Nothing like updating your website with a glitchy plugin that requires hacking and constant refreshing to force you to look 18 times at the nearly month-old blog post that’s the most recent thing (other than the glitchy plugin) on your front page. Granted, I kinda like that I also got to look at that swoony picture of Stephen Decatur every time, but that’s no excuse for lazy blogging.
I never have a good excuse. I also don’t feel like I often have good ideas about what to blog about. So yesterday I asked on Twitter if anybody had any requests. And interestingly enough, my pal @kindleaholic suggested I write “a post about figuring out what to write when your brain is zombiefied.” ‘Cause that isn’t at all the whole problem I’m having. IF I HAD THE ANSWER TO THAT, I WOULD ALSO HAVE HAD A BLOG POST.
And yet. And yet, as long as it’s not a blank post, I’m generally pretty good at getting past the blank page problem, and once I got going, it turns out that I had thoughts enough for several blog posts on the subject. Thanks, @kindleaholic! So here’s Part the First.
You’re humming along on a project you really love and all of a sudden the words stop. There are tons of reasons why this happens, and they’re all potentially scary, although some are scarier than others. A not-at-all exhaustive sampling of causes might include the following:
- a) you need a kick in the pants.
- b) you cannot focus for various reasons, like for instance the fact that in order to eat anything you have to find a fork in the pile of stuff in your sink and wash it, and you can’t actually reach the taps any longer to turn on the water in order to wash the fork even if you do find it, and while we’re at it you’re wearing that shirt with the holes in it for the third day straight because it’s still the cleanest shirt in the house.
- c) you cannot focus because internet.
- d) you cannot focus because spouse/kids.
- e) you cannot focus because there’s this other very shiny idea running around your brain waving at you from behind things.
- f) today/this week/this month you actually don’t love this project. You want to scream at it.
- g) you simply don’t know what happens next.
Those are the most frequent offenders in my life. Some are easier to deal with than others. Today, let’s start right at the top of the list and take a look at Problem A.
When you need a kick in the pants
Set a deadline. Of course, this only works if you treat your deadline as seriously–or almost as seriously–as you’d treat a deadline from an editor. Make it reasonable, something that’s doable. A challenging deadline is great but not necessary. Set yourself up for success.
- a) Set the deadline.
- b) Get a calendar. Do the math and figure out how many words you need to do per day in order to meet your deadline. Not every day, though–the number of days you can reasonably write per week. I can theoretically write every day, but when I set my goals, I always assume I’m not going to write on Sundays and Mondays, because I work a full shift at McNally on both of these days. I might write on those days if I feel like it, but I know myself and how I feel after a day on my feet. Again, set yourself up for success. Readjust deadline if necessary.
- c) Write your daily word count goal on each day’s box on the calendar and give yourself a little star or something each day you succeed. Schedule your days off. Schedule yourself rewards for when you pass a few good milestones along the way. Yes, a finished manuscript is great motivation on its own, but treats are great short-term motivators.
- d) If you write more than that amount on any given day, good for you, but don’t let yourself off the hook tomorrow. Those words don’t count towards future days. If, however, you don’t meet your goal one day, adjust the next few days to make up the shortfall.
Clock some words with friends. I can only speak for myself, but I’m hugely motivated by writing with friends on Twitter. A quick tweet to a group I can usually count on to be slogging through a draft–or to the community at large using #1k1hr–links me to friends who are often the key to getting a tough day’s work done.
Stop obsessing about making what you wrote yesterday perfect. Now, I have friends, excellent writers all, who really don’t like moving on from one section until they’ve perfected it. They have this preference because they (not unreasonably) feel that it’s hard to know where the story’s really going until that first chapter’s set it solidly on its way. It’s a perfectly legitimate approach, but it doesn’t work for me at all. In fact, when I’m actively trying to get through a draft, I start my writing day with working through my word count and save reading anything that’s come before as a reward.
I also don’t typically edit at all until very late in the draft. I know I can fix anything afterward, but if I get bogged down with perfecting things too early, not only do I not make forward progress, it doesn’t even save me editing time later. I often make discoveries about the plot or characters that result in big changes to the story itself as I go. I accept that the resulting retrofitting that’s sometimes necessary is just part of how I work. Of course, not everybody is going to enjoy working this way–some people I’ve talked to hate the idea, or can’t even fathom how it works. That’s fine. It’s just one way of going at it, but it’s what works for me.
Because I work this way, spending time on early editing is more like procrastination than any kind of meaningful productivity. The way I figure it, I am always going to have editing to do afterward. The question is, do I have a draft to edit, or am I just editing a fragment? (Again, there’s nothing wrong with editing a fragment–your process is your process–but for me, setting editing aside until I’m done a draft is one of the ways I get through a draft in the first place.)
So that’s my three-part strategy for giving myself kicks in the pants when necessary. How do you keep yourself on task?
Tomorrow, on to the big fat middle of the list: focus problems.
Postscript: It now occurs to me that maybe the original prompt was actually asking for ideas for surviving the shambling apocalypse, in which case nothing here, nothing is going to help you. You probably need a bat or something, and a good pair of running shoes. I’m not at all prepared for that. Someone else will have to weigh in.