When I was a teen, practicing for big math tests (yes, we had those back then, too), a teacher told us to read all the questions first, and only then start answering them.
The idea was that while you were working on question number one, some part of your brain (no one ever explained where) was taking a break, figuring out the answers to the other questions.
This tactic never worked out that well for me; I barely passed math. I’m a creative writer for a living, after all. But maybe there is something to this magic. And it isn’t all math.
Stuck in the middle
A few months ago, I got stuck on a manuscript I was working on. It’s a fun mystery for kids, traditional but contemporary. I had a blast writing it, and I was halfway through when my brain started to chime. First, it was just a little nagging bell, like a wind chime in the breeze. But soon it felt more like there was a whole orchestra of alarm bells going off. Something was wrong with the manuscript.
More specifically: something was missing. I just couldn’t figure out what. I pored over my outline, went for a hike with my dog, and read what I had already put down on paper—not something I normally do, but the alarm bells in my brain were impossible to ignore. I don’t generally believe in writer’s block, but maybe this was it.
I was beginning to think that my manuscript was running out of steam. I wrote another chapter, but I was worried that I was missing something important.
Taking a break
It just so happened that we had a family vacation planned anyway. So as frustrated as I was, I had to put the manuscript aside, including the whole alarm bell situation.
It was a welcome break. We visited sunny Florida and spent several days at Universal Studios. Now, I’m not all that much into Harry Potter (mystery is more my game), but as I stood in line for a ride, entertained by the Potter-themed castle, I figured out what was missing in my mystery.
Magic. Not the wizard kind, but more the setting kind—the kind of magic you feel when you’re reading about a place that is different, unusual, and just a great escape. That’s what I wanted in this book. And that’s what was missing.
This is where the magic happens
Once I got home, I wrote like a house on fire, finishing the manuscript just over a month later. The setting is now magical: a mysterious historic hotel in the snowy Rocky Mountains. Taking a break, my renewed focus, and that Harry Potter aha! moment made it a breeze.
Was it that brain magic that my teacher taught me so many (many) years ago that got me unstuck? Possibly. Or maybe it was just the power of taking a break from a project when you’re truly, honestly stuck.
Of course, leaving the snowy Rocky Mountains for sunny Florida in February didn’t hurt either….
Fleur (F.T.) Bradley is the author of the Double Vision trilogy (HarperCollins Children’s), a funny middle-grade spy adventure series School Library Journal calls, “a must-read for mystery fans, including reluctant readers.”
Originally from the Netherlands, she now lives in Colorado Springs with her husband, two daughters, and entirely too many cats.