I was rather surprised on reading a blog post somewhere recently to find that some of the techniques I had always thought of as useful for procrastination were referred to as ways to overcome it. Not to be outdone, I thought I would break with tradition to post for a second time this weekend and list the five tools I think of as suitable for guilt-free procrastination in the context of writing. Not that anyone need ever feel guilty about putting things off until the last minute: it’s nature’s way of letting you avoid doing some of them altogether.
1. Making a detailed plan
There are occasions when it’s essential to make a plan. For instance, I believe the government should have some sort of an economic plan, although it often seems as if they haven’t. A plan is also probably necessary if you’re about to lead an army into battle – or whatever the modern equivalent is. (Pressing a button that will destroy thousands of lives, perhaps) I usually have a plan if I’m about to carry out a presentation or training session at work, or if there is some sort of major project going on.
In the context of fiction writing, however, making a plan can turn out to be an inferior substitute for action. The more detailed the plan, the truer this is. If you list the chapters in advance and spell out exactly what’s going to happen in each one, how will you cope with the changes that happen along the way? The inspiration that strikes when you’re not sure what will happen next? The change of direction that sees your characters end up hiding in a cattery at the back of beyond, or in a helicopter hovering over the snow-covered landscape where two villains, one of whom at least you previously thought was a loyal soldier, try to trigger a major disaster?
Certainly, as a series writer, I could now do with notes to remind me what colour I said someone’s hair was in book 1, whether I invented an estranged wife for another character in book 3, and what someone else’s favourite drink is, but I doubt if this would take up more than a page in a notebook.
It’s even worse when you attempt to categorise and rationalise the events or characters in your novel, fitting them into neat boxes. This brings me to
2. Colouring in the plan
Some people never seem to outgrow the urge to colour in. They have some weird longing to revisit their primary school days, perhaps to do better than they did at the time or perhaps because life seems to have gone downhill since they were seven years old.
There’s an inverse correlation between the number of colours you use to colour in the plan and the quality of your writing. This is a scientific fact.
3. Doing research
Obviously in some genres research is essential if your novel is to have any ring of truth about it. But you will never know absolutely everything about the Wars of the Roses, the reign of Charles II or the Corn Laws, and even if you did, you wouldn’t want to bring it all into a novel. As a history graduate I am well aware that nobody knows everything about anything, and that even if there were some agreement about which facts are ‘historical’ and which aren’t, all facts are subject to people’s interpretation anyway.
This means that even if you research a topic for the rest of your life, you won’t come to the end of your research. So at some point, if you want to be a novelist, you have to start writing instead. If you do happen to need to do more research as you go along, as indeed I’ve found myself doing on several occasions, you can always pause for a moment to look up some essential fact. That’s what the internet’s for.
Closely linked to this is
4. Being a perfectionist
Despite being quite slapdash in some areas of life, as anyone who has read other posts in this blog will realise, I tend to be a perfectionist in terms of grammar and spelling, although that doesn’t mean everything I write turns out perfect. But I have learned by being ruthless with myself and to write the first draft without worrying too much about this side of things. Mistakes can be tidied up later, as long as you end up with the best possible version before publishing it.
It’s possible to procrastinate by being a perfectionist about the conditions you write in. I don’t have the right notebook with me; I don’t like the keyboard on this computer; I can’t write with people around; the cats are distracting me; there’s too much clutter in the room; I only have fifteen minutes to spare. Well, if I were a teacher, which thank goodness I’m not, I certainly wouldn’t accept these as valid excuses for homework not being done. I’d be expecting something more major, such as a freak snowstorm in June, or a frenzied magpie attack.
5. Doing only one thing at a time
This is a foreign concept to me, so it is no use as a procrastination tool and I am only including it here so that others may benefit from it.
I don’t know where I’d be without multi-tasking, up to a point. What I find is that I can do several quite different things at once – washing the dishes, listening to the radio and mulling over where to go with chapter 10 – but I can’t do more than one similar thing at a time. So I am all right working on more than one novel as long as they’re at different stages of development. Ideally I would work on one right through to the final edits and move on to the next one while I’m preparing the first one for publication, a process which seems to use a different part of the brain. Currently I have one novel at the serious planning stage – which in this case means I have a couple of pages of notes, mostly in the form of ‘What if…?’ questions to myself and a fairly firm idea about what to put in the first chapter, which is just as well because I start writing it tomorrow – one novel for which I have a few of the characters and some vague ideas swirling around like shapes in the fog, and one for which I have a sort of concept but no characters.
I need to be able to mull these over for a while, so it would be ridiculous to banish them completely while I draft the first one. They will probably, though, be relegated to the back of my mind where they will have the benefit of drawing on weird ideas from my subconscious!
ps Naturally I have only written this lengthy post today as a way of putting off the task of reviewing my notes for the novel I’ll start tomorrow. So as usual my 5 points have spawned a 6th.