Welcome to the 5writers5novels5months reprise

555-redux

Silk’s Post #137 — Day three already. Paula threw down the gauntlet on our second 5 month challenge on (appropriately) September 5th – the very date we began our original crazy venture in 2012.

The clock is already ticking. Quietly right now, but it’s bound to get louder. And louder. And LOUDER. Like Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting theme in The Telltale Heart. WRI-ting. WRI-ting. WRI-ting.

It’s exactly what I need right now.

Maybe you do too? If so, please join us in the challenge and check in with your progress in the comments space. To date, all the original 5writers have signed up for either a novel or, in Karalee’s case, a series of short stories. Plus we have at least one visiting writer who’s committed to hitchhiking with us. It’s more fun with a crowd, so feel free to jump on board any time!

I have a kind of dark plot in the works. Murder, jeopardy, quest, high emotion, moral dilemma, and a little gallows humour thrown in to wash it down with. My kind of story.

If you’ve been following the 5writers5novels5months blog for a while, first of all: Thanks! Especially those of you who’ve stuck with us over the past year or so while we floundered around producing … well … not very much novel writing, and a rather erratic schedule of blogging.

If you actually followed our 2012 original challenge to each write a novel in 5 months, you’ll remember that I was the tortoise. While swifter 5/5/5 members sped by me, words flying on the pages and pages flying off the printer, I plodded and plotted on. The way that was supposed to end was with “slow and steady” winning the race.

But that’s not what happened, I’m afraid.

I got the “slow” part down pat, but never quite got the hang of the “steady” part.

Here’s what I did get out of it though, and I don’t regret a moment:

  • I made it halfway through a manuscript that I still think has some good potential. I just need to  hook it up to some electrodes and wait for a good electrical storm to jolt it back to life (but not this time around).
  • I learned how to design, write and maintain a blog (or our “lite” version of one anyway), and now consider it to be the equivalent of learning typing in grade 7: an absolutely essential skill that has now become instinctive and, thankfully, I’ll never have to learn again.
  • I got to know and love and work with an extraordinary, talented group of 5/5/5 writers who have (in turns) cheered on my writing, supported my efforts when they flagged, beat me about the head when I wrote crap, pushed me when I was unproductive, and soothed my bruised ego when needed. They are my angels.
  • I met a whole community of dedicated writers online and realized most of them are going through the same struggles I am – some more successfully, some less. Here I found yet another layer of unexpected support from our blog readers, and from the generous writing gurus who share their knowledge and experience with the rest of us through their own terrific blogs.

So … now that I’ve had nearly two years of (I’ll admit it) writing in circles without much to show for it, I’m ready to take up the challenge again. The question is: can I rev up my productivity, get my groove back, and keep my enthusiasm up for 5 months and complete a whole first draft this time around?

It’s a long journey.

My second blog post in September 2012 was titled “Arithmetic for Writers”. That’s where I first calculated (after already committing to the challenge) what would need to be actually done to produce a full length novel in 5 months. It was scary as hell.

The rough math: 100 days of actual butt-in-chair writing at 1,000 words a day average.

That’s four pages a day. Doesn’t sound so intimidating at the outset, does it? Piece of cake! A monkey with a typewriter could manage that.

But just wait until October, when the calendar shows how many suns have set without 4 pages having been produced that day. Wait until November, when the catch-up panic starts to rise in the craw like acid reflux. Wait until December, when the holidays greedily gobble up time.

I’ve called myself the 11th-Hour Queen, and my post on procrastination, “Wasting Away in Mañanaville”, elicited an astounding 6,000 comments on the Linked In Books and Writers group page. But there comes a point in a long project where you just can’t catch up fast enough to meet your deadline if you’ve fallen too far behind. And that point is much earlier in the process than the 11th Hour.

So my pledge this time around is simple: DON’T FALL BEHIND.

And as much as I resist scorekeeping, I’m going to resort to a tick-tock report in my blog posts during this new 5/5/5 challenge, like the dreaded weigh-in at a Weight Watchers meeting. Ugh.

So here goes for this week:

Words written:  4,568 (yes, I got a head start)

Blog posts written:  1 (a day late)

What I’m reading:  Light of the World by James Lee Burke; Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

Best new thing:  Stephen Colbert is back

Thought of the week:  If you’re planning to write a whole novel, you better fall in love with your story first. Like head-over-heels in love. Otherwise it will someday live in your unloved, unfinished novels drawer and haunt you.

Clearing roadblocks to writing

roadblock

Silk’s Post #120 — As I promised in my last post, I’m on a mission to find useful tactics to help overcome my (and maybe your) self-imposed obstacles to progress on the writer’s journey.

Why? Because I’ve sworn off writing about why I haven’t made progress on my writing.

Last week, I explored the tactic of using milestones – points in the process where the writer reaches some new level that marks progress in the writer’s journey – in order to break up the daunting task of writing a novel into manageable “legs”.

Here’s another tactic I’ve been thinking about …

Writer’s Journey Tactic #2: Notes to Self

Did you ever start writing a scene – a scene you’ve already outlined, or at least imagined – and found yourself dead in the water before you even get started because you keep running into research roadblocks?

Your protagonist, a bounty hunter, is running down an alley in a dodgy part of, let’s say, Seattle, with a couple of enforcers from a biker gang in pursuit after he tried, unsuccessfully, to take the gang’s leader into custody for jumping bail. (How did he get himself into this mess? Don’t ask me, I’m making this up as I go along, so just roll with it).

Okay, so he hears the rumble of the bikes approaching, ducks behind a dumpster, and pulls his Glock out of his holster, and then …

Wait. Would he be carrying a Glock, or something else? What kind of holster would he have, or would he have one at all? What kind of weapons would the pursuers be carrying? And what neighbourhood is this, anyway? Where would you find dodgy alleys in Seattle? Would it be in a neighbourhood with steep hills? Near the waterfront, or maybe a highway, or an unlit park?

It sounded so simple in outline. Guy gets chased into an alley and makes a narrow escape.

But now you’re actually in the alley and, although you feel like you’ve already researched this story to death, you realize that you need to know a lot more details to make that escape work in a believable way. Details that need yet more research at a nitty gritty level. And your writing flow … comes … to … a … frustrating … halt.

You have three choices:

  1. Stop writing and research the weapons and specific location, or
  2. Make it generic enough that the details won’t really matter, or
  3. Make it up in as much vivid detail as you can milk out of your own writer’s imagination, and flag it with a NOTE TO SELF that reminds you to check the details later

I don’t know about you, but I’ve bogged myself down by choosing Door #1 too many times to count. And I’ve read too many lazy, mediocre scenes where the author obviously chose Door #2 and never revisited the results.

Door #3 seems like a logical way to go. You don’t interrupt your writing flow, but you don’t compromise the authenticity of the scene by filling in the unknown blanks with familiar, generic clichés.

Of course, you could just “sketch” the scene and deal with it in rewrite, rather than exercise your full imagination and creativity. Either way, you’ll have to come back to it later and do the work.

But I think generic, flabby writing is habit-forming and should be avoided. It’s one thing to write a great scene that has a few details wrong and needs to be fixed later. It’s a completely different thing to write a flat, dead scene and then try to come back later and breathe life into it.

The main thing is to keep the writing fire going – give it the oxygen of imagination. Don’t interrupt your flow with an hour of research when you’re hot … or douse it with cold, lifeless prose because you’re afraid you’re going to get a detail wrong.

Of course, you do have to do your research – we’ve all been told over and over. But you’ll never be able to research every life-like detail of every scene in advance. That would mean you’d have to anticipate every single thing you’ll put in your book before you sit down to write it. Maybe this would work for extremely conscientious – not to say obsessive – planners and outliners. But for pantsers? Forget it!

The NOTES TO SELF tactic also works for other writing roadblocks. I recently read a good, short post on flagging areas with style problems that someone sent me a link to (unfortunately I can’t find it now, wouldn’t you know). The basic premise was that when you get stuck on a description, or a grammatical issue, or you aren’t happy with the way a paragraph is working, just flag the roadblock with the word FIX, and keep on writing. The only thing I’d worry about is using style flags as a kind of crutch, because I think it’s hard to pump up a story with a lot of stylistic “flat tires” by applying patches later on.

This NOTES TO SELF tactic also raises a perennial research issue: how much advance research is enough research?

I wish there was a simple rule of thumb on research, but I suspect there is not. So much depends on your genre, topic, setting and other elements. Historical fiction necessarily demands more research, for instance, while fantasy gives authors permission to build their storyworlds mostly out of their own imaginations.

If there is a common sense principle to follow, it’s probably this: research the basic, critical elements that will support the foundation of a story in advance. This will help avoid major authenticity blunders that could kill the story premise or necessitate large chunks of rewriting. This kind of research is largely left-brain work.

When it comes to writing “colour”, though, I think the right brain does most of the heavy lifting. The kind of experiential detail that really puts the reader in the scene comes from the writer’s five senses and imagination. It doesn’t benefit from description that sounds like a Wikipedia dump.

Once you’re in the heat of writing, don’t let research roadblocks get in your way. Flag what needs checking and keep on going. Because nothing kills the joy of writing quicker than a stop-and-go traffic jam of needless interruptions.

Wayfinding on the writer’s journey

lost-lake-milestone

Silk’s Post #119 — We 5writers blog a lot about making progress on our writers’ journey. Or, more to the point, not making progress. We have seen the enemy, and he is us.

We have identified the many and varied hurdles we all face – things that hold us back, drag us down, keep us from forging ahead, or even prevent us from enjoying the journey. Our demons include writer’s block, procrastination, distractions, self-doubt, lack of discipline, competing priorities, inspiration deficit, disorganization, fear of failure, lack of focus, time constraints, ad nauseum … you name it, one of us has been stymied by it at one time or another.

Based on the fact that my post on procrastination last fall, Wasting Away in Mañanaville, has now attracted nearly 1,800 comments in the Linked In Books and Writers Group, it looks like we’re not alone.

But, frankly, I’m tired of hearing myself talk about why I’m not getting there.

I just want to get there.

The “writer’s journey” – a parallel with the fabled “hero’s journey” – is exactly that: a quest for a desired outcome (in the writer’s case, reaching “the end” of a compelling story) that requires wayfinding over unfamiliar and difficult terrain, and the determination to overcome all sorts of hurdles to see the mission through. Maybe all writers should wear a T-shirt that says “I AM FRODO” in solidarity.

So, for the next few posts, I’m going to try to offer some tactical ideas to overcome these self-imposed obstacles to progress on the writer’s journey.

You may object to the idea that most hurdles are self-imposed. You might argue that some obstacles are thrown at us by a world that isn’t really designed to support people who have creative callings which may or may not ever make any money. Okay, granted. But we can’t turn the world into an artists’ utopia, sorry. The one thing we do have the power to change is our own reaction to external obstacles. If the world gives us a wall, we can beat our heads against it. Or we can go around, over, or under it.

So, really, I’d argue that all the walls are our own walls.

What I’m looking for is tactics that will help me, personally. So I’m not talking about advice like “just do it”, which I consider to be the most unhelpful comment in history. “Just do it” is not something you say to encourage someone (at least not someone like me, and I admit I may be hypersensitive about performance). In the boosterish but unforgiving language of athletic coaching, it says “I’m tired of listening to you – just quit your whining and get on with it.”

In fact, whenever I hear the word “just” in preface to a piece of advice, my inner skeptic takes her battle stance and goes on full alert. “Just” belittles the problem and suggests that anyone who hasn’t figured out how to solve that problem isn’t trying very hard. Or perhaps is an idiot.

The worst thing is when you find you’re saying things like this to yourself. This is supremely inhibiting. Essentially, you’ve just dismissed your artist and thrown cold water on your spark. The inevitable next step is a chocolate binge, or your preferred equivalent.

So don’t go there. Instead, you might focus on wayfinding.

Writer’s Journey Tactic #1: Milestones

Every journey requires wayfinding in order to get from the starting point to the destination, without getting lost in the wilderness or stuck in some dead-end place with an empty gas tank. The writer’s journey can be a long, daunting trip.

Some of the most helpful advice cited in my recent post on How to overcome writing inertia was this common sense prescription from Mark Twain:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.

Writing a novel is nothing if not a “complex overwhelming task”, but how do you break it into small manageable tasks? Often, this seems to be visualized in a mechanical way, like Henry Ford’s assembly line with its efficient division of labour.

On its face, this seems to make a lot of sense, and there’s no shortage of lists in the “how to” blogs and books that lay out the sequence of a novel’s construction, neatly broken down into discrete tasks. Of course, there’s no agreement among them, including the order, the tasks themselves, how big the chunks are, or how they all come together to form a novel that actually works. This is because different writers get there via different pathways. Also, these helpful lists are silent on what to do when you hit a wall.

Writing a novel in 16 steps (Novel Writing Help)

  1. Get motivated.
  2. Harness your natural creativity.
  3. Get organized.
  4. Discover your market.
  5. Discover yourself.
  6. Prepare to plan your novel.
  7. Sow the seeds of theme.
  8. Create the characters.
  9. Build the setting.
  10. Write the plot.
  11. Decide on the point of view.
  12. Add the magic ingredient of time.
  13. Write the first draft.
  14. Revise what you have said.
  15. Revise how you have said it.
  16. Publish your novel.

Writing a novel in 9 steps (by Kasia Mikoluk on the Udemy Blog)

  1. Pick a genre.
  2. Start from the end.
  3. Create your characters.
  4. Make an outline.
  5. Write the first draft.
  6. Get yourself a drink.
  7. Rewrite.
  8. Edit.
  9. Party.

Writing a novel in 5 steps (Mythic Scribe)

  1. Summarize your idea.
  2. Write a synopsis.
  3. Outline your story.
  4. Write with abandon.
  5. Revise your manuscript.

 Writing a novel in 4 steps (Writer’s Digest)

  1. Develop a kick-ass idea.
  2. Create 3-dimensional characters.
  3. Give yourself deadlines.
  4. Sit your butt down and write.

Any of that seem really helpful for “breaking complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks”? Hmm. No, not to me either.

I think there’s a different way to break down this long journey, and it’s through …

Milestones.

These don’t need to be based on completion of tasks, checklist-style. They can simply mark points in the journey that are meaningful to the writer. They can be practise or craft goals, like writing every single day for a month. They can be epiphanies, “aha!” moments that change everything. They can be waypoints that mark the completion of “legs” on the trip, like inns along the road.

Milestones are the moments when a writer reaches a significant point in the creative process that is meaningful to their progress. These need to be recognized and capitalized on – not ignored or rushed past. If you were literally hiking up a steep path, a milestone moment might be when you reach a viewpoint, where your natural inclination is to stop, catch your breath, take a swig of water and appreciate the panorama.

But not only would you take a break and enjoy the view – maybe give yourself a pat on the back for making it this far, and gather your energy to press on – you would also do two very important things:

  1. Figure out where you are. Milestones orient you in time and space. Wayfinding for a writer means taking stock of your work and yourself at those points where you have a real sense of where you are – a clear perspective – which may or may not arise from a task-related achievement.
  2. Start over. Each milestone generates a new beginning, where you’ve acquired some fresh insight that can help you on the next leg of your journey. In this way, the long and arduous path of writing a novel doesn’t have just one start and one end – instead it’s a series of fresh starts from milestone to milestone.

This is a different way to break down a daunting journey into a series of manageable legs. For each writer, the path and the milestones will be unique. The trick is to be mindful. You need to be aware of when you’ve reached a personal milestone, and then take advantage of it.

Of course, not every milestone will necessarily be a happy one. You could also find yourself lost in the woods, at which point it’s time to stop and do some orienteering so you can get back onto the path. Maybe your epiphany is that you’ve chosen the wrong protagonist, or that the first person point of view isn’t working. That’s all part of wayfinding.  Some fresh starts require retracing your steps.

I love this thought on writing process from Walter Mosley in his excellent how-to book This Year You Write Your Novel:

The process of writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continually set yourself on course. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination. It’s not like highly defined train tracks or a highway: this is a path that you are creating, discovering. The journey is your narrative. Keep to it and there will be a tale told.

One last thing. Celebrate all your milestones. You’ve earned it.

My one-resolution New Year

new-year-2015

Silk’s Post #114 — It’s that time of year again. I’m not talking about the mistletoe … the eggnog … the gift giving … the fond embrace of family and friends … the endless turkey sandwiches … or watching the crystal ball drop in Times Square (does anyone still do that anymore, now that Dick Clark has gone to that great Dance Party in the sky?).

No, I’m referring to that last item on your seasonal “to-do” list: coming up with all the ways you’re going to be a better, fitter, smarter, thinner, more productive, kinder, better organized person next year than you feel you were this year. Statistically, 45% of Americans usually make New Year’s resolutions, while 38% absolutely never make them. Sadly, the percentage of those who actually achieve a resolution declines with age. Apparently, 39% of twenty-somethings report success, while only 14% of people over 50 stick to their their promise. So a lot of us are starting from behind.

Now, I expect you’re staying awake at night thinking up your 2015 New Year’s resolutions. No? Perhaps you’re quite happy with yourself in every single way and can’t think of a thing to improve? Ha ha – that was a good one, wasn’t it? Or maybe you’ve given up the resolution game after making and breaking so many of them over the years?

That’s completely understandable.

I admit to being a resolution avoider myself.

It happened to me gradually over a lifetime, as the very same resolutions came up on my list year after year after year. None of them, frankly, ever got crossed-off for good. Eventually I realized I was renewing my resolve every year to become somebody else altogether: a svelte, athletic, helpful, self-disciplined, wise, cheerful, sweet-tempered, energetic person who finds time to do everything from running a business, to reading a book a week, to cooking gourmet meals, to travelling the world, to writing a bestseller or two every year. Talk about overreach. Of course, this fantasy goddess never materialized and the old me has remained firmly in place.

This year, though, I am going to make a resolution. Just one.

According to the US government (and who knew they were keeping track of such things), the most common New Year’s Resolution is to lose weight. Here are the most popular resolutions according to Uncle Sam:

Uncle Sam’s List of Most Popular New Year’s Resolutions

  1. Lose weight
  2. Volunteer to help others
  3. Quit smoking
  4. Get a better education
  5. Get a better job
  6. Save money
  7. Get fit
  8. Eat healthy food
  9. Manage stress
  10. Manage debt
  11. Take a trip
  12. Reduce, reuse, recycle
  13. Drink less alcohol

My inner skeptic took a look at this list and rolled her eyes. Are these really the most popular resolutions, or are they the ones Uncle Sam hopes people will pursue? Statistic Brain, which is candy store for fact checkers run by eager number geeks, at least cites a source for their top ten resolutions list (research published in the University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology):

Actual Top Ten New Year’s Resolutions in 2014

  1. Lose weight
  2. Getting organized
  3. Spend less, save more
  4. Enjoy life to the fullest
  5. Staying fit and healthy
  6. Learn something exciting
  7. Quit smoking
  8. Help others in their dreams
  9. Fall in love
  10. Spend more time with family

Okay, that sounds more realistic. These two lists only share five items, with “lose weight” as the unsurprising frontrunner (no wonder weight loss is a $60 billion industry). What is surprising here is the resolution to “fall in love”, something I never expected to see on a list with items like “quit smoking” (mind you, the online matchmaking industry is now up to $2 billion and growing passionately).

But what about writers? Our list of New Year’s resolutions won’t look like normal people’s. To be a writer is to struggle with a long list of perennial challenges that test one’s confidence, resolve, stamina, organizational skills, discipline, creativity, time management, relationships, imagination, ability to self-edit … oh, I could go on. And on. And on.

Many lists of New Year’s resolutions for writers have been proffered, all offering useful advice to be sure. Writer Unboxed does a list every year, including Even More New Year’s Resolutions for Writers (December 2014) by Keith Cronin. Jeff Goins offered 13 New Year’s Resolutions for Writers in 2012 on his writing blog. Even About.com published Top 10 Resolutions for Writers by Ginny Wiehardt in its fiction writing career section. And the prize for the longest list – the War and Peace of resolutions, if you will – goes to Word Counter Blog, which last year weighed in with 30 New Year’s Resolutions for Writers by Jennifer Derrick. Culling from them all, here is a solid list to consider:

One Dozen Curated Resolutions for Writers

  1. Stop procrastinating
  2. Read more
  3. Get organized
  4. Do your research
  5. Show up consistently
  6. Write from the heart
  7. Try something new
  8. Have more fun
  9. Stop beating yourself up
  10. Stop comparing yourself to others
  11. Finish what you start
  12. Submit what you finish

Of course, you’ve been hearing (and reading, and thinking about, and trying to follow) all these bits of good advice since the day you sat down at a keyboard. Nothing new here – simply the basics of good writing work habits.

But making glib resolutions is easier than achieving highly disciplined work habits. Each one of these writing goals is a hill to climb. Some of them, depending on your own nature, have mountainous proportions. And they don’t come with road maps or instruction manuals.

Take procrastination, for instance – one of my own deadly sins. Three months back, I blogged Wasting away in Mañanaville, in which I complained about typically meaningless and shallow advice on how to “cure” procrastination:

… the old “boot strap” saw is neither an explanation, nor a very useful prescription. Saying that procrastination can be stopped by having more self-discipline is like saying that rain can be stopped by having less water fall from the sky.

I posted a link to it in the Books and Writers group on LinkedIn. Last time I checked, there were well over 1,000 comments, so it must have hit a pretty deep nerve out there in writer land. If it were simple to acquire excellent writing work habits by simply summoning the will power to follow a few resolutions, there wouldn’t be much to discuss. It would be as simple as telling yourself “just do it”. There. It’s a wrap. Let’s move on.

So … if you’ve stuck with me this far (thanks, by the way), you’re probably wondering what in the hell my one, single New Year’s resolution is going to be. Is it, irony of ironies, “just do it?” Certainly not. That would be a story with a cheap trick for an ending.

My New Year’s resolution this year is about as simple as it gets, but I think it actually covers each and every piece of writing (and living) advice I’ve ever received. More than that, it provides the pathway for how to achieve success.

Sound impossible? Like magic? Well, I think it’s all in your head. And mine.

My resolution is: I will be mindful about everything I do.

I’ll think about how I spend my time, and invest it deliberately in the things I care most about. In my case, that automatically means spending more time writing and reading – and a lot less time on all the other meaningless distractions I allow to lure me into wasting precious hours.

I’ll think about how I feed and care for my body, and give it the respect (and extra help) it needs, and deserves, to stay healthy for as long as I can make it last.

I’ll think about how I nurture my mind and soul, to keep my thinking sharp, hone my curiosity, give oxygen to my creative spark, and deepen my appreciation of life.

I’ll think about how I treat my world and the people in it – the people and other living things that I cherish but too often take for granted.

This resolution is all about being more “present” (as Paula eloquently wrote about last week), more focused, more grateful, and more joyful. It’s not a prescription for what to do or how to do it. It’s more of a reminder to make everything count, to embrace life with purpose and not fritter away the gifts of time, health and relationships.

Simply think about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what will come of it (good or bad), on every occasion you have a choice to make. All the time.   

If, minute by minute, you listen to your head and your heart – your best, mindful self – I believe you’re going to make better choices with less conflict and angst. Progress toward your true goals – goals you have purposefully chosen for yourself rather than assumed out of duty, or picked up randomly like a stray pet – will follow naturally.

Ambitious? Yes.

Idealistic? Undoubtedly.

Happy 2015 to all. I hope your year shines.

 

Wasting away in Mañanaville

time-flies

Silk’s Post #102 — Let me ask you a question: have you ever procrastinated? No? Really? Not even once? Okay, you’re dismissed. The rest of you should read on.

Some background: this is my last post before the 5writers get together for our mini-retreat in Vancouver later this week. It has been on the calendar for more than two months. One of the key things on our agenda is reviewing synopses for our five books in progress, and we all agreed to have these ready for presentation and discussion.

A confession: I’m still working on my synopsis with less than three days left to finish it. Did I say “still working” on it? I meant “just starting to work” on it. I will charitably assume that all the other four writers are totally ready. Actually, I know better. We’re all in the same boat.

So why is it so difficult to knuckle down and focus on writing? Why do even ambitious and engaged people procrastinate, especially on projects that are really important to them?

I can understand putting off tasks like, say, taking the garbage out, or purging an over-stuffed back hall closet that you know has absolutely nothing in it you’re ever likely to look for in the next five years (we all have one of those). But writing? That’s supposed to be a calling, not a chore. I admit I’ve sometimes put off writing to do some other wonderful thing, like sailing. But I’ve also put it off to do something incredibly mundane, like laundry.

It seems so perverse – and pervasive – that I don’t find the easy, little-questioned, explanations very satisfying. Old-fashioned laziness doesn’t seem to get to the heart of it, since I know plenty of procrastinators who are demonstrably not at all lazy.

Some of the psychology terms used to explain procrastination – like lack of attention control or inability to defer gratification – liken procrastinators to immature children, the weak-willed, or those with mental deficiencies. Granted, it’s the job of psychology, apparently, to look at human behaviour through the lens of pathology. But bouts of procrastination are so widespread that I’d have to call it pretty “normal”, even among people who are usually quite self-determined.

The most common view of procrastination is often expressed with the ever-popular “boot strap” cliché. Procrastinators simply need to apply better self-discipline. You know … in the same way that fat people just need to go on diets. No problem. Right. Well, there must be some kind of problem conjuring up self-discipline – and a common one – judging from the number of new diet books and schemes constantly springing up (a $20 billion dollar-a-year industry in the US alone), and the untold number of unfinished manuscripts lying around in bottom drawers nationwide.

In any case, the old “boot strap” saw is neither an explanation, nor a very useful prescription. Saying that procrastination can be stopped by having more self-discipline is like saying that rain can be stopped by having less water fall from the sky.

As Nietzsche might have said, procrastination is human – all too human. I decided to do a little investigating into the phenomenon. I figured, if I couldn’t discover a way to stop being a procrastinator, maybe at least I could make myself feel better about it.

Procrastination, Wikipedia asserts, “is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time, sometimes to the last minute before the deadline.”

Except for the reference to the “last minute before the deadline”, this definition doesn’t seem to fit the writer’s circumstance very well at all. But let’s read on …

“The pleasure principle may be responsible for procrastination; one may prefer to avoid negative emotions, and to delay stressful tasks … Some psychologists cite such behaviour as a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.”

Hmm. Stressful tasks. Coping with anxiety. There’s something in that.

“Procrastination may result in stress, a sense of guilt and crisis, and severe loss of personal productivity, as well as social disapproval for not meeting responsibilities or commitments. These feelings combined may promote further procrastination.”

Yes, yes, the effects are obvious. So tell me something useful: why do we do it?

“While it is regarded as normal for people to procrastinate to some degree, it becomes a problem when it impedes normal functioning. Chronic procrastination may be a sign of an underlying psychological disorder … On the other hand many regard procrastination as a useful way of identifying what is important to us personally as it is rare to procrastinate when one truly values the task at hand.”

Ugh. Let’s put off delving into the rest of the Wikipedia discussion of neuroticism, meta-analytic research and temporal motivation theory, which purports to “summarize key predictors of procrastination into a mathematical equation”. Maybe tomorrow.

If we can’t get a straight answer on why a writer who loves to write would procrastinate about writing, maybe we’ll have more luck investigating discipline (and how to get some). Back to Wikipedia.

“Discipline, in its natural sense, is systematic instruction intended to train a person, sometimes literally called a disciple, in a craft, trade or other activity, or to follow a particular code of conduct or order. Often the phrase “to discipline” carries a negative connotation. This is because enforcement of order – that is, insuring instructions are carried out – is often regulated through punishment … Discipline is the assertion of willpower over more base desires, and is usually understood to be synonymous with self control. Self-discipline is to some extent a substitute for motivation, when one uses reason to determine the best course of action that opposes one’s desires.”

Huh? If you’re still conscientiously trying to follow this somewhat contradictory line of thought, you’re more disciplined than I am. I checked out right after the thing about punishment.

Let’s try for more practical advice. The Mind Tools website provides a helpful list of signs that tell you you’re procrastinating when you are …

  • Filling your day with low priority tasks from your To Do list.
  • Reading e-mails several times without starting work on them or deciding what you’re going to do with them.
  • Sitting down to start a high-priority task, and almost immediately going off to make a cup of coffee.
  • Leaving an item on your To Do list for a long time, even though you know it’s important.
  • Regularly saying “Yes” to unimportant tasks that others ask you to do, and filling your time with these instead of getting on with the important tasks already on your list.
  • Waiting for the “right mood” or the “right time” to tackle the important task at hand.

Mind Tools and other websites also attempt to explain why people procrastinate (refreshingly, without the psychobabble) …

  • You might simply find a task unpleasant or boring.
  • You might simply be lazy or unmotivated.
  • You might be hopelessly disorganized.
  • You might feel overwhelmed by the task and lack the confidence to tackle it (this can further escalate stress and diminish confidence).
  • You might be too much of a perfectionist (also related to lack of confidence about accomplishing the task to impossibly high standards).
  • You might have poor time-management or decision-making skills, and can’t decide how to start or what to do (another indicator of lack of confidence).

So, of five potential causes frequently cited, three of them relate to a daunting, immobilizing lack of confidence. I call it Fear of Failure. Finally! A possible cause of writing procrastination that makes sense.

Unfortunately, I was spectacularly unsuccessful in finding cures for Fear of Failure. Neither did I locate that No Fail Recipe for Self-Discipline. So I’m sorry to admit that in the perennial writer’s quest for productivity, it’s still every man and woman for him- or herself.

wait-but-whyBut I did find a hilarious and instructive post on a just-discovered blog that I plan to return to often. “Wait But Why” by Tim Urban ran an illustrated essay titled “Why Procrastinators Procrastinate”, starring Rational Decision-Maker, Instant Gratification Monkey and Panic Monster, which takes place variously at the wheel of a ship and in a diversionary outpost called the Dark Playground.

He follows this up (some time later) with a Part 2 titled “How to Beat Procrastination”. A lifelong procrastinator himself, Urban admits that him giving advice on procrastination is like the guy who shoots himself in the foot while talking about gun safety. But his paradigm for forward progress – “changing your storyline” – is liberating, and he has added some intriguing new settings in this essay, including The Dark Woods, The Critical Entrance, Mixed Feelings Park, The Tipping Point and The Happy Playground (Where the Instant Gratification Monkey gets distracted from The Dark Playground by giving him diversionary High Self-Esteem Bananas).

If you really want to understand and tackle this procrastination syndrome and get yourself a new supply of self-discipline, I highly recommend “Wait But Why” over doing serious self-help research or seeing your psychiatrist. Urban unerringly hits every nail on the head and makes you laugh your guts out at the same time.

Seriously, go to “Wait But Whyright now and read these posts about procrastination. No, don’t wait until tomorrow or put it on your long To Do list.

Come to think of it, nothing boosts self confidence and lightens the burdens of stress, angst and perfectionism like a belly laugh – especially when you’re laughing at yourself. It’s very freeing.

Maybe I can change my storyline and become the Mistress of Discipline yet.

All the help I can get

zane-and-zoey

Silk’s Post #12 — Five minutes ago I suddenly realized I had to write a post for tomorrow morning. What distracted me? I am happy (oh so happy) to report that I’ve been too busy writing my book to worry about blogging.

Three-fifths of the way through our 5 Writers schedule, I think I’ve finally gotten traction on my novel. Finally.

Regular readers will have realized already that I’ve been dancing, dodging, diverting attention from the fact that I have actually written practically nothing so far. Might as well fess up to it, painful as it may be. I’m in awe of Joe and his 220+ pages. Of Helga and her progress after making major changes to her whole concept. Of Paula, labouring over her outline then surging past it into glorious prose. Of Karalee, who has been a bit quiet about her progress, but I suspect is ahead of all of us.

For me, it was ever thus. I am the world’s champion procrastinator, forever spoiled by my (far from admirable) ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the 11th hour. I managed to get through high school that way, and as much college as I could stand after discovering I’m allergic to academia. And I built a successful design/advertising agency that outlived most of the competition for 30 years by making sure we delivered strong creative concepts on skin-of-the-teeth deadlines. You can see I’m trying to psych myself up here, can’t you?

Because sometimes you reach into the hat and the rabbit is already long gone. All you have in your hand is a fistful of the raisin-like pellets he left behind.

This ignominious fate must be avoided!

That’s why I need All-The-Help-I-Can-Get to perform the trick of typing “The End” by February 5th. The arithmetic is tilted steeply against me. By my calculations, I now have to write something like 1,500 words every single day up to and including February 5th. Even Christmas Day. Wow.

Fortunately, I have an actual plot in my head (a big advantage over the first book I wrote, which evolved in such an organic manner that it continually threatened to turn into compost). And I have solid characters, each one with a name, a picture, a past and a future. I also have my viciously competitive instincts and my deep well of Protestant guilt to drive me on.

But most important, I have my cheering section.

I find that my cats, Zoey and Zane, are a tremendous help. They like to lie atop whatever’s littering my desk at a given moment and keep it properly anchored down. They bring a generous warmth and a patient calm into my office with them, at least once they’re asleep. I also have my patient husband, who brings me a cocktail at just the right moment and doesn’t seem to mind dining on frozen pizza at 9 pm.

I also have a shelf full of wise and inspiring books on writing, the authors seeming to speak to me from across the room like a Greek chorus. The introduction to one of my favourites, If You Want to Write,  joyously penned by Brenda Ueland in 1938 and still in print, begins with this paean by Andrei Codrescu:

There are two kinds of instructional manuals: the kind that are written by well-meaning techies who mean to make you understand how to connect all the parts to the whole; and the other kind, written by angels to instruct you in the achievement of impossible things.

Impossible, indeed. Brenda wouldn’t have thought so. Or even if she did, she wouldn’t have cared. She would have said to me (as she said to her long-ago writing classes at the Minneapolis YMCA, which were filled with ordinary people who wanted to learn to write simply because they had stories to tell):

Work freely and rollickingly as though you were talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters. 

She was the ultimate cheerleader, Brenda.

But finally, and most importantly, I have you – whoever you are, reading this blog. I know I can count on my 5 devoted writing friends to read it, and this is my late-night letter to them with thanks for their constant presence. And I’m grateful for every reader who spends a bit of their valuable time with my words. You could be doing anything right now – hiking up a mountain, doing the laundry, playing Angry Birds, making love. But you’re reading what I’ve written. Thanks.

Because, let’s face it, writers want to be read. And although I’ve been slow off the mark on my novel, I’ve probably learned more about writing by contributing to this blog than I have from a conference worth of classes or a stack of good books on writing.

I’ve learned what it means to be read, and oddly enough, that changes everything.

The last word shall go to Brenda:

No writing is a waste of time – no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good.