Procrastination by any other name…

Have I been procrastinating? Judging by the date of my previous post, apparently so. Or maybe I could call it prioritizing. I’ve been writing, gardening, working on my genealogy project, capturing spring things with my camera … all desirable activities, but not productive when it comes to writing a blog post.

A recent question about Writer’s Block in one of my Facebook groups reminded me of how often writers use it as an excuse to procrastinate:

“Most of us probably experience writer’s block in some form from time to time. What are the … strategies you’ve used to bump yourself out of the ditch, and back into productivity?”

If I’m not writing, it’s easy to call it Writer’s Block and blame it on an uncooperative muse.  The truth is, I don’t believe in Writer’s Block. And before you smack me upside the head and swear you’ve experienced it so you know it exists, let me quickly add that I’m convinced it’s our sub-conscience not wanting to write. In that respect it’s very real.

It is not, however, some outside force that controls my brain. ‘Ms. Muse’ doesn’t straddle my computer monitor and refuse to let me write. As much as I might like to blame some evasive, independent entity, I am the only one who chooses not to place my hands on the keyboard and press word-forming keys.

Like many others writers, I’ve sat in front of my monitor with hands poised … and hesitated. I wanted inspiration to strike and send me into a frenzy of creative energy. It does happen that way on rare occasions, but most often I must choose words and throw them at the page whether they seem inspired or not.  I’ve learned that if I sit and wait, hoping for perfect words to manifest themselves, I will face a blank page indefinitely.

Perfection is the enemy of creativity. While I have faith that God will loosen a stream of words if I start typing, I also have faith in my ability to edit, revise and re-craft them if at first they aren’t exactly what I was hoping for.

And, believe me, they are frequently far from what I was hoping for! That’s when it would be easy to get discouraged, walk away from the computer and find something more rewarding to do. What’s more rewarding, however, is sticking it out — leaving the less-than-impressive words on the page in favour of moving ahead with new ones, because it is the new ones that will eventually get me to the end, and there is nothing more satisfying than reaching that goal.

So, call it what you will — writer’s block, an unhelpful muse, procrastination, endless prioritizing, or just plain not getting it done — BICHOK (butt in chair, hands on keyboard) really IS the only way to overcome it.

I know, because I just did it. 🙂

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Taking my own advice…

I attended a ‘Lobby Night’ presentation by my writers’ group last night — a very worthwhile event, but as I drove home in the descending darkness I realized how scratchy my eyes were. Unfortunately I had left writing this post until the end of the day and when I opened my laptop to begin, I was suddenly too tired to find anything pertinent to say. I sat here with my eyes blinking faster than the uncooperative cursor, until I decided this was probably as close to Writer’s Block as I wanted to get. My solution? Re-run an old post. Just over four years ago I posted the following under the title of A Daily Dose of Motivation. I hope you’ll forgive me if I post it again. My brain is lost in a fog tonight. Tomorrow I’ll take my own advice about getting motivated for Friday’s column.

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Everyone has an opinion about how to combat Writer’s Block. Whether believing it’s a mythical non-entity or a super-size monster, experts are quick to offer suggestions for overcoming a writer’s inability to make words materialize on the monitor.

The one I like best? “Just sit down, put pencil to paper (or fingers on keys) and start writing anything that comes into your head. Don’t stop for ten minutes.” Yeah, sure — recommending writing as a cure for not being able to write. That’s logic for you. But what can we do when the words won’t come, when we honestly try but the effort only magnifies the angst?

I’m not convinced I’ve ever faced Writer’s Block. Yes, there have been days, weeks, even months when I haven’t written anything significant, but in retrospect I think I was procrastinating. I wasn’t ready to risk failure, so I found something safer to do. I read.

There is a real danger in procrastination, even in the short term, because the time we would previously have spent writing slowly becomes absorbed by a substitute. Reading is easy to justify because writers need to read — for exposure to good writing, for knowledge, for inspiration. But as an excuse to avoid writing? I don’t think so.

I always have an assortment of books on the go from my TBR pile but when I finally realize I’ve been reading at the expense of writing I figure it’s time to shift my focus. I reach for the volume that continues to give me daily writing inspiration no matter how many times I read it: Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life. (Tarcher/Putnam, 1996) There are lots of daily meditations available but “Room to Write” has been one of my most useful tools. Admittedly I don’t often do the accompanying exercises but the short readings motivate me.

Excuses are impediments to achievement. Had I continued to stare at this blasted blank monitor until my eyes blurred, blaming my lack of words on Writer’s Block, or  immersed myself in someone else’s plot as I was tempted to do, this posting wouldn’t have happened today. Mind you, it’s already 11:55 p.m. If I don’t immediately staunch this flow of words that originally wouldn’t start, today’s posting will become tomorrow’s!

See what a bit of motivation can do!

Do you have any favourite go-to books that provide motivation in those moments when writing inspiration is lacking?

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The Writer’s Eureka Moment

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Sometimes it’s writer’s block, sometimes mental exhaustion or impossible expectations, that drag us to a standstill. A lethargy sets in that smothers ambition and overshadows everything with its ‘I’ll-never-get-out-from-under-this-cloud’ sense of gloom. If you haven’t experienced it, you likely know others who have.

The thing is, it feels as if it will never end, but it always does.

If we’re writers, we’ve struggled for hours, days, maybe even months, to find the key to some plot dilemma. The harder we try, the farther success retreats. The brain is funny that way. It taunts with a conviction that we’re doomed to fail.

When we refuse to be overwhelmed by discouragement, refuse to give up, we inch forward with increasing momentum. We find other places for our minds to dwell while the subconscious works on the problem, until…

Eureka!!!

Endorphins release the elusive creativity… or some similar momentous action occurs. That’s my take on it, anyway. I’m not aware of any scientific explanation for why the brain suddenly allows an idea to explode out of the suffocating grey matter into the bright light of inspiration. I don’t need an explanation. I know it happens if I allow myself a smidgen of optimism and a large dose of patience.

How would you describe that moment of revelation? Where are you at present: nearing a breakthrough, streaking along in the light, or still trying to shove the cloud away?

Never fear. The light WILL shine through.

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“Remember me in the light of your unfailing love,
for you are merciful, oh Lord.”
[Psalm 25:7]

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Whose fault is it when writing stutters to a stop?

Words rush ahead, fling themselves onto the page and dare you to keep up. At least, that’s the way it seems when writing is going well. Scenes flash by in HD, rippling across the mind’s eye as the story unfolds.

As much as I love those days, they aren’t typical of my writing life. Many days words drip out a few at a time, forming a slowly widening puddle on the page. Sloppy phrases, sluggish sentences, and clichés meld with occasional bursts of brilliance as I struggle to find the right way to express a blossoming idea.

I know I’m not the only one who experiences creative cycles. Just read all the #amwriting tweets to find people elated by their run of 3500 words or bemoaning the curse of writer’s block. Euphoria and desperation. The two extremes.

Whose fault is it when my words stutter to a trickle or skid to a stop? Mine, of course. It’s nice to shift the blame to a reluctant muse but truthfully, I know where the muse dwells. Author Nora Roberts has said, “You’re going to be unemployed if you really think you just have to sit around and wait for the muse to land on your shoulder.” She should know. Since 1981 she has written 209 romance novels as Nora Roberts and has also been published as J.D. Robb, Jill March, and Sarah Hardesty.*

The dream of being published won’t materialize without effort. If we want to be real writers then we must write, regardless of whether the story comes easily or, as Earnest Hemingway has said, it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” When the going gets tough we have to use whatever it takes to keep moving ahead. If drilling and blasting don’t seem to work, we may need to nurture the muse.

  • Refill the well. We can’t keep emptying ourselves indefinitely. Find creative activities that enrich, such as reading a book that inspires and motivates, visiting an art exhibit or museum, taking a short course in batik making, sketching, quilting, gourmet cooking….
  • Prime the pump. Success begets more success. As much as I dislike writing exercises, if I force myself to do ten minutes of free writing on the first word that comes into my mind (or, if nothing does, the first word I put my finger on in the dictionary or verse in the Bible), I have to admit my brain function perks up. Once I start writing it’s easier to keep writing.
  • Join forces with a friend. Issue or accept a realistic writing challenge and hold each other accountable. It’s always hard to admit defeat when you’ve committed publicly to a goal, and easier to achieve one when there is friendly competition and encouragement.
  • Schedule specific writing breaks. There’s no harm in taking a short-term hiatus for refreshment or other priorities. The danger is in making excuses for the reason, or for procrastinating beyond the allotted time. Pencil in specific stop and start up dates on your calendar and stick to them.

There’s no other way around it: if we want to be writers we have to write regularly, and not just when we feel like it. The responsibility to do so is entirely our own.

“The only person holding you back is you;

everyone else is merely watching.”

(Bob Mayer)

What does it take to get you writing again when you’ve stuttered to a stop?

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* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nora_Roberts

Surging and Waning Words

I’m writing, then not writing, then writing again. It’s the usual story – fitting the writing process into the reality of other aspects of my daily life. The NaNo challenge is into its twentieth day. The statistics are piling up. I’m past 32,000 words. (If you want to track my progress click on the NaNo icon in the sidebar.) Last year WriMos worldwide logged an accumulated total of 1,643,343,993 words. As of today, just two-thirds of the way through this year’s effort, we have already logged 1,448,554,647 and the number is increasing by approximately 72.5 million a day. That’s a lot of words!

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It’s interesting to read comments on some of the NaNoWriMo forums and the blogs of other WriMos. We’re a diverse bunch – some otherwise non-writers who thought it would be fun to write a novel as long as it only took a one-month commitment, and some long-time writers who use the concentrated writing frenzy to re-energize themselves and/or push through a specific project.

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About now, however, one thing we all have in common is the ups and downs of inspiration. We’re alternately slogging our way through billowing clouds of discouragement, trying to make something of weak plots and pathetic characters, and then rejoicing in the periodic breakthroughs that bring sunlight into our stories.

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In these next ten days may there be more sunshine than clouds!

Guest Blogger Jordan McCollum on Beating Writers’ Block

I’m delighted to welcome Jordan McCollum today. Jordan is talented in several areas but what we have in common is a passion for writing. She is an aspiring novelist, writing “mysteries to fall in love with, romance to keep you in suspense”. Today she shares some ideas about that dreaded enemy, writers’ block. – CG

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Beating Writers’ Block
by Jordan McCollum

The kids are in bed, the house is clean, you’ve spent some quality time with your spouse and you’ve watched your favorite show. Now it’s your time—time to write with nothing hanging over your head. You sit at your computer, fingers poised over the keys and—

Nothing happens.

What do you do? Spend the next two hours checking email and blogs, playing Text Twist and Minesweeper, coming back to your story every half hour without anything new to add and drifting away again until you can’t face your computer anymore and go to bed, strangely empty and guilty?

No! You don’t have to succumb to writers’ block—you can fight it, and you should. What makes a writer vs. a wannabe is perseverance (and the same is true about revisions, finding an agent, getting published, selling books, etc., etc.). Working through writers’ block makes you a stronger, better, more creative writer. And here are eight ways to do it.

Come up with more ideas
Easier said than done, I know, but try brainstorming new events and directions for your story. I recently came across an analysis of the story conference for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The surprising thing about this conference is the sheer volume of ideas—the writer, director and producer threw out ideas while brainstorming, not worrying about how outlandish or stupid they might sound—you never know if it could be made workable.

Recycle an old idea
Did you have an amazing plot twist you never got to use or used in another (preferably unpublished) work, or one you love in someone else’s story? Find a way to work that idea into this story. The mine cart chase scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom originally came from the conference for Raiders, but they didn’t use it there—an instant source for later ideas.

Look for more connections within your work
I got stuck in my latest WIP when I needed a task for my hero. He’d agreed to do something for the villain in exchange for a hostage, but I was drawing a blank. I tried to think of something he could send him after—but finally the right answer came to me. It shouldn’t just be something, it should be something related to the plot. And I had a subplot that could tie back into the main plot (and a minimystery that could be solved) right here.

Write something
You may have to take some time away from your WIP to get the creative juices flowing. You can work on another idea—writing or plotting or planning—or you can find writing prompts to get started. Sometimes focusing on another story idea will give you the boost or idea you need to progress in your first story—just don’t get sidetracked for too long!

Write nothing
Do something mindless—like playing Text Twist or Minesweeper, or doing house or yard work. Do something creative—if you play an instrument, practice. If you do a handicraft—knitting, needlework, woodcarving, knapping—make something. Occupying your hands while letting your mind roam can have great creative rewards.

Erase
As hard as this may be, maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. Maybe there just isn’t anywhere for the story to go now, and you need to delete the last paragraph or scene or chapter. (Ouch!) Look at where your story took a turn for a dead end and brainstorm another direction.

Read (or watch)
Look for other ideas (and beautiful writing) in other works, in or outside of your genre. You can also watch a movie or TV show and play the “what if” game—what if something happened differently in this scene. (I came up with a whole story idea this way.)

Plot
You can often avoid getting stuck if you plan out where you’re going in advance. Not always, of course—I’m a plotter, and I can still get stuck in the gray areas of my outline. But back before I started plotting out my stories, I began with an ending in mind, but sometimes I spent weeks stopped in the middle, trying to figure out how to get there. Even loose plotting can help to keep the big milestones in mind to keep you moving toward your goals. Plus you can brainstorm in advance and save all those ideas for any lulls.

Beating writers’ block can be tough, but you can do it—and if you’re going to finish, you have to.

What do you think? How do you beat writers’ block?

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About the author
In addition to being an aspiring fiction author, Jordan McCollum works in Internet marketing. She is the editor of an Internet marketing news blog, Marketing Pilgrim, as well as the author of a blog on finding fulfillment in motherhood, MamaBlogga. She blogs about writing technique at JordanMcCollum.com. If ever she says anything about starting another blog, please shoot her!

Photo credits: paper ball—Mutasim Billah; empty page—flickrFelix.; I can’t think—Alyssa L. Miller

Writing Delay Tactics Revisited

Yesterday Rachelle Gardner gave her readers an opportunity to share how they use (or don’t use) social media such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and how they cope with the resulting time drain. Responses ran from those who interact via blogging but see anything else as a waste of time, to those who utilize every possible opportunity for social networking.

The question keeps rearing up: as a writer, how do you make the best use of your time?

Then again, what do you do if you find yourself in that writer’s quicksand where you aren’t making any use of your time? Inspiration is just beyond reach and every little thing is a distraction that keeps your fingers off the keys and your brain focusing on non-writing essentials.

It’s only a Diet Coke, folks. Honestly, it’ll only take me a minute and I’ll be back at my desk. Oh, wait. I forgot. There aren’t any in the fridge. I drank the last one this morning. Drat. Now I’ll have to make a quick trip to the store. Oh, and while I’m out I might as well drop off these library books… and I should take along this fabric sample and look for new drapery material… and… What? Delay tactics? Of course not! They’re all things that I’ve been meaning to do; things I have to get done. I’m not avoiding my writing. I want to write. I just have to be in the right frame of mind to do it. Once I take care of all these distractions I’ll be able to concentrate again. No problem. Really.

Sound familiar? What about you? How do you cope when the essentials of life lure you away from your writing? How do you balance your everyday life with your writing life or is it even possible to separate them?