21 November 2012

Defence Against the Dark Arts – Tips for Your Writer’s Toolbox Part 3

This is part 3 of a series. I recommend that if you haven’t read the previous two articles that you read them first by clicking here for part 1, and here for part 2 .

In part 1, I explained how a writer’s life isn’t easy and that we need to be prepared for when the “Dark Arts” start to pull us down. I spoke about self doubt in part 1, and rejection and bad reviews on part 2. We must defend ourselves against these dark arts and protect our writing gift so that we and others may enjoy it. It is all part of keeping my journey as a writer – and yours – on track.


Have you ever noticed how a student house becomes tidier than it has ever been when exams are looming? I know mine did. I didn’t suddenly become house-proud and virtuous, and neither did my peers. You can’t justify going out to enjoy yourself when you need to revise, but for some reason housework is an acceptable chore which must take precedence. We’re constantly finding excuses not to do that unpleasant task, make that scary telephone call to an editor, start/continue writing that novel. The more we put things off, the bigger hurdle they become in our minds. We spend hours worrying about that telephone call as if that editor is a big green monster looking to eat you up as soon as you draw breath. We spend weeks worrying about that novel; is the idea good enough; we haven’t done enough research for that section we can’t possibly start it now; it’ll never get published anyway. The more excuses we make the bigger the mountain in our head becomes, and we become fearful of climbing.

The funny thing is that often, in the time we take putting off that task, we could have completed the task several times over – and felt better about ourselves in the process. The time we spend finding excuses to put things off is not a healthy or constructive use of our time. I recall an old lawyer colleague of mine started to put a dot on every letter in his in tray each time he looked at it and prioritised something else. When a letter had 15 dots on it, it was clear he had spent more time avoiding answering that letter than it would have taken him to deal with it. Nevertheless, we still persist in this kind of avoidance behaviour – every day.

Apart from being a huge drain on our time and productivity, procrastination can prevent perfectly good ideas ever being written. Don’t become a victim of it. What if your favourite author had succumbed to their procrastination? Think of the books you would never have been able to read.

Make that call to that editor as soon as it comes into your mind. Then the call is made, and you have no need to spend that time worrying and finding excuses. You haven’t built the call up in your mind to be as difficult as scaling Everest; and the chances are that editor was a perfectly pleasant individual. The call was wrapped up in five minutes, and you can now move on, and get on with your writing, pitches, and submissions. If the call had a positive outcome then that is great; if it didn’t, you don’t have to worry about it anymore, and you can learn from it and move on – with a positive focus on moving forward. You’ve lost nothing, you’ve gained time.

I’ve been skirting about my novel ideas for a long time now – very fitting that the working title to my novel is “Eternity”. I have many plot ideas, and no words written, and at risk of stating the obvious, unless I write any words, my novel will never be finished – I won’t even have a working draft to play with. Some of that time I’ve spent playing with those ideas is essential. I need to know my characters, I need to know my basic plot and sub plots. I’m writing historic fiction, so I need to do research. All those things need doing or whatever I write isn’t going to work. But if I hold my hands up and be completely honest with myself, I was also holding onto fear. A fear which made me use every excuse I could find not to start typing those words. Is my idea good enough? Will it work? Are my characters right? I would wager that I’m not alone.

I knew I’d hit a brick wall in my head, so I talked over my ideas and concerns with some fellow novelists in my writing group. The result? “Your ideas are perfectly sound, we’d like to read it, so get on with it!” I’m paraphrasing of course, but that is pretty much what it boiled down to – I’d been procrastinating. I was lucky enough to have the input of a several times published author in that group, and I will be following her advice. I’m never going to know entirely whether my ideas and characters are going to work until I start writing them. Sometimes you’ve got to just press on and write regardless of your research – get that momentum flowing. As you write it will highlight the holes in your research and you can do it later – make a list as you go on of things you need to check on. Getting on with this process will focus where you need to do your research, so that you don’t waste time getting lost in learning everything there is to be learned – regardless of its relevance to your novel. That in itself is a form of procrastination.

Basically – if you are finding you are doing everything except moving forward with your writing you are probably procrastinating. Stop right there and be honest with yourself. Would your time be better served just getting on with doing the task, or doing that piece of writing you are avoiding there and then? After all when it’s done you can go for that drink without any guilt gnawing at your conscience, and enjoy yourself.

How do you deal with procrastination? Why not leave a comment and help our community of writers with theirs? You don’t have to be a writer to be familiar with this dark art – it affects us all, so why not tell us about it and stop the virus spreading?

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