By Helen Rolfe
Procrastination comes with most jobs, or most tasks for that matter. After all, why do today what we can put off until tomorrow? But writers are in such a solitary occupation that there is a real danger of procrastination interfering with them achieving their goals. After all, the only boss keeping track of the hours put in, counting how many words get onto that page, and knowing just how much effort has been put in, is the writer themselves.
I am guilty as charged when it comes to procrastination. At the moment I have the valid excuse that we are in the process of selling our house and approaching the big auction day, but I’m not always quite as justified. Sometimes that pile of washing just needs to be folded and neatly slotted away, or I must get the washing on the line before the sun disappears. Or sometimes I simply must catch up on emails to family in the UK or organise the next catch up with my girlfriends.
Writers are able to procrastinate like professionals, but we are also very capable of making ourselves feel guilty when we really shouldn’t. We beat ourselves up for not sitting at that desk long enough, for not churning out enough words. At times we are the strictest bosses in the world! Thinking back to my time in the workplace there were always tea breaks, we chatted to colleagues. I was never glued to my desk but I never felt guilty for that.
With my writing I sometimes find that I need to take a step back because otherwise whatever I write will be so bad that I will probably end up deleting most of it anyway, or ruining what I have already written. Sometimes I have been so dedicated for days or weeks on end, strict with my hours, that I need to get out in that big wide world just to clear my mind. And, after all, the big wide world and the people and places around us are what inspire our writing in the first place.
A recent article on the BBC News website titled “The slow death of purposeless walking” (BBC News, Rohrer F, 1 May 2014) talks about writers including Wordsworth, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, all of whom used walking for inspiration, to let their thought process flow more freely. Walking is another strategy for me when I find myself procrastinating. I don’t think that I consciously go for a walk to work through a scene or think of ideas, but I think that by relaxing my mind and soaking up what’s going on around me can help to trigger answers that I’m looking for or start me on a thread of ideas that help in my writing. Of course there are also the endorphins that are naturally released when we exercise so combined with some time away from the keyboard is a real help.
The Write Romantics have shared their guilty admissions right here, and how they take themselves to task and make sure they get the work done. We would love to hear what strategies you employ to get over the procrastination, and what helps you when the ideas and the words just won’t come?
Helen R x
P.S – Don’t forget that May is National Walking month in the UK so put away those car keys, pull on some comfy shoes and off you go! And you never know, that scene that needs work could just become clearer with every step.
I will do all manner of things before I sit down to write- check eBay, emails, BBC News, Facebook- and sometimes do it all again as I’ve been so long checking updates! Mostly what works, is just opening the latest ‘bestseller’ and writing, although you can guarantee that as soon as I do I’ll realise I need a cup of tea and a biscuit- and off I go again. I’m amazed that I ever get anything finished actually as I don’t think I’ve ever sat down for more than an hour at any one time. The only upside to my writing is that I do write pretty much every day and I ALWAYS have either a laptop or my iPad within arms distance. I take my iPad everywhere as I can’t abide finding I have ten minutes spare somewhere and nothing to write on. I think I have developed a bit of a ‘time’ problem because of it- is there a name for this kind of behaviour?
Helen P says…
At the moment my time is so sparse that I have no option but to write whenever I get a minute. But when I was writing The Ghost House and would strike a blank moment I used to get the dog and take her for a walk in the woods where I set the book, I’d call and see my brother or his wife who live in the middle of the woods and then I’d come back home and be inspired all over again.
For The Secrets of the Shadows I had the wonderful excuse of driving to the Lake District and Bowness where I knew my main protagonist Annie was going to end up working. Sitting in a coffee shop in the middle of the hustle and bustle and looking at the amazing views was a massive help.
For book three which is unnamed as of yet, I’ve been so busy I’ve just had to crack on with it 😉
I find this writing thing a very contrary business. If I can’t get to the computer for any reason, even if I’m off out for the day somewhere lovely, chances are the words will be flowing in my head like crazy. And yet having a long expanse of interrupted time in front of me can have the opposite effect and leave me completely flat and totally uninspired. At those times I have to force it, sit down, switch on and read some of what I’ve written before until, after a while, I’m really into it again. In other words, my main remedy for not writing when I should be is simply: turn up. If I’m stuck on a sentence that doesn’t work or haven’t a clue what’s supposed to happen next in the story, taking a break definitely helps, whether it’s going for a walk or just making a cuppa. One thing that always gets the words flowing again is reading. It doesn’t matter what type of book it is, if I’m enjoying it, ideas for my own will pop up all the time, so I always keep the notebook handy.
Okay, before I answer this I’m just going to go and do that pile of ironing! It’s amazing that when writing ideas slow to a trickle everything else you usually avoid doing if at all possible, becomes so much more attractive.
At this point I have a choice. Clean like mad and iron until I’m actually scouring the bedrooms for more washing. Both of these are of course good things to do, but in moderation and not in preference to writing. Note to self – remember this. If I feel the housework urge, I go for a walk. My dog is elderly now and so it’s just a gentle stroll with her, but sometimes a good power walk does the trick. I usually arrive back at my desk invigorated and with a better idea of where to go next with my writing.
It’s a tricky question because, when I’m in procrastinating mode, there’s very little that can snap me out of it except giving myself a good talking to. I often procrastinate when I’m not 100% sure where I want a plot point to go and, deep down, I know I’d make a mess of the edit of I did something when my idea wasn’t quite ready. I therefore think a bit of procrastination can be good. I’ve been doing far too much of it lately by staring at social media when I should be writing.
As for the ideas and words not coming, I haven’t had this happen to me much. Once I had my initial idea for book 1, it was like the dam gates had been opened and a stack of ideas flowed. They’re not all good but there are certainly lots of them. Like most writers, I have days where the words flow better than others but I’ve learned just to get on with it. If I’m struggling with an emotional scene, for example, as the words aren’t flowing quite so well, I’ll often write INSERT DETAIL, highlight it, and move on. I then return to it when I’m feeling more inspired. I think this works for me because I used to work ridiculous hours and commute a long way for my day job so writing time was so limited and precious that I trained myself to just get on with it. Now that I work locally and to a normal 9-5 day, I still have the ability to work like this.
When the words really won’t come I’ve learned that it’s usually because something is wrong with the plot or the characters and I’ve found that the best thing is to go away and do something completely different. Whatever the problem is it usually works itself out better when I’m away from my laptop. I’ve had ‘lightbulb’ moments when I’ve been doing the cleaning (the current state of my house proves that I really need to get stuck more often) and doing the ironing. Sometimes going out for a walk helps or watching a film. If all else fails then I think sleeping on it works really well. I often wake up and know exactly what the answer is and those are the days when I’m sat here writing in my pyjamas.
I’d like to say that I do something really interesting to help me get started when I’m procrastinating or when the words just won’t flow, like standing on my head or making a special creativity potion. Sadly, the truth is much more boring than that. Although wine is a potion of sorts and that often helps – at least I think it has until the read-through the next day! For me it’s the usual stuff, like fresh air and a good walk. There’s nothing like looking up at the light filtering through oak trees on a woodland walk or out to sea if I choose the beach instead. I’m lucky enough to live really close to both and there are lots of wide open spaces and big skies to offer inspiration or just clear the head. Other than that, I think people-watching and eavesdropping work best for me and have inspired aspects of lots of my stories. In fact, they are two of my favourite pastimes which I have done ever since I was tiny. My mum said if I ever disappeared as a young child, she’d find me standing in between the nearest group of women looking up, listening to every aspect of their conversations and sometimes even asking questions! These days, when hubby and I go out for dinner, if he starts tapping his nose it means I am making my eavesdropping too obvious and need to rein it in a bit… or at least make some effort to listen to what he’s saying to me instead.