Monday, September 29, 2008

Procrastination and Writer's Block

Recently an ex-classmate and an ex-work colleague got in touch with me. They had heard I was writing a novel and wanted some advice. They were at different stages of writing their novel and had differing approaches to the writing process, but both had reached a hurdle that they could not overcome. One had hit a 'boring' part that he could not face tackling, while the other was such a perfectionist that it took him several months to write a chapter.

I've come across both types of problem while writing this novel, and here are the ways and means that I've used to overcome them.

1. Don't let the FEAR put you off
I've written about the FEAR many times in this blog because it is something that has paralysed my writing progress again and again. It is the major reason why I procrastinate - every morning I would worry that I did not have the ability, talent and originality to write or edit a novel. I would read over my work and feel my stomach twisting with self-loathing and disappointment. Sleepless nights were spent imagining nasty rejections and friends unable to look me in the face after reading my work. I even worried that if I did land a publishing deal I would be unable to write another. Regardless of whether it is the fear of failure or the fear of success, both have the power to bring a writer to their knees.

The FEAR is still hanging around but has been reduced significantly through practice. As I inched through the first and second draft my confidence rocketed. I realised that not only COULD I do this, I WAS doing it. That my writing was improving, that I was finding my unique voice, style and rhythm, that I did have something to say. And when the familiar anxiety comes knocking I've developed a few methods of banishing it, which are next.

2. Don't be afraid to write junk
Writing is a skill like playing an instrument, or a craft like carpentry. No budding violinist would expect to play Beethoven after their first lesson, nor would a carpentry apprentice expect to build and carve a beautiful chair without many months of trial and error.

However many writers, myself included, are struck with crises of confidence and motivation when their early stabs at writing lack the finesse and colour of their favourite novelists or poets. For some reason many of us think writing is an innate ability that should flow from us in perfectly crafted sentences. Good writers may be born, but practice makes them great.

Even the most determined and talented writer will find their first draft veers from their pre-arranged plot and characterisation. Maybe a new character pops into your head to help you with your premise, or you decide that the plot should change to support the character's motivation or back story. This is the enjoyable part of the first draft, when you begin to live the story so much that the changes feel like organic and natural progressions.

But if you are too much of a perfectionist with your first draft you might find yourself detesting and ignoring these gut feelings, as they mean you must go back over the previous chapters and make edits to reflect those changes. And when you are doing so you'll probably find other parts that you're not happy with.

Some writers are happy with this process, and if it works for you keep at it. But if you find yourself blocked perhaps you need to give yourself permission to let go during your first draft and not look back. Allow yourself to follow these creative twists and turns, as you are building material as you go along. When it's time to rewrite you can look at the entire manuscript with a critical eye, removing parts that are unimportant or editing sections that are not tight enough - thus taking this building material and shaping it further. It's important to trust your instincts, and if you make a mistake you will learn from it.

3. Cheat or treat yourself
Sometimes when the thought of writing is too much to bear I make deals with myself to make sure I park my bum in front of the laptop. Sometimes I tell myself that I only have to write 100 words, no more. Usually once I've started I'll write much more than that, thus banishing any reasons why I was procrastinating in the first place.

Other times I think of a treat to motivate myself, like as soon as I do x amount of words I'll read a book, watch a tv programme I've taped or a film that I love.

4. Use freewriting when your writing is stale
There are times when I cannot face looking at my novel, whether it's because I don't know where it's heading, or I'm having a crisis of confidence about the characters or plot, or it's just feeling like a chore. Many writers jump ahead to another chapter; however I find this difficult to do, as it means I am just delaying the inevitable and it takes so long to reimmerse my mind in that section when I return.

When the words won't come due to a lack of inspiration or a wobble, I turn to freewriting. It could be a back story for a character I'm struggling with, or the explanation to fill in a plothole, or something entirely different to give myself a break. Writing something that's short and self-contained can be a great boost to my confidence and creativity.

5. Examine plot holes and motivations
Often I stop short when writing because I'm trying to make a character do something that doesn't fit their personality, or the plot has taken a turn that makes no sense to the rest of the story. If you're stuck at a particular scene and can't move past it, maybe go over the back stories of the characters or the reasoning behind the plot development.

For example, having a shy character suddenly confront a bully without the necessary build up or provocation might stop you in your writing tracks. If that's the case, perhaps create some kind of a crucible or situation that would explain this sudden bravery, or show a more gradual development of his or her character.

6. Take a break
If the writing still won't come, maybe you need a break. The odd duvet day gives my writing a fantastic shot in the arm - usually it's when I refuse to worry about a plot point or a character the solution comes to me, and if I'm just burned out from writing too much a break is just the thing to kick-start my word count the next day.

7. Find out what motivates you
Great teachers recognise that people are motivated in different ways, and use whatever methods they can to encourage their students.

I'm primarily motivated by pride and guilt, which is why I took time off work to write this novel (so that I would feel guilty whenever a day went by when I didn't write) and why I told everyone that I was writing it (so that whenever I was with friends they would ask me how I was progressing, therefore spurring me on to write more).

I have been lucky enough to have had several writing and editing jobs previously to know what got me going, but everyone knows the best way they motivate themselves to exercise, do the cleaning or other activities that they like to put off.


I hope you found this useful – please note that I have not yet gone through a typical writer’s block where authors struggle to write a word for months or years on end. These tips are just ways that I’ve overcome the little hurdles.

What methods do you use to get yourselves to your desk, banish the negative voices in your head and start writing even when you’d rather pull out your own hair at the root?


Annie Bright said...

That's really helpful, Yvonne. I will be re-visiting this post often.
Thank you for sharing. :-)

Pat Posner said...

You know, sometimes I feel as if Annie B and myself just follow each other around *smile*

Great post, Yvonne. What I do to banish negative thoughts and make myself write is to phone a publisher to see if I can send in a ms. If the answer's 'yes' it gets me to the computer double-quick.
I've emailed with a question at the email on your website.

KAREN said...

Some really good advice there :o)

My stumbling blocks are plot holes. I tumble in them and find it hard to climb out again. What I try and do now is type a row of dots there and come back later, instead of stopping and giving up altogether.

I like Pat's method of phoning a publisher! What motivated me with my First Ever novel was an agent asking for a full ms when I'd only written 3 chapters, so it DOES work!

Yvonne said...

Annie, glad you found it helpful.

Pat, having a deadline is really important for me too, which is why I've gone back to work from time to time. Keeps my nose to the grindstone.

Karen, wow that really would get you going! I used to do the same myself when writing my first draft - I would put notes directly into the ms and highlight them yellow, like "such-and-such must happen here" or "why would she say this?" and so on. By the time I'd come back to rewrite it I'd have a better overview of the ms.

Tam said...

It's best not to ask Karen what she did with those three chapters. It still fills me with horror.

Great post, Yvonne and excellent advice. Work through the dull bits, write every day and cut yourself some slack. Works for me.

Debs said...

Excellent post, thanks Yvonne.

I try and write at least 100 words a day and that's usually enough to get me going.

If I'm hating my wip then I may give myself a day off and concentrate on the writing course I'm doing instead, but usually I try and work on it a bit.

alfa king said...

That makes sense. There's no better way than to learn from your own experience. Great you shared it.

Yvonne said...

Tam, thanks! And great summary there, I wholeheartedly agree!

Debs, the 100 words a day rule usually works - and I agree, taking a break should be the last resort, not the first one as I'd never get anything done.

Alfa King, thank you.

HelenMH said...

That's all really useful. Sometimes I find it helps just to read something by someone I admire. That then spurs me on to get back down to it.

Angie said...

Great stuff here, Yvonne.

My goal of writing 750 words a day motivated me to plant my butt in the chair when I was writing the first draft, but with the second draft edit I'm struggling to find a similar motivator since it's harder to quantify.

Darragh said...

Excellent and useful post Yvonne, not just for book writers but for bloggers too. Will definitely be returning to this post :o)

Yvonne said...

Helen, that's a great idea, I'll try that next time I hit a bump.

Angie, I also found the editing/rewriting part very different to manage - I can't get as many words written per day and it's taken me longer to hit my stride.

Darragh, thank you!

Lane said...

Superb post Yvonne. Thank you.

When I'm stuck at a certain point I type in large red letters a load of old rubbish about what should be happening and then go back to it later. My draft is littered with lots of big red letters which need attention!

Freewriting is a great way to loosen up and I try to do Morning Pages but have been a bit slack recently.

Pat's 'phone a publisher' is a great, if scary idea. Nothing like fear to kick start motivation!

JJ said...

Brilliant advice, Yvonne. Thank you.

Yvonne said...

Lane, thanks! My first draft was littered with yellow hightlighted notes too, but I haven't been able to get away with that during the rewrite - I'm too nervous that I'll never get back to them! I just looked up Morning Pages - sounds great, cheers.

JJ, glad you found it useful.

SpiralSkies said...

What an excellent post - you should write a book!

I find getting away from the writing, really physically getting away from it, and taking a good, hard, long walk works wonders for making the brain start to tick over of its own accord. And yes, freewriting which is often even more effective after a glass of wine - not so much when you're doing it but being able to look back and see what's lurking in the writerly bit of your brain without the sensible censor there to object.

Maddie Moon said...

What an excellent post, Yvonne, I'll definitely be coming back to this! Thanks, just what I need at the moment too!

Yvonne said...

Jen, awh you're so sweet! Going for a walk does wonders for me too. And I must try the wine - I reckon I won't be able to stop at the one glass though!

Maddie, cheers and good luck!

Helen said...

I think I should print this out and stick it above my computer. This is just what I needed right now. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

A really great post, interesting to see your thought process and motivations.Think I'll be returning too!
Hope the novels going well :)

wordtryst said...

Really good advice, Yvonne. I think my biggest stumbling block is the fear: it can be paralyzing. The plot I can usually untangle by focusing on something else or taking a break.

I must try the freewriting. So many people recommend it that there must be something there.

Mummy said...

Fantastic advice! Thank you :)