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

Meanwhile at Emerald Cove…

It’s been a while since I provided an update on the Emerald Cove writers’ critique group, so this seems like a good time.

The big news is that we may actually be able to start meeting again. Meeting for real. In person. Around a table. At our favorite Denny’s. Yay!!! All of our authors will be fully vaccinated and beyond the two week, post-vaccination waiting period by mid-June. I can’t speak for the others, but I am very excited about the prospect of seeing everyone in person again. In my experience, writing critiques are far more effective when delivered face-to-face instead of on a little screen. Technology has been a real sanity-saver during the pandemic, but it can never take the place of personal interaction.

The shared-world anthology is nearing completion. Most of the stories are already finished and the final one is almost there. Sue’s cover art is progressing nicely. If there is a San Diego Comicon this fall, we are still hoping to release the book at that time.

Danny is working on a new novel. He is up to chapter 12. From what I have read so far, I believe it will be one of his best books.

As for John and me, our second draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son is now finished and has been given to the critique group for another review. I hope to start the publication process on Amazon by the end of this month. After learning from our formatting mistakes with 60th Hour, I plan to order Galley Proofs for review prior to publication. I have an outstanding reviewer/editor lined up to do the final proofread.

That’s all for today. I’ll keep you posted when we have an actual publication date for Prophecy’s Malignant Son. Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 5/14/2021

Second Draft Anyone?

There comes a point in an author’s career when one must face the prospect of…shudder…rewriting.

I tend to approach writing the second draft of a novel with all the enthusiasm of eating leftovers. It’s a lot easier to make dinner by throwing leftovers in the microwave than it is to cook a meal from scratch, but leftovers are seldom as tasty or fun to eat. In the same way, writing the second draft of a novel is easier than the first, because I already know the story, but it seems a lot more like drudgery than writing the initial draft.

For an author like me, who tends to start with a story premise instead of a complete outline, rewriting is critical. The second draft is where the book really comes together. In the first draft, it’s easy to think the problems will “all come out in the wash.” In the second draft, it’s laundry time.

With my current manuscript, I have started the rewriting process by going chapter by chapter and reviewing all the critiques I’ve received from my fellow Emerald Cove authors. If the suggested changes are simple grammatical issues or spelling corrections, I make them as I go. For the more detailed plot or scene suggestions, the rewrite can take more time and might require me to kick around ideas with John before I change anything.

At times, it can be tempting to ignore the critiques, particularly when they involve major changes to a scene or chapter. However, in my experience, the final product becomes much stronger when I make revisions in response to those criticisms, even if it means rewriting a chapter multiple times.

Once I finish with the chapter-by-chapter rewrite, I plan to reread the entire story from start to finish and see how it all fits together. If it needs further revisions, I’ll start work on the third draft. When the entire story is satisfactory, it will be ready for the final editing for grammar, spelling, and formatting issues.

I’m hoping to finish the second draft of the current manuscript in the next two weeks. If all goes well, the release date should be some time in June.

Talk to you next Friday.

-Susan 5/6/2021

Second Draft Writing Critiques?

Imagine this scenario: You invite a small group of friends over for dinner. You prepare an elaborate meal for them, and you all have a great time eating, laughing, and talking together. Your friends are also cooks, so they give you tips and suggestions for how the food might be improved. The next day, you invite them over for dinner again…

…and you serve them the leftovers from the previous meal. Sure, you may have added a few extra spices based on their suggestions or an additional side dish or two, but basically your friends will be eating the same meal they just finished the day before.

You probably wouldn’t do that. If you did, your friends probably wouldn’t be very excited about it.

So what about the second draft of your manuscript? Is it fair to give the second draft right back to the same writers’ group that just finished reading and critiquing the first draft? If they were getting paid to edit your work, that might be different, but suppose they are just friends and volunteers?

This is not a hypothetical question for me at the moment. John and I finally finished writing the first draft of our latest manuscript. Now the rewriting will begin. As every author knows, rewriting is often as important as writing. I expect to complete at least one more draft, perhaps two or three, before the manuscript is ready for its final review.

Do I ask my fellow writers at Emerald Cove to review the second draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son? I’ve never had a problem asking them to review multiple drafts of the short stories for the group anthologies (Kidnapped! and Stolen!), but that seems a little different. First of all, reviewing a second draft of a short story takes a lot less time and work. Second, my fellow authors have a personal interest in making sure that all the anthology stories are well written, because those stories will appear alongside their own writing.

The second draft of a novel of 100,000+ words, however, is a far different matter. The latest manuscript was written so quickly that a couple of the Emerald Cove reviewers are still completing their critiques of the first draft. It will seem like a “revolving door” if I hand them a second draft so soon after they complete the first review.

After giving the matter some thought, I am considering a couple of strategies for the second review:

  1. Ask my fellow Emerald Cove authors to reread only the chapters which contain major changes. I already have an excellent editor lined up to review the final version and catch all the typos, so I am more concerned with making sure the revisions from the first draft are successful;
  2. Find readers outside of Emerald Cove to review the second draft. This may prove a little more difficult, but it would be nice to have input on the story from people who have never read it before.
  3. Beg and plead with my dear friends to take a second look at the entire book. Well, all right, I probably won’t have to grovel too much. They are friends, after all. Hmmm…I wonder if bribery will work? Maybe, once the pandemic is finished, I can invite them over for an elaborate meal…and NOT serve them leftovers.

No matter what I decide in terms of the second review, it is great to be done with the first draft! I feel like I have just reached the top of the mountain peak, and can now enjoy the scenery on the way back down the trail.

Talk to you next Friday!

Susan 3/19/2021

Update on Current Book Projects

Concept sketch for a possible cover of Prophecy’s Malignant Son (planned for publication in Spring 2021)

It’s been a while since I provided an update on the current writing projects, so this seems like a good time. John and I are still hard at work on our latest fantasy novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son. We have over 50,000 words written at this point, and we are still hoping for publication some time in early 2021. The novel will probably end up longer than the 70,000 words I had originally intended, but it will be a complete story with no cliff-hanger endings. Any sequels will be separate stories (although they will probably involve some of the same characters).

So far, the comments from the Emerald Cove writing critique group on the manuscript have been favorable. The other authors have suggested a few tweaks here and there, all of which will help the final story. (We are fortunate to have such a great critique group to help us!)

A couple of weeks back, I started playing with some ideas for the cover. The rough sketch above represents one of the ideas I had. I am currently talking with an artist friend about possible cover art. For those of you who read 60th Hour, you know the cover art on that book was pretty abstract. To produce it, I played with variations on a photograph I had taken of a state capital rotunda. That was fine for the initial edition of our first published book, but this time I’d like something a little more “fantasy” looking. Depending on how things go with the cover for Prophecy’s Malignant Son, I may also commission some cover art when we put out the revised edition of 60th Hour (to correct all those little formatting oddities that I mentioned in an earlier blog post).

We held our latest Emerald Cove meeting via Zoom on Wednesday night. Things are progressing with the shared universe anthology. All the stories are now complete and have had their initial reviews by the group. We just need to make revisions and finalize them. At a prior meeting, Sue gave us a peek at her partially completed cover art, and it looks amazing. I can’t wait to see the finished product.

We are still in the process of writing the short stories for the Haunted! anthology. John and I have finished our contribution, but plan to revise one section of our story based on the comments we received from the group.

I hope you are all having a safe and healthy holiday season!

-Susan 12/4/2020

Coming in Spring 2021: Prophecy’s Malignant Son: What happens when a prophecy goes wrong . . . very wrong?

The Other Side of Writing Critiques

Last Friday, I talked about the importance of finding good critics to help evaluate your manuscripts before you publish. This week, I want to discuss the other side of that issue. How can you be a helpful critic for your friends and fellow authors?

Let me confess right away that I am no expert on the subject. The thoughts I share today come solely from many years of trading manuscripts for review with other fiction writers. I should also mention that the following tips apply only to critiques done before publication. I’m not talking about reviews written on Amazon about a published book.

Tip number 1: Be kind. “Your writing sucks” is not a good way to start a critique. One primary goal of a critique, particularly of a work by a new or unpublished author, should be to encourage the person to keep writing. You want to help improve the manuscript, not make the new author walk away and take up a different hobby.

Tip Number 2: Good comments as well as bad. This tip is closely related to the first tip. While your critique can and should point out problems with a manuscript, you should also be quick to point out the things that were done right. Authors can learn just as much about their writing by understanding their strengths as they can from hearing the weaknesses. Does a particular turn of phrase work well in the context? Does a paragraph provide a vivid description or good characterization? Was there a clever plot element or a scene that evoked strong emotions? Make sure to let the author know those things in your critique.

An old friend and fellow author (who shall remain nameless for the moment because I forgot to ask her permission to post her name in this blog) uses a system of “bings” and “bangs” when critiquing fiction. The “bangs” are the negative comments, such as problems with the grammar or writing style in a particular sentence or paragraph. The “bings” are the good things the reviewer found. My friend uses exclamation marks to note the “bings” and often includes a short comment to explain why the bing is there (such as “good characterization” or a similar phrase). When I was just starting out as an author, those exclamation marks on my reviewed manuscripts were more precious than gold to me.

Tip number 3: Be specific: A critique which simply says, “The story is great!” is fine as an Amazon review, but not really helpful for an unpublished manuscript. The author needs to know what works in the story and what does not. A really useful critique addresses the specific good and bad things in the author’s characterization, plot, and sentence/paragraph structure (often by comments in the margins). Even when there are no typos or grammatical mistakes in a manuscript, there are almost certainly places where the text can be tightened or improved.

Tip number 4: Read through the manuscript twice: This is a practice I always try to follow when I have time. During the first review, I enjoy the story as a reader would, without looking for specifics. Of course, I will note any typos or grammatical errors I find along the way, but my purpose is to see how the fiction fits together as a whole.

During the second review, I look at the language in detail and try to catch any typos or other mistakes I missed during the initial read-through. Often I will examine specific parts of the story based on problems I saw. For example, if I found a particular scene confusing or boring during the first reading, I try to analyze what was written to find out why. Is there a confusing sentence or paragraph that could be rephrased? Is there unnecessary language that could be cut?

And, of course, I note the things done well with those wonderful exclamation marks and comments in the margins.

Tip number 5: Be tolerant of the other author’s voice: As you do your review, be aware that there are many different styles of writing, all of which are equally valid. Even when a particular scene or phrase does not work or you, that does not mean it is “wrong” and must be changed. During our Emerald Cove meetings, it is common for one of us to criticize a particular part of a manuscript, only to have others disagree.

One final observation about critiquing another writer’s unpublished manuscript: Often it provides a benefit to you as well. By thinking about and commenting on what another author has done right and wrong, you can apply the things you’ve seen to your own writing.

-Susan 10/23/20

The Importance of Critics

At our Emerald Cove writer’s group meeting last week, I was reminded once again of how important it is for authors, particularly Indy authors, to have trusted people critique their writing. Reviewers see the mistakes a writer misses. All writers, of course, understand the need for a skilled editor to catch typographical errors and to help tighten manuscripts. However, we also need those critics who are willing to dig deeper, to catch plot holes and tell us when our precious ideas (that we just spent weeks carefully crafting into words) really don’t make sense.

I suspect that many of us are familiar with the phenomenon of reading what you think you wrote, not what is actually on the page. For example, if you accidentally leave a word out of a sentence, your brain can fill in that missing word when you proofread the sentence later. (And, if you’re like me, your brain will always fill in that missing word, no matter how many times you proofread the page. *sigh*) A good writing critique by someone other than the author can catch those mistakes.

The same phenomenon can apply to a plotline. As a writer, you can grow so enamored of that wonderful plot twist you developed that you miss how implausible it might seem to a reader. A good, honest critic will not be afraid to point out that implausibility and explain why it is a problem.

Unfortunately, that also can be the hardest kind of criticism to hear as a writer. Typos are easily fixed. Poor sentence construction can be remedied with a little work. But tearing apart a plotline is a stab through an author’s heart. We want our stories to be clever and interesting, and we usually don’t let others read them unless we already think our words are worth reading. We want our critics to boost our egos, not bruise them.

In addition, correcting those plot inconsistencies can often require a lot of work. If you’ve written what you think is a great story, having to rework the plot can be a daunting task. However, rewriting is always necessary in any work of fiction and is often as important as writing the initial draft of the story.

Case in point: My short story for the upcoming Haunted! anthology takes place, in part, in some pipelines under a construction area. At a certain point in the story, I was stumped for how to proceed and my beloved co-author suggested that the pipes start flooding with water. I loved the idea — it sounded perfect to advance that section of the plot. When I submitted the completed story to my fellow authors at Emerald Cove for review, however, they pointed out many problems with the way I had incorporated that particular plot element into the story.

I accepted their criticism with my usual calm, adult reaction (which involves panic and me thinking, “Blargh!! What do I do now?”). After talking with John and giving the matter a lot of thought, I concluded that the best way to fix the problem was to remove the flood. (That’s why I don’t mind mentioning it in this blog — no need for spoiler warnings, because it’s not going to be in the story.)

But as tough as it was to hear their criticisms and as tough as it will be to revise the plot of the short story, I am very grateful to my fellow authors for their comments. The published version of the short story will be better because of their willingness to read it and give me their honest opinions.

-Susan 10/16/20

Zooming Around the Cove

Logo Design and Artwork by Sue Dawe

We did it! We held our first Zoom meeting of the Emerald Cove Press writer’s critique group this week. The meeting lasted much longer than expected (about three hours), but a lot of the discussion involved logistics for the best way to conduct our reviews and provide written comments going forward. After considering email, Dropbox, and other methods, we settled on Microsoft One Drive to use for manuscript exchange and commentary.

We plan to continue with Zoom meetings in the future. Those meetings are valuable for several reasons. First, they give us a chance to discuss each of our critiques and allow individual authors to ask questions regarding the comments. Second, they provide us time to talk about our shared projects and to encourage one another to continue writing. Third, and most important, they create a deadline to force…ahem…inspire us to write!

There was an additional benefit from this week’s meeting that I had not expected. It was great to see each other again. Email and telephone calls are just not the same as looking at your friends and colleagues as they talk to you. Of course, a Zoom meeting will never take the place of a real life gathering, but it’s still pretty good. And, at least, you don’t have to worry about what shoes you are wearing to the meeting!

-Susan 7/17/20