Friday, July 20, 2007

On why procrastination is important

One of the commonest questions I am asked by readers is: do you have any writing tips? And it usually reduces me to silence: I never quite know where to begin. Worse, some of the most sensible things I have to say about writing are really boring. However, I have been promising for years that I would write something about writing and, now The Singing is finished, I no longer have any excuses.

So I thought I'd start an irregular series of reflections on the process of writing, as I've experienced it, anyway. In any case, today I am supposed to be reviewing a very thick, very complicated book for The Book Show on ABC Radio (it's not the kind of book you can read in bed, because if you fell asleep reading it, it would knock you out). And I suddenly thought I'd like to do something else.

Which leads me to my first observation: writers are, without exception, huge procrastinators. I have never known a writer - and in my time I've met a few - who wasn't. A writer with a deadline tends to be a writer with well-ironed clothes, or with a sudden strange desire to evict the spiders who have been living peaceably in the hall cupboard for years. One of the most frustrating things about writing - for the writer, at least - can be a weird allergy that develops towards the activity that, supposedly, you love most of all in the world.

There is a good reason for this. A lot of the most important work you do occurs when you're not actually writing, or even thinking about writing. Somewhere at the back of your mind something is going on: wheels are whirring, cogs are clicking, feelings are being felt. The annoying thing is that it's impossible to know what that work is until it appears on the page. The only thing experience teaches you is how to tell when it's ready, when it's "cooked" - and even experience doesn't mean that you're certain. Once it's "cooked", the hard work starts. I'll talk about the hard work in another post.

If that "underneath" work has happened, then what you write down will surprise you: things will occur that you don't expect, people will turn up whom you don't know. (This has always struck me as one of the most mysterious things about writing a story: where does it come from? The author doesn't necessarily know, you know.)

This is why I don't believe in writer's block. If you can't write - really can't, no matter how hard you try - it's because the writing isn't ready. Do something else. Your brain is cooking. And yes, sometimes this cooking takes a very long time. Sometimes it can take years.

Did I say that being a writer requires patience?

But - I hear you ask - if you can't control this "underneath" work, how do you get anything done? And how do you know what you want to do?

Sometimes you don't know, and sometimes you do. You can get glimpses of what's going on - feelings and desires, an image maybe, or a person saying something - enough to give you some idea of what it is you want to make. You might even sketch out a plan. But unless the "underneath" work does its job, what you write will feel empty. It's like the difference between joining the dots and making a beautiful painting. You can plan all you like, but what makes something seem real and full is the unexpected things that happen as you discover what it is that you're making. And you only discover that when you make it.

So, the best thing to do is to feed that hidden part of your mind. Go for a walk. Read a book. Watch people on the street, notice how they walk or speak to each other. Read a poem. Go to the art gallery and find a painting you really like and really, really look at it. Think about your writing, and then put it out of your mind. Read some more. Read all kinds of things: fiction and non-fiction, poetry and plays, comic books and visual novels. Make sure that you read things you really enjoy. Put on your favourite CD and listen to it over and over again. Talk to the cat.

If people accuse you of being lazy, tell them that you're working really, really hard. Tell them that you're feeding the book that is growing in the dark part of your mind. They probably won't believe you, but it will be true.


Jennifer said...

Honestly, I'd have to agree with the music tid bit. There is just something about listening to the underlying currents in a musical piece. - just putting this out there- Classical/Opera have some of those wonderful currents... lovers being parted, wars started, etc. They connect with the listener and with that comes a torrent of images, emotions, ideas etc.
Ahh... the wonderful state of being, procrastination. Much is said about that, and I believe that you covered it well Alison. As for being "lazy" for thinking about writing, it is not what is appears to be. Thinking requires a lot of energy which makes some people refuse to actually go into depth about an issue, or in this case, a whole new world that has not been discovered yet.

Alison Croggon said...

It took me a long time to reconcile myself to the utter physical exhaustion that strikes you after finishing a work. It feels quite wrong - after all, it's not like you've been lifting weights or riding the Tour de France! But it happens, all the same. According to my family, I lose weight when writing those books too. So it must take energy. I'm just not sure how, because I'm sitting down all day!

Jennifer said...

I read somwhere that reading for a hour burns 100 calories, perhaps writing and thinking requires more than that, and maybe stress has a play in it as well. Though, after you finish a work, don't you feel a bit relieved?

tinkerbelle said...

i agree with Jennifer, there is such a relief about finishing a piece of work and i cna only imagine that feeling would be amplified when its an extended project such as writing a whole series for example hahaha. i confess myself to be an awful procrastinator. What keeps you motivated in you work Alison? Is there a certain something that inspires you to keep going or do you just have lapses where you become really good at solitaire instead?

Alison Croggon said...

I feel very relieved, Jennifer. Especially with this one: I was very nervous (although I didn't admit it to myself) about approaching The Singing. It has a weight of expectation the other books didn't have, and I was afraid I couldn't do it. (Well, I might not have - but at the moment, I feel that I managed to do what I hoped I could).

As for being motivated: deadlines are a great help! :) Nice emails from readers help too. And I do play a lot of Nintendo while writing novels. So much so in fact that my son drew me a birthday card a couple of years ago, on which I was swearing as Link (I think it was Zelda back then) died yet again, with the headline: "Mum, hard at work on The Crow".

Jennifer said...

That is quite funny. Are you any better at playing Nintendo now?
*I tried playing that game and died as well. Video games are not my cup of tea.*

Ashley said...

Wow, I was just thinking about this the other day! Actually, one of my main struggles is not only having the patience to let the story stew and develope in my mind (thinking I should be writing it out) but also, sometimes I think my story is somewhat cheesy sounding in my head. I hope when I get down to getting it on paper one day, it will have developed into something great.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm pretty hopeless really (actually, I'm stuck now on a nasty Quadraxis boss in Metroid Prime 2, and just died yet again, but there we are). I'm just not quick enough. But it's relaxing, all the same, in a way that lets my mind wander, which is actually quite good for me, as my mind is rather hyperactive otherwise. And there's no chance of it turning into an overwhelming obsession, which tends to happen with my distractions. The Pellinor books started off as a distraction from poetry. My theatre blog started off as a distraction from novel-writing, and is almost a full-time job now, and even got me a proper paying job as a theatre critic on a newspaper...which is great, but I'm beginning to feel like I need to clone myself. So beware!

Yes, patience is the key, Ashley. I actually think it's one of the most important and difficult things about writing long works. I'm not a very patient person myself. I have to write synopses before I write the novels, so the publishers have something that indicates what they're buying, and mine always look very very cheesy to me. Also, they don't seem to have that much to do with the final book!

Chris' Girl said...

I find that some of the best plot ideas I've gotten to improve my work (when I think that the LAST bad idea has been exhausted and I can't think of anything good to write or to improve it, and yet I know it needs something else) comes after awhile of completely, utterly ignoring it. I'm too lazy to write out the changes I want to make, but ideas - from my own life, etc. - start to form, and by the time I sit down to write, I know how it is supposed to go...and proceed to deviate from what I've got all planned out...again. Garth Nix said that he writes all his chapter outlines out so he has the pleasure of departing from them later on, and for me, that is SO true.

Did the books turn out generally how you wanted, Alison, or did everything go awry and take its own direction once you started writing?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Chris' Girl - I'll expand on this one in a post, I think! I've found the dance between intention and accident in writing these books quite fascinating - it never turns out like I imagined, but somehow it's exactly where I wanted to go...

Chris' Girl said...

...sorry to spam your comments thread, but I'm Dena from sffworld xD

And I know exactly what you're talking about (or, mostly. Unpublished as of yet!)

eowyn336 said...

How do you keep track of all the plot changes that connect to each other? For example: when something so small and insignificant comes back into the plot and makes everything more complicated. I couldn't actually think of something because I am not reading the book at this very moment!!!. Anyways, I was so amazed that in every description of Maerad it was so detailed and mentioned how she was feeling about so many big and small things that had already taken place. In the story I am working on now I don't even know how to start, I am just trying not to steal your characters!!! Even if I did I wouldn't be satisfied unless you had written it. Do you have any suggestions on starting?

Ink Mage said...

Thank you so, so much for posting this! I began a story a couple years ago, which I hope will one day be novel-length, but nothing more has come out after only 7 pages. It is really great to know that all the little things that have popped into my mind and things I have observed might one day add up to something.

Thanks again!

Epona said...

I have to say i found this post both entertaining and helpful - i especially loved the part about the writers clothes and spiders! As an eternal procrastinator this fits me to a T. i was directed towards the books of pelinor by a close friend, and i have to say i'm delighted to have found them! I think it is especially kind of you to post helpful tips for inspiring authors. Thank you so much for taking the time!