I tend to think of myself as a fairly productive writer. My writing life is certainly busy and active: I attend courses and workshops, I struggle with intricate plot diagrams and character outlines, I read books on topics pertaining to my novel and lately I’ve been churning out short stories like its my day job (I wish!). But is being busy with your writing the same thing as being productive?
This weekend I attended a Spread the Word workshop in London with crime writer Claire McGowan. While what she had to say on character and viewpoint was interesting, the most significant thing I took home from the workshop was Claire’s thoughts on procrastination.
Research is often procrastination in disguise, she said. While ensuring you know enough about the topic or era to make your story seem credible is important, many writers get sucked into the research vortex. We assume that the more thoroughly we understand the topic, the better, but think of what we could have been doing during the hours we spent reading up on 19th century shipbuilding, whale migration patterns or, in my case, London fashions in the 1960s: actually getting words on the page.
Claire also suggested that we should examine our other writing practices for any hidden time sucks that keep us away from actually writing. Meticulously detailed plot diagrams, chapter outlines and character sketches could also be a way we secretly procrastinate. While they might be helpful for some writers, they also might be a waste of time. Ask yourself, do you really need to know the name of your character’s high school boyfriend? If so, carry on. If not, you can probably ditch the super-detailed character outlines and get on with writing you book.
Claire says that she hardly bothers with outlining at all. She just gets on with the writing and makes spontaneous decisions as she goes along. According to his excellent book On Writing, this is also Stephen King’s process. He just pops out his first draft – ideally in three months – and then uses his second draft as an opportunity to clean up his characterization, ensure the plot is coherent and slot in the facts he needs to research.
If it’s good enough for Stephen King, it’s probably good enough for my writing, too.
Upon reflection, I realise I spend a lot of time doing things that aren’t writing. Some of these things are useful, but I could probably do without the crazy-detailed character outlines I spend hours on (and then barely look at again).
I should also cut down on the hours I spend in workshops and classes. My boyfriend pointed this out to me last week – “Gen, imagine if you took all the hours you spend in classes and used them on writing” – and the fact that I immediately felt defensive told me that he was right. I do waste a lot of time on things that feel productive, but are just procrastination in disguise. It will always be easier to attend a writing class or fill in a plot diagram than it is to finish a novel.
I think this procrastination-in-disguise has actually been harming my progress in other ways, too. I have been stalled on my novel for the past month. This has been because, 1) I thought I needed to complete complex character outlines for all my characters before I could continue writing, and the truth is this is boring, and 2) my first chapter has been circulating through a variety of seminars and classes I signed up for to gather feedback and I haven’t wanted to continue with my work until I saw the critiques. This is BAD. I feel a bit foolish, really – I thought I was doing the right thing for my writing career and it turns out I’ve just been shooting myself in the foot.
Needless to say, I am now rectifying the situation. I have vowed not to attend anymore writing workshops until July, when I’ll be spending a week at Faber Academy’s fiction boot camp. I have also decided that I don’t really need to continue with my character outlines, especially if my resistance to doing them is causing me to delay writing. Hopefully these changes will allow me to spend more time working on my novel and racking up that word count!
Do you spend time on things that could be procrastination in disguise? What are your tricks for staying focused on writing?