting rather than freeing. To those of us with explosive imaginations, infinite possibilities equals paralysis. Where do you begin? Worse, where do you end?
Still, it is within that realm of infinite possibilities that the real magic lives. I wanted to get closer to that place again. I just wanted to let my imagination breathe.
When I embarked on my sabbatical, I left many projects in midstream. A new Casey Jones half finished. Plans for Casey and Dead Detective short stories on the drawing board. A stand-alone novel still in need of a final polish before I can bring it out. I’ll get back to these projects one day, some of them even soon. When I do, I am convinced that I will be a better writer for having taken a step back from the drawing board.
But for now, months into the process, I have become fascinated by the questions that have emerged in the quietness of my down time:
- Why is Casey Jones always most furious at women who do wrong, rather than the men?
- Why does the Dead Detective stay in his hometown and is he really, truly alone in his in-between plane? Would there not be others there with him in his moral purgatory? Who are they and what do they want?
- Where am I in all of my books?
These are interesting questions. Some may not even have an answer. But I love looking at them for a change, wondering about the answers. It makes the characters I have created seem more real. It helps me find a connection between them and myself. It gives me a little more respect for what I have created and increases my determination to show my characters the thought that they deserve.
My mind has wandered beyond my existing characters as well, contemplating remembered moments that could become entire short stories… dwelling on non-crime centric ideas for novels even, in which case I would have to face the terrifying possibilities of the infinite head-on.
I like this place I am in. We live in a world where there is too much to do and not enough time to do it. There are books to read, movies to see, people to love, houses to clean, dogs to walk, work to be done, injustices to right, bodies to be nurtured, children to be raised. To find moments of quiet among all this is a miracle. For now, it’s nice to sit in the stillness of a Sunday morning watching as a spontaneous rain soaks the crepe myrtles that grow by my side porch, loving up Little Black Dog as he lounges in my lap, savoring the space yielded by a banished laptop. I can almost feel Kevin Fahey sitting nearby, watching. I think he would approve.