Tag Archives: writing procrastination

Happy Thanksgiving!

As we move into the flurry and hurry of the holiday season, I am trying to avoid stress, to count my blessings, and to encourage myself to try new things without timidity.

That sounds very noble and–as we would say in my family–high-falutin’. In reality, I’m trying to stay calm and not freak out because the holiday season has caught me unprepared yet again. My plans for the fall went awry this year, and now time is tick-tick-ticking and my house isn’t clean and my Christmas decorations are a disorganized mess. Instead of being a serene work space, my office is piled with manuscripts, works-in-progress, drafts that need shredding and discarding, books, file folders, and lecture notes. My wi-fi router should be replaced as it is an infernal contraption inadequate for my house and the demands of my gadgets, yet it is connected and sort of working. A replacement means crawling under the desk and grappling with cables and passwords–not necessarily in that order. As for other technical issues, the adapters to connect my new campus laptop to the old home monitor remain baffling despite IT’s valiant efforts to explain, describe, and provide pictures of what to plug where. I will eventually conquer it, despite the temptation to moan and pretend I can’t possibly work while my equipment isn’t cooperating. And yet with all this going on, what I chiefly want to do is put up my space-themed Christmas tree because I have a new stealth-bomber ornament and assorted robots to add to it, and there just isn’t room to cram a tree into a home office already bursting at the seams.

Let’s move on to being grateful. I am! My blessings are many. But as I count them, I find my mind drifting from what I have accomplished this year to tasks not yet finished. There is a fine balance sometimes between the drive to achieve and greed for too much, between satisfaction with a job done well enough and laziness that allows procrastination to take root. I hope to stay balanced and remember that I have always been tremendously blessed. I have much to be grateful for. I have done a lot this year. Could I have produced more? Yes, but I needn’t beat myself up for the items on the list left undone.

As for being too timid to reach beyond my comfort zone, lately it’s become too easy to back away from the unknown and untried. When did I become so cautious? And why do I let myself stall at the unfamiliar? What is this new-found lack of confidence?

Several years ago, a dear friend introduced me to a little book called THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield. It is filled with homilies and encouragement for writers. It chiefly focuses on this very issue of being afraid to stretch. I need to hunt through my shelves for it and read it anew.

The big issue standing before me at present is that I have everything ready for publishing my latest book except hiring a cover artist. In the last year or two, finding a graphic designer specializing in this area has become a simple enough task. I have even picked out the individual I want to contact. Yet the force Pressfield calls “resistance” keeps me locked in place. Because this detail is so very important to me, I am stalling, wanting to get it exactly right. But I have to push myself forward, just as with each book I begin I have to push myself into typing the first word. At some point, it comes down to laying aside all excuses and hesitations and simply doing it.

So as Thanksgiving 2017 comes along, I am shifting my car radio to the Christmas music station, accepting that if I manage to put up one tree in the living room this year instead of a half-dozen in various themes it will be okay, and conquering procrastination to independently publish my projects before year’s end.

Tomorrow I will feast and give thanks for what I have. I hope all of you will be doing likewise with your families and friends. And may all your football teams do well.

 

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THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA continued

Since I signed the contract with Manchester University Press for my book on fantasy writing, the prospect of having to write an index has been haunting me.

At first, with publication far away and the entire manuscript to write, I could shove the index to the back of my mind.

When the manuscript was completed and submitted for editorial review, a dark smudge appeared on my horizon. But I still could ignore it.

When revision instructions came back, the smudge became a cloud. Dread, uncertainty, reluctance all had to be faced.

A deadline for the index was handed down. Procrastination was not an option.

Faced with the actual task, with no way out, I took on the challenge of flexing my writing muscles in a new direction and tackling something I’d never done before.

Like so many fears in writing that we finally face, the index has proven to be no big deal thanks to the miracle of computers and a great deal of patience. Is it the most comprehensive or superb index ever written? Nope. Neither. I believe it will be adequate to the task, however, and that’s all I ask of it.

I’m not a fan of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I love his famous quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

How true that is. How often do we let doubt and uncertainty keep us from writing the story in our hearts, the story we believe we can’t do? How often do we write a manuscript and leave it locked in our computer, never sent to market or uploaded to Kindle and Nook? We have to face our fears and keep trying, always.

And now, like the person skydiving for the first time, who lands safely and feels the thrill so keenly she wants to do it again, am I ready to tackle another nonfiction book with index?

Well, not right away.

As for THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA, the page proofs have been checked, and the index prepared. To my knowledge, all systems remain “Go” for January 2016 release.

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Now or Later

When it comes to writing, are you a doer or a procrastinator? Do you write steadily and daily according to the BIC principle (Butt in Chair)? Or do you catch up on your tweets, play games on your phone, and allow yourself just five little minutes on Facebook before you get started?

And how often do those five little minutes suck up all the time you’ve allotted for your writing session?

One of my favorite films is THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1948), staring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. It features a subplot involving an elderly professor (played by Monty Woolley) who is friends with the protagonist Julia and her husband Henry. Professor Wutheridge is poor, retired, and without family. He has talked for years about the book on Roman history he’s writing. Everyone assumes that this is his life’s work and he’s been slaving away on it steadily.

In fact, he hasn’t written a word–as he finally confesses to Julia and the angel Dudley. When asked why, he blurts out, “Because I couldn’t think of anything to say!”

That’s as good a cause for procrastination as any.

Generally, I find myself putting things off for three basic reasons: fear, laziness, or dislike.

Fear:
If I’m doubtful of my ability to perform a task or try a new experience, that’s letting fear hold me back.

It’s so much easier to delay, promising myself that tomorrow I won’t be so anxious about possible mistakes. Or the next day, or a week from now, or how about next month?

Another variation of fear-procrastination stems from perfectionism. It’s good to hold yourself to high standards in your written work (and elsewhere), but not to the point of paralyzing yourself lest you make a mistake.

I once tried to coach a woman who expected to write a bestselling masterpiece with her first writing effort. Having shackled herself to this very unrealistic expectation, she spent several weeks plotting and then delayed and delayed and delayed before she finally wrote a 12-page first chapter.

It featured beautifully couched sentences, good depiction of story action, and little else. It needed tweaking and stronger scenes, but she couldn’t accept constructive criticism. Nor could she embrace the concept that this effort of hers had not achieved perfection.

She abandoned the project and did not return.

I’m a perfectionist, too, and yet I know that writing is seldom–if ever–perfect. It’s not going to happen. Whatever lovely exchange of dialogue is playing in my mind, somehow it’s never quite as good once I convey it to paper. I give my work the best I’ve got at the time, within the deadline assigned to me, and that’s all I can do. Sometimes, what I produce pleases me and sometimes, later on, I find certain aspects of it embarrassing. (Why are my characters such dopes? Why, oh, why didn’t I catch that plot hole? Etc.)

The fear of making a mistake should never hold us back from trying.

Don’t know how to write the scene you envision? Try it anyway. Put words in your characters’ mouths and figure out how they can be opposed to each other. Then, go for it.

The result might be rotten, laughable, or halfway decent.

Procrastination due to fear simply requires scraping together enough gumption, determination, or willpower to push past it.

Laziness:
I frequently cause myself problems because I put off doing things I should.

I don’t want to clean off my desk each day. Result? A piled-up mess of papers, notebooks, Post-Its, and receipts that slithers onto the floor when I’m using the computer mouse or eats the scrap of paper where I’ve scribbled the KEY MOTIVATION OF MY VILLAIN, WITHOUT WHICH THE ENTIRE NOVEL WILL COLLAPSE.

I don’t want to bother shelving the novel I’ve just read, so I stack it beside my reading chair. Pretty soon another book is placed on top of it, then another, then another. Eventually I have a teetering, dusty tower of read books that are bound to be knocked over either by myself or the dogs. Down they slide under the sofa or into an awkward corner that I can’t reach without stooping, bending myself into a pretzel, or–much to the amusement of my dogs–crawling. The very best book of the group–the one I intended to keep forever–lands edge down, crumpling the pages.

A calamity that didn’t have to occur.

Laziness can also apply to writing. What if you have two scenes in mind. Scene 1 will be a confrontation between Pete Protagonist and his brother Amos. They’re fighting over … over … well, they’re fighting. You know they’re angry at each other, but you haven’t worked out why. Because you don’t know their motivations, you’re hazy on their positions in this argument.

Furthermore, you haven’t really thought through Pete’s goal for this scene. You don’t want to bother with all of that. It’ll come to me once I get going, you think. No need to waste time planning every detail.

So you type a few paragraphs. The brothers stand there–where? Oh, they’re just standing there … somewhere. You’ll fill that detail in later.

They’re standing there. They’re angry. They utter a few dialogue exchanges, but the conversation doesn’t get far. You force them through one page, and yet it’s like wading through sludge. Everything they’re saying seems trite or clichéd. The story just isn’t advancing.

You stop and sigh. This is too hard. I’ll try again tomorrow.

Or, let’s say you’re vague about what’s going to happen in Scene 1. All you know is that the brothers will argue and part, feeling bitter.

Meanwhile, Scene 2 is clear and shining in your mind. It’s going to be straight action. No need for awkward character motivation here. You’ve planned every moment in detail. You know a storm is going to blow up while Pete is sailing. He’ll struggle alone with sails and rigging. Then the tiller will be jerked from his grasp. The jib will fall on him, knocking him unconscious … no! Better if he’s swept overboard. Now he’s swimming for his life in rough seas … and sharks are coming.

Excited about that story segment and unwilling to work out the knots in Scene 1, you skip over the bothersome Scene 1 and write Scene 2 first. Maybe you take the time to research how unlikely it is that sharks will be circling a swimmer during a ferocious ocean storm, but maybe you don’t because your laziness has made you procrastinate about researching, too.

As you continue writing your book, you keep skipping the tough sections and writing only the bits that you like. You tell yourself that it will be easier to fill in the skipped stuff later, when you know exactly where the book is going and why the characters are behaving as they do.

Trouble is, this kind of procrastinator may never realize why the draft is so bad, why his characters keep reaching dead ends, or how a revision will be so tangled an entire rewrite will probably be necessary.

If the motivations and goals in Scene 1 are skipped instead of being worked out plausibly, how can there be a connection between the events of Scene 1 and those that take place in Scene 2?

Or, if the argument between Pete and Amos in Scene 1 had spilled over to Scene 2, what if the brothers had gone sailing together and when the storm burst over them, sweeping Pete overboard … would Amos have still been so angry and resentful about what occurred in Scene 1 that he delayed helping Pete and hesitated at the moment that a quick grab of Pete’s arm would have saved him?

Amos may spend the next five chapters leading a search-and-rescue operation. He could be bitterly blaming himself and experiencing all kinds of agonized guilt for what he’s done.

And when Pete is finally found, soaked with brine, starved, and half-dead, he might believe Amos deliberately tried to kill him.

By working through each plot problem as it arises, by not skipping ahead or just writing the bits of story that are the most fun, you could end up with a draft that makes sense and is much richer in layers, nuance, and context than you originally planned.

Intense Dislike:
Whenever we are faced with a task that we find distasteful, we’re likely to put it off for as long as possible.

Do you enjoy cleaning the bathroom? Some people do, but I don’t. Because my dislike of a dirty bathroom is even stronger, I perform the chore.

Do you enjoy working on your income tax? I loathe accounting work so much that I do it once a year. Although I know that prepping for my tax return would be quick and simple if I maintained the books weekly, or even monthly, I just won’t do it.

The result is that, yes, I only have to face the ledgers once a year, but it’s an awful experience. After twelve months of neglect, my accounts are in such a tangle that it takes weeks to straighten everything out and bring order to the mess.

By then, I’m behind on the new year’s accounts, and so I procrastinate again. It remains a vicious cycle that I never seem to break, year after year.

The only way to conquer this is through sheer discipline. Rather like being ordered by a dentist to floss daily, and having to create a new habit by forcing myself to perform the task at the same time every day until the habit is created.

In writing, perhaps you hate writing the first draft and enjoy the revision process. Or perhaps you love writing the rough draft and loathe revision. Either way, you need to create incentives for yourself and form the habits of discipline in order to get through the tasks you dislike.

Sometimes, people who are actually talented at writing never sit down and do it. They aren’t afraid of the task. They aren’t lazy. They want to write, but they just never do it.

Probe into their reasons, and sometimes the answer is, “I just don’t feel comfortable writing fiction. I can write essays fine. But putting stories together is hard and confusing.”

My response is always going to be, “So why aren’t you writing those articles or essays instead of pushing yourself toward the Great American Novel?”

Are you writing a story you just don’t like? Are you writing in a genre that’s not really your métier?

Why?

Do you secretly love true confession stories but fear that you’ll be laughed at by your friends if you wrote them? Do you struggle to write mainstream literature when your heart belongs to space opera? Are you stumped by your mystery plot that won’t gel when what you wish you could be writing are picture books for three-year-olds?

Snobbery and fear can push us in directions we truly don’t wish to go. Because we can’t write what we actually want, we don’t write at all.

Now, how is that going to get you anywhere?

Carrot or stick … or both … is the only way to get past this form of procrastination.

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Small Details, Big Picture

Plotting is a pain in the … neck.

Recently, a non-writing acquaintance of mine sent me what she called the “plot for a book.” What she had, in fact, was just an idea–a concept too tiny to be identified even as a premise.

Now I try to be patient when conversing with non-writers because they don’t know the arcane vocabulary of my profession. I remind myself of how I can sound like a gibbering idiot when I’m talking with my friend who restores antique lamps. His frown quickly transforms into a bewildered scowl as I fumble for terms such as socket cover, insulator, torchiere shade holder, base cap, etc. When I visit the car mechanic, I might as well be speaking Flemish. Pretty soon I’m resorting to hand gestures and grunting as I convey what type of sound the car is making and from which area of the undercarriage the green goo is oozing. As for haircuts, I don’t know a layer from a stack, and “tipping the ends” doesn’t involve paying extra dollars.

So, although most writers groan when someone starts sharing his idea for a story (and if we’re kindly folks we don’t growl, “If it’s so good why don’t you write it yourself?”), we tend to listen in hopes that we really will gleam something useful.

As I did. Whether I’ll do anything directly with this concept is unknown. It did, however, spark an idea in my imagination.

Trouble is, how do you get from the concept to the plot outline?

To everyone that blithely boasts, “It all just comes to me perfectly from start to finish,” I reply: Die now.

Can you tell that I’m in the middle of writing a plot synopsis? Can you tell that it’s a) not going smoothly or b) I’m stuck halfway through?

Why am I stuck?

Because I’m revising/modifying a synopsis that I liked, and I’m having trouble jettisoning certain sections to make way for the new direction the story will take.

Why am I doing this?

To better fit my intended market.

I’ve identified the problematic area. My agent put his finger right on the same spot and said, basically, “Fix that.”

I knew it was weak. He saw immediately that it was weak. If I want to form a decent, salable plot, this portion can’t be weak.

However, brilliance, inspiration, and crumbs from the muses have not yet struck me.

As a working professional, I know better than to wait for any muse to hand me a solution on her clammy little hand. Which means I have to draw on my experience, my story sense, my training, and my knowledge of the craft in order to fix the problem.

Drat! Why can’t it be easier than that?

(It never is.)

Presently, my artistic temperament is getting in my way by rebelling and bringing out my stubborn streak. My inner child is wailing, This looks hard and I don’t wanna work it out!

Meanwhile, instead of pulling on my professionalism and getting down to the task of figuring out villain motivation so that character actions are plausible, I’m acting like an amateur and procrastinating.

Oh, I’m sitting in my chair. I’m even opening the computer file daily and typing. I can say truthfully that I’ve worked hard and kept to my writing schedule. So why do I have a 30-page outline instead of a 10-pager? Why am I only 2/3rds through? Why wasn’t it finished at least two weeks ago?

Because instead of looking at the larger picture of the plot in its entirety, I’m focusing on small details. I’m even writing dialogue, which seldom has a place in a plot synopsis. After all, what does synopsis mean?

I’m moving at a glacial pace, grinding away at the less-important details in a colossal avoidance tactic. When you’re plotting, you need to figure out these basics:

-Protagonist
-Antagonist
-Protagonist’s goal or objective
-Why the antagonist is thwarting that goal or objective
-The most dramatic, exciting point to start the story
-A big twist or shock in the middle
-How it’s going to end

Now, until all seven of these foundation points are established, you got nothing.

Maybe you know how your story will end. Maybe you’re envisioning the start. But you don’t know what the villain’s motivation is and you have no clue what you’ll do in the middle of the story.

Result? You got nothing.

If you ignore this and start writing anyway because the first scene is just sooooo exciting, you’ll find yourself taking longer and longer to write less and less. Your story sense is putting on the brakes because a ravine lies dead ahead.

As for me? If I know all this, how come I’m making this kind of mistake?

Any number of reasons and excuses could roll out here before you. The main one is that I just finished a writing project, and I don’t want to work on another one right away. Too bad, Lazy Inner Child! Let the violins play but I have more projects to do.

What’s much more important here is the fact that pros can derail, too. Whether you’ve published nothing or 20 novels, you can’t ignore the writing principles. Rules? Yeah, you can break those, once you know what you’re doing. But ignore the principles at your own peril.

By tomorrow, I’ll buckle down and work out the knot that’s tangling my plot’s many threads. Then I can wrap up the synopsis in a couple of days and go forward to the next item on my writing checklist.

Right now, however? I can’t fix it ’cause I don’t wanna.

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