Perfecting the Practice of Procrastination

Procrastination? Oh look, there’s a squirrel!

a cute squirrel is an excuse for procrastination

Hi, Sarah here. If you think writing is easy, think again!

Yes, an author might have a burst of creativity, ideas may come thick and fast, but translating those scenes in one’s head into a publishable book can be tortuous. Sometimes anything seems a better option than actually putting words on the page.

Recently, Liz Fielding and I sat down to discuss the problem of procrastination. Then we were distracted!

So — yesterday we finally sat down to discuss it!

Procrastination is the thief of time

Liz:  Ah, the P word, Sarah. What can I say?  When the words are slow to come, there is always the lure of Pinterest…

nail art, and excuse for procrastinationIt’s a rabbit hole down which a writer can fall for hours. Hunting for an image of the perfect location. Looking for a picture of the heroine you see in your head — the one with impossibly bright red curly hair. Searching for the hero who has just spotted her sitting out at a beach party. Then there’s the jewellery fit for a sheikh’s princess. And stationery. (All writers are into pretty notebooks!) And when all else fails, nail art!

And don’t get me started on social media.

Morecambe and Wise with Andre Previn (Andrew Preview)Sarah: Even this blog is a distraction, since we began discussing it when I was supposed to be writing my book! I have reached the point where I have the full story sorted out but not yet written. I have a timeline, I have the story and most of the scenes. In fact, to paraphrase the immortal Eric Morecambe, I have all the right words, but not necessarily in the right order!

Research can be dangerous! (Even if not really procrastination …)

Liz: That is so  familiar! I’m a pantster — a fully fledged fly-into-the-mist writer which means that plotting out a story is a dangerous game.

I wrote an outline for a novella over a year ago in an attempt to be organised. I thought it would speed up my writing. Instead, it stalled me.  I write to discover what my characters will do to surprise me. To find out what happens. And I already know. I doubt it will ever get written.

images of Georgian doors and handles

Georgian doors and handles…

Sarah: I am exactly the same! As soon as I have finished my story in my head, I want to move on to the next one. Luckily my current work hasn’t reached that state (yet) but it has soooo many distractions!

My heroine has dashed off to save the hero, who is being held in a dilapidated house in London. Now, what sort of handles would a small, mid-Georgian townhouse have had? A latch, or a handle, or a knob? Luckily I know a very knowledgeable gent who was only too happy to help, and I came across some fascinating details….

Liz: That’s procrastination again, Sarah! Those details will side-track you every time. I frequently stop to check what flowers will be blooming in my location and, more recently, details of fishing licences and inheritance tax led me astray for hours.

Organisation, organisation, organisation…

Organised writers make a note to check later and carry on writing. I can’t do that. It has to be right before I can move on. It sounds as if you have the same problem! What has been your biggest ever procrastination moment? Costume? Food? I’ve always steered clear of writing historical romance because of the research involved.

Cover of The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald

Sarah: Food is always tempting! So many old books have been scanned now and are available free online. For The Highborn Housekeeper, my latest Harlequin/Mills & Boon historical, which is out in July, I referred constantly to Elizabeth Raffald’s 1786 edition of The Experienced English Housekeeper. I didn’t manage to put in her opinion that coal stoves are much better than charcoal (which is, apparently, pernicious to cooks), or her portable soup for travellers (made with three large legs of veal) but maybe next time….

Getting back on track

clock showing after half past twelve -- lunch timeThen it depends what stage I am at with my book. If I am actually writing the story, I can set myself a goal of a certain number of words.  If it is plotting, scene setting and research etc, then I prefer to set myself a certain amount of time. Experience has told me that four hours is a realistic target.  At nine o’clock in the morning it feels as if there is plenty of time to get 4 hours of writing done, but then I stop the clock for tea breaks, loo breaks, when the postman calls, when I have lunch — you get the idea?  Suddenly, 4 hours takes me all day. But at least by keeping an eye on the time I can see what I am actually achieving.

But I digress again. Let’s look at solutions, Liz.  How do you get down to work during those times when even ironing seems alluring (or maybe that’s just me). I try to clear my desk of clutter — i.e. I move the pile of “To be done” papers onto another surface.

To Do ListLiz: I agree that clearing the clutter helps. Things nagging at the back of your mind will drag your attention — already eager to be off and playing truant — away from the writing. A talk to be written, a newsletter, a trip to the post office. We’ve both moved house recently and I still have a stack of pictures to be hung, bookshelves that need sorting, a basket of the why-on-earth-did-I pack-it “stuff” on the floor.

I’m a slow writer so the word count thing doesn’t work for me. Jotting down the bare basics of the next scene and then giving myself a writing sprint of twenty minutes has been a really useful way of helping with focus. A lot of small steps quickly build up into chapter.

If music be the food of love…

grand pianoMusic also helps. Instrumental, classic stuff, nothing to intrude on the word space. On good days I put on a piece of Mozart’s less flashy stuff and don’t even notice when it goes off. Alexa is great for that!

Sarah: I also use music. Instrumental classical, like you, and often piano music, not to enjoy it, but so that it covers all those distracting noises like chatter, other people moving about the house etc.  It seems to work for me.

What really matters?

archway into garden of stately homeOf course, it isn’t always possible to find time to write.  Another respected author friend of mine once told me “family first, writing second”. And I try to stick by that.

Liz: Since moving close to my daughter I am doing more babysitting and family stuff.  I’m also going out a lot more.  The suggestion of a walk at Standen House on a beautiful spring morning is always going to win over a morning at the typeface. And the answer to a “fancy a swim?” text from my daughter has to be a yes. Exercise is soooo important for those of us who spend hours at a desk!  East Grinstead is a busy place, with a lot to distract the easily led!

cover of Juliet's School of Possibilities by Laura VanderkamI recently read a book about time management called Juliet’s School of Possibilities by Laura Vanderkam in which the main message was “We will always find time for what matters to us.”

We do get led down the path of procrastination, Sarah, but we always find time for our families, for friends. And we always — almost always — get the book in on time.

Sarah: It’s called being professional, Liz. (Dear reader, please forgive us if we allow ourselves a teensy smug smile here.)

I am sure others have their favourite distraction-busting techniques, and we’d love to hear them, so over to you, fellow busy-bees….

Sarah and Liz

Sarah Mallory, historical romance author        

14 thoughts on “Perfecting the Practice of Procrastination

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    All rings so true. With me, it’s promotion that gets in the way. There’s always more to do. I write early morning in bed, so any morning appointment can wreck my output. I try to keep them to afternoon but it doesn’t always work. Getting it written is the perennial writer’s problem. Life has far too many interesting avenues to explore.

    1. Liz

      Promotion is a big time stealer, Liz .A quick ten minute catch up onTwitter or Facebook can become an hour before you know it. I think a timer is a good idea and I have one. I just need to use it. 🙂

    2. Sarah Post author

      I agree, Liz B – the BIG problem with promo is that you can so easily tell yourself it is necessary for a writer. And it is. But then again, so is writing that darned book! I keep trying to convince myself of that….

  2. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I do so agree: Procrastination is my middle name. I follow the writer Evelyn Waugh’s advice (at least, I think it’s Evelyn Waugh – excuse me while I check) He said, ‘I aim to write a line and a half a day.’ Of course, it’s quite impossible to write just a line and a half, and, before you know it, you are well into the next scene.

    1. Joanna

      Made me smile, Elizabeth. But then I remembered Oscar Wilde. Wasn’t he the one who said he spent the whole morning and just put in one comma, and then the whole afternoon and simply took it out again? I can identify with that, too. 😉

    2. Sarah Post author

      A line and a half sounds very achievable, doesn’t it? What a good idea, Elizabeth. Someone once told me that the journalists’ adage is “don’t get it right, get it written”. I have been using that on my latest wip, which is behind schedule (hangs head in shame). It worked, in that I now have lots of work, but oh, the struggle now to beat them into shape!

  3. Liz

    I like that quote, Elizabeth. We all need to shut off the outside world and focus on the one we’re creating.

  4. lesley2cats

    I agree with every word of that. And the only anti-procrastinating technique I have is going on retreat with like minded friends – when I’m at home I have to rely on my rather shaky willpower. As I only have three months to write the next epic, I’d welcome any suggestions…

    1. Sarah Post author

      You will do it, Lesley, a deadline always sharpens the resolve 🙂 I hope it will help to know that you are not alone!

  5. Rosemary Gemmell

    Love this post and can identify with so much of what you experience, Liz and Sarah! I can’t plot to save myself and love background music while writing. I move my WIP on most when writing with pen and paper on the train or in a café but can’t do that every day. I am, however, training myself to leave gaps for further information/detail as I go, in the hope of reaching the end sooner. I always enjoy the second draft more than the first!

    1. Sarah Mallory

      So do I, Rosemary, when I get to the second draft! As for leaving gaps – I should be doing that now, instead I am (or was, before I broke off to answer this) investigating how long it would take a blacksmith to remove manacles from my hero…..

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