Writers’ Ten Commandments #4: Keep the Sabbath

This series is about breaking the Ten Commandments in your writing—doing to your characters, or having them do, things you’d never want anyone to do to you.

Commandment #4: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

On the face of it, breaking this commandment doesn’t have a huge potential for improving your fiction. True, unless all your characters are faithful Christians—and maybe even if they are—some of them will probably be Sabbath-breakers. But that’s not interesting enough to justify a blog post.

I’d like to depart from my formula for this series here. Instead of showing you how to break a commandment in your fiction, I’m going to exhort you to keep this commandment in your life as a writer.

I’ve read a lot of advice to writers that says “write every day.” As in seven days a week. Usually these advisers want you to produce a standard word count, typically 1000 words per day. They want you to be a writing machine.

I want you to be a human being. And human beings need rest.

Write six days a week if you want to. (I personally do five as a rule; Saturdays are crazy at my house.) Fulfill a daily word count if you want to. But even if you don’t honor Sunday as the Lord’s day, for the sake of your writing and your sanity, take one day in seven off.

The fact is, the Lord created us to need rest, recharging, a break from our daily routine. We need this not only for our physical and spiritual health, but for our creative health as well. If you keep pouring out and out without ever putting in, the well will eventually run dry.

So give yourself a break. Take a day to worship God, be with your family and friends, enjoy nature or a favorite recreation. Let the world pour its goodness into your soul, so that you have something to pour out when you return to your writing.

Give Your Characters a Rest Too

I also think it’s a good idea to give your characters a break once in a while. Here again, I’m contradicting a lot of common writing advice, which says to get your characters into more and more trouble, keep up the pace and never slacken, never give your reader a place to put the book down.

Yes, your characters need to have plenty of trouble, whether internal or external. No, you don’t want the reader to get bored. But think about it: When you read a book that leaps from one crisis to another with never a moment to breathe, don’t you feel exhausted by the end of it? or even halfway through?

To my mind, the best books are those that slow the pace every once in a while and give both the characters and the reader a chance to reflect on what’s happening. Let your characters have time to get to know each other, reveal their hidden conflicts, their deep motivations, their hopes for the future. Otherwise all you have is one long adrenaline rush.

Think of Harry Potter. Lots of action there. Even critics of the HP books have never (to my knowledge) accused them of being boring. But are the kids actively fighting evil every single day? Of course not. They’re in school. They’re going to classes, developing relationships, goofing around in their spare time. And Rowling lets us see this.

Toward the end of each book, of course, things start to heat up. We don’t get a break again until the climax is past. And if you take the series overall, things get darker and tougher from book to book. But even in Deathly Hallows, you have a moment when Harry and Hermione dance together to the radio. You have a lengthy respite at Bill and Fleur’s house when the characters are mourning Dobby and planning the raid on Gringott’s. You have a chance to breathe, and to remember why everything the kids are doing is so all-fired important.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I say, “The unexamined novel is not worth reading.” Take the time, and give your readers the time, to examine the deeper underpinnings of your story.

Too much work, too much adrenaline rush, makes you old before your time. Remember the Sabbath, that your days may be long on the earth.

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4 comments on “Writers’ Ten Commandments #4: Keep the Sabbath

  1. brassweight says:

    The same is true of Tolkien’s novels. After hard and heavy battles, there’s always the break afterwards to clean-up, tend the wounded, bury the dead (or leave them as the case may be). I agree completely with your idea, Katherine. We do need to keep one day in seven as a day of rest.

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      My husband made the same comment! I used Tolkien as an example in a previous post–just trying to spread it around. 🙂

  2. Chris Moorey says:

    This is very profound. It’s the difference between Charles Dickens and Nathaniel West. I loved the latter’s books but felt like a wet rag at the end. I wouldn’t want to read them again but I keep coming back to Dickens. On the other hand, I can’t say I’m a very good Sabbath keeper myself! I do try to keep Saturday for my wife and Sunday for the Lord but it doesn’t always work that way.

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      It doesn’t always work that way for me either, Chris. It’s an ideal I strive for rather than an accomplishment.

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