Blog reader Megs introduced me to the blog Procrastinating Writers, which is full of tips to help overcome that particular demon. It’s a smart idea to blog on this topic–there’s quite an audience for it–but it makes me a laugh a little, too. And think.
Why am I (and presumably hundreds of other writers) so prone to procrastination? Why is it that even though I want to write, I fail to, you know, actually do it? Why is it that when I sit down with my MS (after hours of anticipation), I would rather scrub the shower or organize my socks by color?
What is it about writing that makes it so easy to push on to the back burner?
Lack of deadlines. There are people who make a living from writing.
I’m not one of them.
Luckily for my family, we do not relying on my writing to pay the heating bill or buy groceries. Unluckily for my works-in-progress, it’s easier to goof off when not facing subzero temps inside my house or days of beans and rice.
Solution? Join writing groups and challenges (like NaNoWriMo) to help keep you on track. Get a good writing buddy to prod you every now and again. Get your spouse to block you from the Internet in the evenings–and refuse to give you that $#@!! password.
Lack of warmups. Sometimes, I’m writing along (lalalala) and all is well.
Then I hit a wall (shoulda seen that one coming!). A massive concrete monstrosity with barbed wire at the top and crude graffiti sneering at me. Unclimbable. Undrillable. Laughs at the stick of dynamite I’m waving at it
I’m stuck, the story is going nowhere. Every time I think about writing, I think about that wall. Why, yes, I’d rather play 87 games of Solitaire tonight, thanks.
Writing–as I do it–doesn’t have much in the way of warmups. When I have a difficult piece of music to work through, I usually don’t jump right into it. I’ll do scales for a while, work on easier songs, go back to the pieces I played a few months ago. After building up my confidence, I’m able to tackle the harder piece.
Solution? Begin writing sessions with ten minutes of freewriting. Create a novel journal for writing down all your anxieties and issues with the story. All story-related angsting goes here. Use this journal to brainstorm, cluster and talk your way out of story problems.
Lack of step-by-step instructions. When you knit, you follow a pattern (mostly). When you play music, you follow the music (mostly). When you act, you have a script.
Writing a novel doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Nobody tells you where you should start, when you bring in new characters, where those twists should go. It’s both liberating and paralyzing. There is nothing to gauge your work against. Nothing but that slowly sinking feeling in your stomach when something goes wrong.
Solution? This will be different for different people. Maybe planners need to ditch their outlines. Maybe pansters need to step back and work out one. I find that I need to have a strong premise, a sense of the ending and a handful of beginning scenes before I sit down to write a new novel.
Not tactile, not physical. Writing is a mostly a cerebral activity. Yes, there is the physical act of typing or writing longhand, but that is a very small component of a novelist’s skillset. And because writing mostly goes on in my head, it can be harder to make the leap to writing things down. With many other activities–you just do. Making up stories? That seems like a mystical process, one that cannot be corralled or controlled. One that does not produce something tangible or functional, unlike crocheting a warm blanket or harvesting lettuce for lunch.
Solution? Doing something physical–walking, washing dishes, gardening–often gives my brain a chance to tease out my story without my active interference. Seeking out new experiences, or just stopping to fully enjoy the ones I do have, store up a wealth of sensory detail for me to draw on when I am writing a story.
And, last of all, writing is hard work! We have so many leisure options available to us: movies, TV, Internet, video games, books, (let others do all the work), watching paint dry (just kidding!). After a long tiring day, all my brain and I want is to be entertained, not be entertaining.
What about you? If you’re a procrastinating writer, what makes it hard for you to get started?
Megs - Scattered Bits says
“I find that I need to have a strong premise, a sense of the ending and a handful of beginning scenes before I sit down to write a new novel.”
You sum up right here where I usually have to be to move forward. Sure, I can substitute ending for some major scene in the middle and the handful of beginning scenes for a handful of things to include and one really good beginning scene, but there is one thing I cannot substitute.
Now, when I talk about premise, I don’t just mean the basic idea of the story, though I used to think that’s what I meant. When I wrote fanfiction and came up with a specific set of circumstances I would play with in the fic, I called that a premise. Well, now I know better. That’s part of the premise.
For me, the premise includes the rules of the world, all of them. This means having a vague feeling of geography, a strong knowledge of individual cultural structures within the world, at least a general understandng of language (I can improvise), knowledge of customs such as clothing, furniture, architecture, industries. All the things we take for granted in the words Colorado suburbs, present day, or any other such statement must be completely present for me to move ahead in any world that I intend to write about.
For historical fiction, this means I constantly stall out, then procrastinate, research some more, then stall out. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. I don’t know the rules of my world. I know the rules of my story, but that is only half of my premise.
For the novel I’m writing now, that meant I procrastinated, mucked around, then procrastinated, etc. until I knew the rules of my world, then I could finally match them up to a story with its rules.
So until the three pieces click for me, to be honest, I can’t move very far ahead. I need the rules of my world, the story, and the rules of my story. (Characters aren’t usually a problem. They ARE the story.)
It took me a long time to figure out that I procrastinated because I had to have my premise first. Now, I try to not write until I have it. Then I can point my efforts in the right direction and get myself back to work.
Megs - Scattered Bits says
The other reason that I just now thought about is if no one is waiting on it but me. I tend to deprioritize things quickly and that means the death of forward motion.
Yep writing is hard work! And too often I allow my brain to get away with ‘but you’ve been at work all day, don’t you deserve some down time?’ Which, of course, I do. But NOT in my allocated writing hours thanks very much.
I think writing is like jogging. When you’re lounging on the couch jogging is the last thing you feel like doing. But once you get going, once the muscles start working, it’s exhilarating. And you always feel better for doing it :p
Yes, worldbuilding-on-the-fly often is too thin. Sometimes you need to research and get those details down before you start writing, because the rules of the world are integral to how your characters will act and how the plot will unfold. I needed a lot of notes for my sunless world before I could write my current novel-in-revision.
And yes, if no one is anxiously waiting (or just waiting) on me to get my work ready, it’s easier to set aside my writing. That’s why some days I find it easier to motivate myself to blog than to write!
You’re right. It is like exercising. Hard to get started, but once I do, it’s worthwhile, sometimes even exhilarating. I think I need to give myself better choices than “write or surf the Internet”. More like, “write or clean grout”. 😀