National Procrastination Week is Next Week… Or, Um, In a Few Weeks. Yes, For Sure…

This post comes from WordServe author Rick Marschall. Welcome, Rick!

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There actually IS a National Procrastination Week, as most writers know. Or should know. If we didn’t know, we can count on editors to remind us. Or publishers. Or agents. Or spouses. Or neighbors and strangers who eventually figure why we small-talk with them, obsessively, at odd times.

But there is such an observance, appropriately not on a fixed date, usually in early March. If there were a day, not a week, the most ironic date would be March Fourth – because the dreaded P word has nothing to do with marching forth.

Most of us get tagged as being procrastinators. I have heard of writers who awake at, say, 7:28 every morning, commence writing at 10 a.m., take a 45-minute lunch break, and then write again until 4:30. Usually these writers produce several 900-page books a year, a fact that further confounds me. My guess is that if you are one of those writers, you spend most of your free time physically fending off attacks by crazed fellow-writers – i.e., the majority of us – who congregate at the intersection of Jealous Street and Incredulous Avenue, mumbling about you.

Over the years I have shoved out 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles, as well as uncountable scripts, columns, and blog essays. So I actually have been acquainted with deadlines, and, overwhelmingly, met deadlines.

But I write about that near-universal experience of racing the clock, if not the calendar, at deadline-time. I am wont to call them Last Writes, ha. If the profession invented the word Dead-line, then I can play with the term Last Rites. Enough puns here, because I seriously have a view about Writers’ Procrastination I never have heard advanced by anyone. It is a principle of our process, I think. Let me call this Marschall Law (Sorry, that is the last pun).

Whether we meet deadlines or barely meet deadlines, we assume guilt for the “minutes-to-spare” syndrome. Polite friends call it Procrastination; honest friends might call it Disorganization; harsh observers sometimes call it Laziness. Have you ever felt like pleading guilty to any of these? Have you ever finished a book without silently promising yourself to start earlier, write more, self-edit better, and finish sooner, next time?

Here is the realization I had. You have heard the expression, “Some people work best under pressure.” Some people do. We admire stories of Mozart and Beethoven scribbling scores, orchestral parts, mere moments before a first performance. Of Rodin leaving sculptures half-chiseled. Of Tolstoy’s first draft of War and Peace only running through Chapter 3, and his editor finding “etc…” before he squeezed the rest of the manuscript.

Actually, only the Mozart and Beethoven stories are true. (Otherwise, Tolstoy’s book would be known as War and Piece.) (That’s the last pun.) But most of us recognize that feeling. I have a view that if God, in the fullness of time, had not created Last Minutes, very little in this world would get done.

If it is true that some of us work best under pressure, I think it is logical – and, surely, subliminal – that we create our own pressure. Why do we find ourselves, say, reading instead of writing? Straightening out shelves and files when not necessary? Sharpening pencils, when we haven’t used a pencil since the first Bush presidency? Arranging our sock drawers?

Are we processing the next chapter? Reconsidering a plot thread? Praying for more wisdom (non-fiction) or killing off a different character (fiction) (I hope)?

No… we subconsciously create that inchoate factor, that diaphanous monster, called Pressure. Honestly, it is not really a monster. My best books (the most successful, or best-received, or ones I think have stood up) were produced in pressure-cooker scenarios; when I went total-immersion; when I ate, breathed, slept with The Book.

I could not have done that, in all those cases, if a date-book, instead of a Deadline Panic, had ordered my days. Panic worked, has worked, and I suspect for many creators throughout history, will continue to work. It should not change our working modes – we have all reached the limits of excuses – but can lift the guilt a little.

But somehow, I don’t think anyone will designate a National Panic Day…

 

rickmarschallphoto-110x165Rick Marschall has indeed written 74 books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. Bostonia Magazine called him “perhaps America’s foremost authority on popular culture,” and trying to maintain that reputation, writes in the fields of history, biography, music, television  history, and children’s books in addition to books, articles, and essays in the Christian field. He has been a political cartoonist, editor of marvel Comics, and writer for Disney. He currently is obscenely late on a manuscript, and while not making light of a writer’s responsibilities, has analyzed writer’s block and creative challenges.

Got Writer’s Block?

pencil-918449_640It happens to all of us at one time or another. If you’re anything like me, you probably tend to experience “feast or famine” when it comes to putting words onto a page or screen. At times it is hard for my now middle-aged hands to keep up with my brain; and other times, it is frustrating to these same hands to have little, if any, words I can string into sentences that make sense.

If the season I’m in permits me to do so, I use the down times to invest in my own personal growth. I study. I read. I observe. I take notes. I connect with others. This helps me in several ways, but this one way is what motivates me most:

It allows my brain to rest and receive. As writers, we offer so much output that we need to be careful to prevent our own well from drying up. Without investing in our own personal growth and development through relational and educational resources, we minimize our own effectiveness in what we share through our writing.

Most of the time, though, I have some kind of deadline–whether for an event where I’ll be speaking, a blog post I’m writing, a class I’m teaching, or a book I’m authoring. It’s in these situations that I find this one tip helps me get over writer’s block.

The Power of Story

For me, it helps if I can quiet the noise in my inner world long enough to allow a story to come to my mind. It might be a story I’ve read or a story I’ve lived. Either way, there is much to be said about how story inspires.

Consider the following:

“We may live our lives in prose, but it is poetry that we live for. A compelling story can evolve into a narrative that inspires a shared sense of mission. That, in turn can lead to a long and great legacy. That’s the power of story…

As Geoff Colvin explains in his new book, Humans Are Underrated, we are wired for interpersonal connections and put more stock in ideas that result from personal contact than from hard data. Essentially, we internalize stories much better than we do facts.

As proof he points to research that examined expert testimony in a court case. The study found that jurors considered experts that had a personal clinical experience far more credible than those that merely offered an analysis of the relevant facts, even if they were shown that a data driven approach is more accurate. In other words, the jurors needed a story.

Stories are emotional and we are more likely to remember and react to them.”

(For the entire article, written by Greg Satell for Forbes.com, please click here.)

So, if you find yourself struggling with writer’s block, find a quiet place, or do something with your hands that you don’t have to think much through (chores around the house help me), and allow the story to inspire your writing.

As you share the story with your readers, there’s a good chance you’ll connect with them on a personal level in a way that facts alone–regardless of how powerful those facts may be–could never do.

Consider what Curt Thompson, MD has to say in his book, Anatomy of the Soul, in regard to story:

“When we tell our stories or listen to another person’s story, our left and right modes of processing integrate. This is why simply reading The Ten Commandments as a list of dos and don’ts has so little efficacy…Isolating commands for right living apart from their storied context is at best neurologically non-integrating and, at worst, disintegrating. This is why telling our stories is so important.”

Your story is powerful. Refuse to listen to the negative voices inside your own head that tell you differently. There are a whole ‘lotta someones out there who need what only you have the experience to offer. 

7 Surprising Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block

file0001849487704 The words stop flowing and we can become desperate. There could be a deadline looming or just our own daily goals. Writer’s Block – fearful words. How can we overcome it and move forward? Try these tips from the pros:

1. Take a walk.  For me, a long five or six mile walk helps. . .  I find that then thoughts begin to come to me in their quiet way.  — Brenda Ueland

2. Consider a media fast.  I had a half-dozen half-finished manuscripts on my computer, but I couldn’t seem to finish a book . . .  I decided to do a forty-day media fast out of desperation. . . In the process, I found that my writing became a form of praying.  I don’t type on a keyboard; I pray on it.  And by the time I was done, I had completed my first self-published book.  –Mark Batterson

3. Lower your expectations.  I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent—and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. Malcolm Gladwell

4. Don’t wait to have it all worked out.  If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word. –Margaret Atwood 

5. Pray. The first thing I do when I am stuck is pray. . .I get on my knees and remind God that this was not my idea, it was His…Then I ask God to show me if there is something He wants to say to prepare me for what He wants me to communicate to our congregation.  I surrender my ideas, my outline and my topic.  Then I just stay in that quiet place until God quiets my heart…Many times I will have a breakthrough thought or idea that brings clarity to my message. — Andy Stanley

6: Chunk it. The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. — Mark Twain

7. Change course.  If you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject. — Ray Bradbury

Great ideas from some great writers.  What do you do when you are blocked?

Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers   www.WritingSisters.com

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Shepherd Song

How to Avoid the Second-Book Slump

How to Avoid the Second-Book Slump @JanalynVoigtWriting, like marriage, is an odd mixture of passion and duty. The same writers who speak of “falling in love” with a story complain about “having to” edit it. Some marriages are easier than others, and that’s also true of books. Some pearls make it to publication with few edits, but often, by the time a novel reaches readers, its writer is sick of working on it. Given these conditions, it’s not surprising to learn that the second book in a series frequently disappoints readers. Preventing this from happening to your second book requires a look at this syndrome’s causes.

Time Frame  

A debut novel usually benefits from years of labor as its author polishes it over and over in order to land a contract. But a second novel, when contracted from a synopsis and likely written in a matter of months, doesn’t go through as strenuous a process.

Solutions:

  • Simply being aware of this as a problem is half the battle. Commit to giving your second book your all, just as you did with your first.
  • Before you submit your second manuscript, make sure you put it in front of a number of “eyes.” Accept knowledgeable critiques, remarks from beta readers, and/or paid editorial advice.

Interruptions

A writer often has to set aside writing the second book in a series to work on edits and/or promotion for the first. While necessary, interruptions stifle the creative flow. Most writers find returning to a cold manuscript difficult.

Solutions:

  • Have all books in a series written before you submit them for publication. Previously, writers held off on writing a second book until the first had sold. This made sense because publication usually went through traditional publishers. These days it’s harder to win that traditional contract but easier to become published. Take this advice if you would hire an editor and independently publish your work, should it fail to land a traditional contract.
  • Learn to write your first draft quickly so that, by the time edits for the first book hit, you’re ready for them.
  • Dedicate part of your day to writing and part to editing, with a break in between. Your brain will learn to readily switch gears.

Conflicting Emotions

During edits, writers must face, accept, and overcome their own weaknesses. The angst this causes can attach itself in the writer’s mind to the series itself. To draw a parallel from marriage: While undergoing marital counseling , it can be hard to remember first love.

Solutions:

  • Go back over your notes or read earlier entries in a writing journal to remind yourself why you love this series.
  • Reconnect with your novel’s theme, which you hopefully drew from one of your passions.  Prayer and meditation can help.

Eroded Confidence

It’s common knowledge that artistic people are their own worst critics, and that’s certainly true of writers. As a result, while dealing with edits it’s easy to lose confidence and take fewer risks with the second book, which can rob it of zeal.

Solutions:

  • Re-read any endorsements or encouraging comments you received for your first novel.
  • Remind yourself that your publisher believes in you enough to work with you.
  • Give yourself permission to dream about what could happen in your story. Don’t censor your ideas, but simply write them down. And when you go back over your brainstorming session, be wise but bold.

Creative Desire  

When the passion in a marriage fizzles, it’s tempting to look elsewhere for fulfillment. In the same way, when a writer loses that loving feeling for a project, other tempting ideas can siphon creative energy and distract attention. This has an adulterating effect on the work at hand.

Solutions:

  • Rather than ignoring new ideas, write them down (briefly) and save them for later. This keeps them percolating on the back burner until you’re ready for them.
  • Stir your passion for the work at hand by dreaming about the story, exploring the nuances of its characters, and mentally writing the next scene.

If you follow these steps, you’ll soon recapture your passion for your series.

Can you suggest some other ways to revive your writing mid-series?

How to Avoid the Second-Book Slump was first published at Live Write Breathe, Janalyn Voigt’s website for writers.

Is Writer’s Block Real?

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Ernest Hemingway fought bulls in Spain, dodged bullets as a war correspondent, and hunted big game in Africa . . . but when he was asked to name his scariest experience, he said, “A blank sheet of paper.”

Recently I received an email from a buddy of mine who’s convinced she’s got writer’s block. Convincing me, though, is a tough sell. You can quote Hemingway all you like, but I think writer’s block is a scam.

Hold on. Before you sharpen your pitchforks and/or chastise me for being a heartless friend, allow me to explain.

Just because you can’t pump out fifty words to save your life doesn’t mean you’ve contracted the dreaded Writer’s Block Virus. It simply means you’re going to have to work. Yes, indeedy, welcome to Realsville. More often than not, writing is work. Grunt work. The kind that makes you sweat.

Oftentimes when one thinks they might have writer’s block, it’s simply a case of having to search deep inside to come up with a sentence or two. Sometimes that’s super hard, but it’s never impossible . . . unless of course you’re in a coma and/or your fingers are broken.

Granted, you might not have a clue what to write on your current work in progress (WIP), but writing isn’t just about a WIP. You could write a letter to a friend, an encouraging note to your pastor, a measly shopping list for crying out loud. Writing is writing. It all counts.

I hear you, though. You want to make progress on your Great American Novel, yet you’ve all of a sudden skidded to a stop. Instead of throwing your hands in the air and crying, “I’ve got writer’s block!” give one of these ideas a whirl:

• Write something completely different. A sonnet. A piece of flash fiction. A rebuttal to a letter to the editor.
• Walk away and refuse to think about your story for a day, a week, or two even.
• Kill off a character (one of my personal favorites).
• Add in a new character.
• Do something creative with your hands. Paint a poster. Bake bread. Color with your kids.
• Begin work on another scene.
• Go to a mall and eavesdrop on conversations.
• Write the last scene.
• Think of an event that would make your protagonist weep. Write it.

What do all of these ideas have in common? They put your mind on something other than the spot you were stuck in so that hopefully when you do eventually come back to it, you’ll have a new perspective.

But what if you’re still stuck?

That’s when you need to pull out the big guns. Call a trusted writer buddy and cry on their shoulder, then brainstorm like nobody’s business.

I refuse to believe that writer’s block is real. Is that naive? Cold-hearted? Ignorant? Perhaps, but those are the least of my sins. I serve a pretty big God. If He wants me to write, I will, block or no block. Therein lies my confidence.

When Your Muse Takes a Vacation

wheeled-bags-143413_640It’s that time of year to start reserving your campsite or cabin or airline seats. Yay for summer vacation! But who’s got time for that?

Your week is slammed—chock full of appointments and meetings and paperwork that you don’t want to fill out in the first place. And, dutiful writer that you are, you realize you must make time amidst the chaos to write or it’s not going to happen. So, you whip out a crowbar and pry open a block of precious hours to work on your bestseller. It’s hopeful. It’s a handhold on your rockslide of a schedule and you’re looking forward to it.

Fast forward. The blessed time has arrived for you to lose yourself in the muse and surge ahead in your WIP. Java in one hand, laptop in the other, you cozy up in your favorite chair, ready to write and—

Apparently your muse didn’t get the memo. Your mind is blank and you are exhausted. Panic sets in. This is your only chance to write for the week and you don’t want to blow it. So you sit there with a crazed look on your face, whimpering.

Yeah. I hear you. I’ve been there. Frequently. Take a deep breath and read on because I’ve got a few tricks in my writerly bag that often are helpful.

470077_13483801Say What?

Close your eyes for a moment and listen to your characters. Just listen. Then open your eyes and write down what they’re saying. That’s right…I’m giving you permission to simply write dialogue. Don’t worry about attributes. You can go back and do that later. Simply start typing in a conversation between two of your characters (any two) and something magical will happen. You’ll get lost in the dialogue and pretty soon your word count will sky rocket.

Show & Tell

Open up to your collection of pictures that inspire your particular story. And if you don’t have any, then use this time to get some. What am I talking about? Well, I now keep pictures of each of my stories on Pinterest (here is an example). You don’t have to use that site, but you can look at my board and it will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Pre-Pinterest days I simply opened a Word file and kept them there. Pre-laptop days I cut out pictures and tossed them into a file folder. Sometimes all it takes to get you writing is to physically look into your hero or heroine’s eyes.

1427476_92609932Slash & Burn

Go back to a previous chapter and edit. Even if your muse doesn’t happen to show up during that entire block of time, at least you’ll be making some kind of headway on your WIP and you’ll feel a lot better about it.

Mind Game

Release the pressure by telling yourself it’s quality not quantity. Focus on writing a single paragraph of description, either describing a character, a setting, an object…whatever. Make it a game by throwing out convention and using prose that’s crazy and you’ll find that one of two things will happen. It will either spur you into a creative new bent for the scene and you’ll move on in your story, or you’ll wonder what kind of drugs you’re on and snap out of it.

1439836_95143378Chocolate

Honestly, is there any situation that chocolate doesn’t make better? Go for the biggest brownie in the batch and see if that doesn’t put you in a better frame of mind

There you have it. Try one. Try all. Or go ahead and share with us other surefire ways you’ve tried to plead with your muse to pack up the suntan lotion and get home.

Loved, Chosen, and Writing (for the Forseeable Future) at 5 a.m.—A Lesson from Anne Lamott

Anne-Lamott-2013-San-Francisco--Wikimedia Commons--ZboralskiI just returned from Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, featuring such diverse writers as Luci Shaw, Richard Foster, Rachel Held Evans, and Anne Lamott and offering sessions on everything from how to write a book proposal to self-publishing, writing about trauma to writing novels, writing children’s books to writing faithfully about sex. Some sessions were practical, others funny, some heady, some worshipful. All inspired and challenged me. Several offered strategies I’ve taken to heart and will pass on to my students.

The best advice, from Anne Lamott, was the simplest and hardly new or profound. She must have said it twenty times during a characteristically hilarious and solipsistic one-hour interview—which surged pell-mell in and out of her various addictions, the gift of desperation, her cellulite-pocked thighs, people she appreciates (those who give her even more cream for her coffee, for example) and those she avoids (e.g., those who claim you can’t have fear and faith simultaneously), her love of desserts and coffee with massive amounts of cream (Did I mention that already?), the interminably lost and sought jetliner on CNN in her hotel room, and the good news that we’re “loved and chosen” (a refrain I’m already aware of reiterated apropos to nothing that I could tell but nevertheless causing tears to start from my eyes each time)—and it was the same advice I’ve encountered whenever I’ve heard her talk or reread her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird. Still, like that loved and chosen refrain, it seized me anew each time she said it. It was this: All it takes to write is to sit down and do it.

She put forth several ancillary recommendations. That you can’t wait for your toddlers to start school or your teens to leave home. That you don’t need an office, just a door that closes. That you have to say no, nicely, to the dogs, cats, and kids at that door, who are attracted like heat-seeking missiles to your lap (or thighs or cellulite, I can’t remember). That all one needs—not only in writing but in everything (“Anything I know about anything,” she observed, “applies to everything else.”) is structure and discipline. That, for the past four years, she’s turned off her cellphone and written every day, at the same exact time (9 a.m.), no matter what.

“Give me an hour!” she kept demanding—as if she were our mom and we her teenage wastrels—and pointing out all the junk we waste our time on each day. Though I’ve written and revised and published five books, I still need this reminder, this goad to get after it.

“You’ve got an hour! Give me that hour!” she yelled, as though we would be writing just for her.

And truly, inspired as I was by that simple call to quit dallying, I really feel as though I’m writing, right now, for Anne alone.

Farmland_and_Airbus_Beluga_near_Cop_House_Farm_-_geograph_org_uk_-_446678I planned out that hour—or maybe two, since, as she said, you’ll really only get forty usable minutes out of an hour, only an hour and twenty minutes out of two—all the way back to Oklahoma. In the seats at my gate, on the tarmac waiting in vain to take off, back in those airport seats after deplaning because of weather in Chicago (Who knew you couldn’t take off on a runway perpendicular to the wind direction?), through the murky clouds over Illinois and Missouri and Arkansas, in the car snailing the empty roads at midnight with my cautious husband.

“I’m gonna write as soon as I get up,” I told him. “Before I run. Before I do any grading or reading. Get me up at five, when you get up, but don’t talk to me. Just give me my coffee and let me write.”

Don’t worry: I’m a morning person. And with our dogs living outdoors and daughters away at college, I can write in my non-office—the living room—without even the closeable door Lamott requires. If my gaze strays from my computer screen, I’ll see the sun turn the horizon pink. Every single day. At this rate, I’ll get my novel drafted before summer’s end and revised and sent off sometime before moving on, loved and chosen, to a heaven of no distractions from what I should be doing.