Rust Never Sleeps

I am supposed to be a writer, and unless I do a little writing everyday it’s hard to tell that’s what I am.

-Otis Twelve

I turned my latest work in to my agent a couple of weeks ago. And then I did…nothing.

Oh, I still did the newspaper column and the Murderati posts as they came due. Those tend to take about an evening to write and edit. 

But the thing is, I’m what I optimistically call “between publishers” right now. I don’t have editor’s notes to pore over,  or copy edits, or promo stuff to do. I’m waiting to see what happens next. While I wait, I haven’t been doing any fiction writing. I’ve been reading, hanging out,  playing with the new puppy, picking up the guitar again…that’s the good stuff. But I’m also watching a lot more TV and drinking a bit more than is really  good for me.


After a week or so, I began  feeling restless, like there was a tickle in the back of my brain. I know that feeling well…that’s  stories and ideas in the back of my head, scratching to get out.

And I’ve written…nothing.

Because I’m waiting to see what happens next. Or so I tell myself. Sometimes I tell myself I’m just “recharging the batteries”, which I suppose is at least partially true.  However I rationalize it,  I haven’t been working on a fiction project for the first time in five or six years. Even  during the times I was goofing off and feeling guilty about not working on a project,  I was goofing off FROM something, if that makes sense.



It’s ironic, because during this short hiatus,  I’d done a couple of appearances and classes in which I solemnly told aspiring authors  that in order to consider yourself a real writer, you have to write every day. And I meant it, too. Every time I said it, though. those  little mocking voices in the back of my head went “so what does that say about you, you fraud?”


Finally, the other day, I sat down and started to try to write a scene in a book I’d been sort of desultorily outlining while I was finishing up the last one. It’s quite different from what I have out on submission, which in its turn was quite different from anything I’d done before. But I could see it, I could hear it, I could feel it. And if I could do  those things, I could get it written down.

Except I couldn’t. Nothing came. I wrote a bit. I deleted it. I wrote a bit more. I checked my e-mail.  I checked Twitter and Facebook. I went back to what I’d written. It sucked. I deleted it.

I was rusty. After two friggin’ weeks, I was rusty. I’d lost the rhythm  of working every day. It reminded me of picking up the guitar again after a long layoff. When you do that, all the calluses on your fretting hand  get soft and the  fingers don’t leap  right to the notes with the assurance you only get when the memories are engraved into the nerves and muscles through practice. What I was putting down on the page was the literary equivalent of buzzing notes and blown chords.

I’m not worried. Not much. I’m keeping at it, because this new book can be really good.   I know, just like the guitar, I’ll get it back. It’ll start flowing again. But I’m here to warn you:

Rust never sleeps.



So…what’s your longest layoff from writing, and what was the effect? How long did it take you to get your groove back? Readers, have you ever picked a skill up after a long layoff? How did it go?

26 thoughts on “Rust Never Sleeps

  1. Dana King

    TRy writing a few pieces of flash fiction. That often works for me when I’m between larger projects oir have taken some time off. (I can’t say I was "between publishers," as I’m still "pre-published.)

    What I liie about flash is I can try something completely different, experimental even, and if it doesn’t work out, no big deal. It’s not like I spent a year working on it. If it does work out, I might be onto something useful for a larger project.

  2. Simon

    15 years. That’s how long I went between writing a lot in high school and taking my fiction writing course in the last term before I graduated college. (Yah, 15 years to graduate college. Gottaproblemwidit?)

    I’ve been writing the rust away for 7 months now, and it feels fantastic!

  3. Sara J. Henry

    I went an entire frigging year without writing a word. I went to a writers conference and came home with nasty anonymous written comments (and a lifelong aversion to MFA students) and simply stopped writing. My perverse nature made me reapply to the same writing conference the following year – with the same manuscripts.

    Got into the conference and suddenly the identical manuscripts I’d had the year before elicited a lot of attention from Important Agent, Important Editor, and Important Writer. So when I got home I started a serious rewrite of the one manuscript that was complete.

    It was tough to get going but the encouragement I’d gotten (and maybe the urge to show those MFA students a thing or two) made me push through.

    And damned if I didn’t get an agent and sell it the following summer.

  4. jim duncan

    This happens to me on a somewhere regular basis. It may even be on some sort of cycle I’m not really aware of, but my creative energies definitely ebb and flow. When it’s on, the story and characters I’m currently working on are in my brain all of the time. Every free moment I have turns to thoughts about who they are and what they’re doing or going to do, backstory, plot twists, etc.My brain’s creative energy is on a constant burn. After a while though, a few weeks or months, and it apparently runs out of gas. It’s almost like a switch gets turned off. I can’t automatically flip into story mode on demand. It becomes an effort to work on the story. I then end up with a month or two of doing very little writing work. I know that I will have to find ways to work through this now that I will be published. I will have to be able to write every day or close to it regardless of how cooperative my brain is at the time. Ideally of course, my down times will coincide with times when I don’t have a deadline approaching. Think that’ll happen? NOT!

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Here’s what I have to say, JD…don’t worry about it. You need the break. It WILL recharge you. Allow yourself to do nothing for a while, guilt-free. You are the writer you are, and you are ALWAYS improving. Every book you read, every TV show you watch, every toenail you pick contributes to your talent. There is a process that writers require, and that process is simply BE. Observe. Reflect.
    Sometimes I actually keep myself from writing, for this very reason.
    Chill, man. You are not going to lose your talent. You’ll be better for it, I guarantee it.

  6. pari noskin taichert

    I’ve gone for months w/o writing fiction, JD. And the entire time I felt like such a fake. I tried to persuade myself that the blog and nonfiction articles were the same thing, but they weren’t.

    Right now I’m kind of going overboard in the other direction . . . canceling appointments rather than miss my writing. But that’s because of the class I went to and some commitments I made to myself about what I hope to accomplish in my writing and my career.

    I think the process is incredibly different for every person. If you need a break — a week, a month, 15 years — then that’s what you need.

    But the trick is to know if you’re taking that break because you need it or because you’re frightened. To me, that’s the rub. And usually it’s the latter that stops me up and wounds me — at least for a time — more than a couple of draft pages of lousy prose ever would.

  7. JT Ellison

    I went a good 15 years between my last short story in college and my first book. A couple of weeks? Ha, I say. Enjoy the time off. We all need a break. I usually give myself a month off between the end of a book and starting a new one, just to recharge the creative juices. So stop beating yourself up. Take a walk, write some flash. And GOOD LUCK with the submissions!

  8. tess gerritsen

    I love that beer-swilling, couch potato cat!

    As for the rust… yeah. I live in fear of it, too. But we all need to take breaks sometimes, and the best way to keep the rust from accumulating is to read lots of books. Somehow, even if I’m not creating, the act of reading keeps the writing muscles tuned up.

  9. Allison Brennan

    I sympathize with you, but do believe that when you don’t write daily it’s much, much harder to get back into the groove. Yes, we all need a break, and in that case something else creative can fill the place temporarily. Reading, for example. Every time I finish a book I read at least three books in my towering TBR pile, books that I’ve been wanting to read desperately. Or writing something for fun not for publication. Something physical is also good–I like going to the mountains for a hike or to a quiet lake. A place where I don’t have to DO anything but can sort of empty my mind and not think about anything. I also tend to go out to the movies a lot when I finish a book (I’m very visual) and also watch my favorite movies for the umpteenth time. But if I take more than three days off, it is exceptionally hard to hit the ground running when I sit back down at the computer. So even when I’m "off" I’ll work on SOMETHING writing related for at least an hour. But I’ll admit, I haven’t had more than a couple days off in a long time . . .

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JD

    I’m just in the wrestling-with-the-opening stage of the new book, and I admit that I stared long and hard at a blank piece of paper before the first chapter came to me. (I prefer the blank paper approach to a blank screen because there isn’t that damn cursor blinking away in the top left-hand corner, taunting me.

    And every time you start a new book, it feels like the first time you picked up a guitar, climbed onto a horse, wobbled out onto the ice on a pair of skates, got behind the wheel of a car, all over again. It never gets any easier. It’s always just as scary and just as big a leap of faith that anyone will ever want to read the jumbled up mumbles scraped from the inside of your head.

    But you ARE a writer, Dusty, no doubt about that. Cut your arm off and it would say ‘writer’ all the way through your bones like a stick of seaside rock. Whether it is clear to you or not, the subconscious writer part of your brain is assimilating facts and experiences and thoughts and processing and fermenting the next book to come. Field Marshal Montgomery was a great soldier – he didn’t have to fight battles all the time.

    As for how long between books, I wrote my first novel when I was fifteen. My father, bless him, typed it up for me, complete with carbon copies, and it did the rounds of all the top publishers. And I received a lot of that familiar phenomenon – rave rejections. Convinced I wasn’t good enough to be a novelist, I put it aside and took another direction. But a few years later that tickle you so nicely describe just wouldn’t be satisfied and I found another way to release those jumbled up mumbles into non-fiction writing. At last, I had regular deadlines, and people sent me cheques frequently enough that I didn’t lose the faith.

    But that tickle still wouldn’t entirely go away.

    I finally finished my ‘second’ novel a mere eighteen years after my first. My father keeps threatening to retrieve that original book from the attic and put it on eBay.

    I’ve told him no chance …

    But the best thing to dislodge that rust? Read a really crap book – preferably one that someone got paid a really big advance for. If that doesn’t spur you on … ;-]

  11. Pammy D

    Dear JD:

    Please return my cat as well as the stolen beer to me, immediately.

    My first several chapters in my new book are squeaking out word by word. That’s just how it is right now. I’m hoping once I’m in it, the pace will pick up.

    Hang in.

  12. Patricia Smiley

    Six months or so and I loved every minute of it. So many writers I know get on the treadmill of producing a book a year and in between writing they are promoting promoting promoting. After the fourth or fifth book they begin to feel really really tired. They find all that talking and traveling is not as much fun as it used to be and sometimes they grow weary of hearing the sound of their own voice telling people what brillant books they’ve written. That’s when they need a break. Just saying.

  13. JD Rhoades

    Thanks for the good words, everyone. What I’m hearing is it may not be that it’s too long, it may be that it’s too soon. A seductive thought for a lazy person…

  14. Richard Meyer

    Even though your not writing between projects, I’ll bet those stories are being formed, the plots being hatched in your mind while you are relaxing, doing nothing. By the time you’re ready to get back to work, you know what you have to do.

  15. Jessica Scott

    I’m right there with you! Last month I took a day off, which felt horrible but then turned into literally three weeks. I couldn’t write. I had nothing. I reread my work, hoping to find the way back into the story. I outlined. Nothing I did worked. So finally, I accepted the writer’s block. I read. A lot. I didn’t stop reading and eventually, I found my way back in. But it was so hard to get back into the rhythm. I write every day, except for those rare days that the army keeps me so busy that I end up collapsing into bed. Otherwise, my ritual remains the same.
    Hang in there, you’ll get back after it!

  16. omega-3

    I have read the condition your are facing this days of Sadness.All the things are natural if they come as they have to go.Rust never sleeps its true,Try to write some good scripts which will be helpful for future plan and don’t drink too much because it can create several disorders from your life.I want to know suggestion from others.

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