Fighting Writing Procrastination

When I told Danny Atwood, my good friend and fellow Emerald Cove author, that I wanted to brainstorm ideas with him about ways to combat writing procrastination, he said, “We should schedule a time to talk about that later.”

Despite that inauspicious opening, we did eventually discuss the topic. Here are some of my take-aways from our talk:

The methods to combat writing procrastination may differ depending on the cause of the procrastination. Often the tasks we put off are the ones we don’t want to do. For example, I can put off housework for years. While that non-preferred-task explanation could apply to writing projects like a school or work assignment, it should not affect our fiction writing. After all, those of us who want to be novelists must like writing or we would not do it. We’re certainly not doing it to get rich.

So why do so many authors who like to write find it hard to sit down at the keyboard?

Feeling the Muse: We all write our best when we are inspired. That’s wonderful when it happens, but if waiting until you “feel the muse” is preventing you from writing, perhaps it’s time to adopt a new strategy. Writing can be a joy, but it is also a discipline. Don’t wait until you’re “in the mood” to write. Set yourself a writing schedule and stick with it. I’ve heard of people who choose a particular time of day to write or block out a certain amount of time, such as an hour a day. My preferred method is to set a word count, such as writing 100 words a day.

If you are going to try this, I suggest that you start with small amounts. Don’t decide that you will write for six hours every day or require yourself to complete 1,000 words every day. You wouldn’t start a home jogging program by running in a marathon. Try writing 50 or 100 words a day or blocking out a short amount of time to write. The important thing is to develop a writing habit through consistency.

And don’t worry about how good the writing is. You can always rewrite later.

That Busy Schedule: If you’re like me, your daily activities will expand to fill whatever amount of free time you have. If you want to write, then you have to make your fiction writing a priority in your schedule. Of course, there are some activities that must come first, such as children, work, school, and health. I am not talking about neglecting important matters.

But what about the rest of the activities that try to dominate our lives? How often do we endlessly flip through kitten or puppy pictures on social media? Right now, even as I type these words, my phone is buzzing every few seconds with a series of group text messages from friends about an rpg we play once a month. If I keep stopping to read those texts, I will never finish this blog post.

If you are serious about your writing, then prioritize your writing instead of those social distractions. The text messages and social media posts will still be there later for you to review.

The same applies to that “shiny new toy” you just bought. Finish your daily writing first and then play that new video game.

The Overwhelming Task: Over the years, I’ve learned that the projects I postpone the longest are the ones that feel overwhelming. When I don’t even know where to begin a huge task, I keep putting it off until I am absolutely forced to confront it.

My personal strategy to combat this type of procrastination is to break the task into smaller, manageable pieces. I might even list those sub-tasks on a piece of paper, so I can check off each one as I complete it. An entire novel can seem like a mountain of work, so I tend to set my writing goals on a much smaller level. My goal will be to finish a single chapter or even an individual scene. Once that is complete, I work on the next goal.

One Additional Strategy: One method Danny uses to fight procrastination involves setting a deadline to exchange writing with another author or group of authors. Our Emerald Cove writer’s critique group meets once a month, and Danny found that he was the most productive on the days just before the meeting. At his suggestion, he and I started additional weekly meetings (via Zoom) to discuss our writing. This weekly writing “deadline” has helped his productivity.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 6/4/2021

Lessons Learned from Writing 500 Words of Fiction Per Day

On January 1, 2021, I took a chance and publicly posted a set of New Year’s resolutions. Among other things, I resolved to continue writing 500 words of original fiction per day until I finished the first draft of our current novel: Prophecy’s Malignant Son. It is now March and somehow (to my astonishment), I have managed to keep up with that resolution. The manuscript just passed the 100,000 word mark, and the first draft should be finished by the end of the month. It is far longer than I originally intended and will require rewriting, but that is a problem for a later day.

In the meantime, I thought I would share a few things I learned from the discipline of writing 500 words of fiction per day.

  1. I am capable of doing it. When I typed those resolutions on January 1, 2021, I really wasn’t sure I could achieve any of them. There are so many things competing for my time these days (despite the pandemic lockdowns) and far too many distractions. Sometimes, after a particularly busy day, I found myself, through sheer stubbornness, finishing my daily quota at 9:00 at night. For anyone who knows me, I am a morning person and my brain tends to shut down by 10:00 p.m. At other times, I was forced to tell my beloved co-author, “No, I can’t watch that yet. I have to finish my 500 words for today.” Fortunately, he has always been understanding and supportive.
  2. It breaks writer’s block. When I took a beginning journalism class in college, the professor often required us to type an entire article, from start to finish, during the two-hour class session. We all had typewriters in front of us on our desks to complete the task. (Yes, they were typewriters, not computers. I went to college when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.) The discipline of being forced to write anything or fail the assignment cured me forever of the fear of a blank sheet of paper. Over the last couple of months, on those days when I got really stuck for what to write to meet my 500 word goal, I found myself falling back into that journalistic mindset — just get words on paper and worry about revising them later.
  3. It produces a novel in record time. John and I started plotting Prophecy’s Malignant Son in September of 2020. Absent unforeseen circumstances (“God willing and the creeks don’t rise,” as my mother used to say), it should be done by the end of March 2021. Prior to last year, I would never have thought myself capable of producing a novel in six or seven months. By contrast, it took John and me almost 20 years to finish and publish 60th Hour.
  4. I cannot sustain that pace forever. When I decided to write at least 500 words a day, I made a mistake. I never gave myself a day off. I have written at least 500 words a day, every single day since January 1 without a break. On some days I could breeze through 700 or even 1000 words with no trouble. At other times, as mentioned above, I completed the daily task near the end of the day through sheer stubbornness. As the weeks have progressed, I gradually realized it is too much for me. I am a person who really needs time off occasionally to avoid burn out. While I intend to keep my 500-words-a-day going until I finish the first draft of the current manuscript (because I made a New Year’s resolution and I am so close to being done), after I finish, I plan to reevaluate the process. I need to find a compromise — a sustainable method of writing — so I can finish books in a reasonable time without burning myself out.

Anyway, I hope these thoughts are helpful for newer Indy authors out there. If any of you would like to share your methods for sustainable writing, I would be delighted to hear them. Feel free to drop me a comment.

-Susan 3/12/2021

One Method to Overcome Writing Malaise

Why is it hard for many of us to write fiction during this pandemic? Several of my author friends have expressed difficulty getting motivated right now. One friend, who is normally a prolific writer, told me that he has not written anything since April. At our most recent Emerald Cove writer’s group meeting (via Zoom) this past Wednesday, only two of us provided stories or chapters for the others to review.

I’m not a psychologist, so I can only guess why the pandemic is affecting us this way. I suspect part of the problem may be that we’re in front of screens all day. We’re now about seven months into the shelter-at-home requirements (seven very long months). Many of us are zoomed out, videoed out, and really tired of staring at our electronic devices.

Prior to the pandemic, most of my screen time involved work, writing, and computer/video games. I had barely scratched the surface of social media, sent only occasional text messages, and had never attended a meeting via Zoom. Aside from a handful of online friends, most of my pre-COVID social contact with people occurred in live settings: meetings, club activities, sewing circles, travel, church, table-top rpgs, dining out, going to movies, etc.

Writing used to be a break from all that hustle and bustle of real-life. In the current environment, however, writing is just another activity done in front of an electronic device, amidst a host of activities done in front of those devices. Unless you are one of those rare individuals who still writes manuscripts by hand and/or uses an old-fashioned typewriter, writing during the pandemic means yet more screen time, during a day already filled with way too much screen time.

There is, alas, no solution to the screen time problem at the moment (or, at least, none that I know). Our electronic devices are critical for our social events (and our sanity!) right now. Most of us can’t get away from them. Certainly, we can and should take breaks from our electronics, by going for walks, exercising, reading non-digital versions of newspapers/books/magazines, and engaging in homey activities like cooking and gardening. None of those activities, however, involves the physical act of writing fiction. When we sit down to write, we are immediately back at the screen once more.

So, what do we do about our writing? How can we get motivated in this environment? Here is one suggestion that has helped me during this past month: try writing something entirely new.

As those of you who follow my blog may remember, I recently spent a lot of time debating on whether to revise an old novel that I first wrote about twenty years ago. I’ve tried several times since then to get back to it without success. I just can’t get motivated to begin the project. I feel like I am staring up at a mountain.

So I started something new instead. A brand new novel not based on any prior stories I’ve ever written. It’s set in an entirely new fantasy universe, with completely new characters and plotlines. Suddenly, I’m excited again. I want to spend time writing it. In fact, I’ve written almost 17,000 words in the last three weeks. That is, by far, the most I have written in such a short time since the pandemic began.

I don’t know if trying something new will work for you. But if you are suffering from shelter-at-home malaise and you just can’t bring yourself to continue with the next chapter of your current project, it couldn’t hurt to try. Your old project will still be there waiting for you when you return. During this crazy world of 2020, writing anything is better than nothing.

I wish all of you the best with your writing!

Susan 10/9/20

One Hundred Words to Defeat Writer’s Block

As authors, we all know that our craft is part inspiration and part discipline. Inspiration is the fun part — those wonderful ideas and words that flow into our heads when we are writing, daydreaming, walking, or doing absolutely nothing. We all love it when just the right phrasing or fragment of dialogue strikes us. (How many times have I rushed out of the shower to write down the perfectly crafted sentence before I forgot it?)

But what about those days when words are not flowing and inspiration seems distant? What happens when you don’t even want to sit down at the keyboard because you know you will stare at a blank screen without typing a word?

That’s when the discipline of writing takes over. Many authors have written about overcoming writer’s block. My favorite method is the “100 Words a Day” plan. (I think I developed it on my own, but if I subconsciously took all or part of the idea from someone else, then I sincerely apologize for not giving the author credit. Please feel free to leave a comment or send me an email and correct my ignorance! No matter who came up with the plan, it works for me.)

The plan is pretty simple. Each day, I make a commitment to sit down and write 100 words of fiction. I can write more than that, of course (and I usually do), but the important thing is to write at least 100 words. It doesn’t have to be great writing or even mediocre writing, but the 100 words must be part of an original work of fiction. If I miss a day because of circumstances beyond my control (like family emergencies), then I have to write at least 200 words the next day. (It doesn’t work the other way, in case you are wondering — I can’t write 500 words one day and then skip the next four days. The point is to discipline myself to write each day.)

It’s very easy to write 100 words — I had already written 100 words in this blog post before I finished the first two paragraphs. Word processing programs usually give a word count, so on those days when writing is particularly difficult, I know when I am nearing the finish line.

Once you have established that discipline, you can even try gradually increasing the daily word count. I currently write at least 500 words a day. However, increasing the minimum number of words is not critical. The most important part is to discipline yourself to write each day. Don’t worry about how good or bad those 100 words might be. If they are garbage, you can always rewrite them later.

That’s all for this blog today. I still have 500 words of fiction to write!

-Susan 9/25/20