Procrastinating to Perfection

My name is Anne and I’m a procrastinator.

I’m also a writer and procrastination is in the job description. It’s the supreme avoidance tactic that many of us – writers or not – use when we really don’t want to tackle something. But writers seem to take the P word to professional levels.

Procrastination feeds on a writer’s fear and insecurities and I’m susceptible.

Yes, I mostly believe in my writing self. And, no, I can’t imagine my life without writing. I work hard at it, I take it seriously and do my very best. I know and accept my writing’s not perfect, but my fear is that it’s so imperfect nobody will want to read it.

And when the fear gets out of control, writer’s block can set in. It can be that I’m scared I’ve literally lost the plot and I don’t know where my story is going, or because there’s that inner voice that says I’m just an impostor – not a ‘real’ writer at all. And then when I’m stalled at the writer’s block red light, then procrastination can just jump in the car beside me and turn off the engine. (Sorry, bit of a dodgy metaphor right there – occupational hazard. Did I say I’m a writer?)

However, I do seem to have got the procrastinating thing down to manageable levels. When I’m writing my novels I follow Stephen King’s wise words: ‘Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work’.  Writing is my job. When my job was primary school teacher, I got up and went to work whether I was in the mood or not. Similarly with writing – I don’t wait for the muse. I just go to the desk and write. Mostly…

I can’t deny that procrastination does sometimes still stalk me.  And, occasionally, it catches up with me, overtakes me and stands in my way. Then, because I’m now only answerable to myself, and not to a boss, I do sometimes give in to it, let it take me by the hand, and let it lead me down the path to where the non-urgent tasks lie.

But you know what, sometimes giving into procrastination works in my favour. Yes, it could wreck my writing life if I let it, but a little bit now and then can be quite reviving and invigorating. Think of it as like being an alcoholic versus just an occasional drinker. (And yes, there goes another metaphor)

There are actually times when I find procrastination quite helpful. By giving into it, by going for a walk, or doing some gardening, or just tidying a cupboard, I often find that whatever is blocking my writing progress disappears. It’s as if by doing something else, by getting away from the screen or notebook, my mind is freed to go off on a ramble of its own. I then return to my desk ready, maybe even inspired, to write.

I think procrastination is part of the writing process. I think it’s probably right that it’s part of the job description. It lets me step away from the manuscript, lets me take time out to mull things over, to allow fresh ideas to form and, yes, maybe to make my writing a little bit closer to perfection.

Do you sometimes succumb to procrastination? What sort of tasks cause it and how do you get round it? Do you think it serves a positive purpose? Please do feel free to comment below.

Writing: What’s in it for me?

 

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It’s a journey and I never know quite where I’m going to end up

 

For me, for my life in general, writing has always been a problem-solving kind of activity. If I’ve anything on my mind I always find writing it down helps.

It could be something as simple as a to-do list. I do like lists. I make lists about lists and my desk has been called ‘post-it’ city.

If there’s something I need to think through or work out a plan of attack for, then a mind-map or a set of bullet points put down on paper is the way to go. If something is making me anxious, going round and round in my head and is threatening to prevent me from sleeping then simply jotting it down in my bedside notebook, to be attended to in the morning, is enough to allow me to drop off.

But more specifically, writing creatively, whether it’s an article such as this for the blog, or writing a short story or novel helps me make sense of my world and the world. And it’s not necessarily something I set out to discover. I love that writing for me is full of surprises.

For example, when I began writing my first novel Change of Life I had it in mind that I would be writing contemporary fiction, probably with a target readership of middle-aged women. My main characters came to me first. It was to be a story of a long-time married couple who find not only their marriage, but their wider lives too, under threat from some unforeseen changes. It was going to be a straightforward romance novel albeit where the protagonists were no longer in the chick-lit age range.

But working on the story allowed me to work through and gain an understanding of long-term marriage versus short term romance. It led me to examine the ups and downs and pros and cons of inter-generational family relationships. It let me examine friendship and how life-enhancing a true friendship can be. And it let me look at what being diagnosed with a serious illness means in terms of facing up to the rigours of treatment and to accepting one’s own mortality.

Most of all, as I lived with my characters and saw their story unfold, I began to see that change, even when it looks daunting, threatening or even impossible can turn out to be a good and life-affirming thing. I’d stumbled on some big themes.

When I set out to write The Silver Locket, my novel for children, I was aiming to write a modern Enid Blytonesque adventure story with a bit of time travel thrown in.

But teasing out the story meant having to truly empathise with my three main characters: a child with Aspergers, another child whose mother had died, and a child whose parents were divorced. At the time of writing that novel, I was still working as a teacher of children with special educational and emotional support needs. So getting into the heads of my characters gave me a clearer view of how life might actually be for some real life children. Not only that it let me see that what we often view as a handicap can actually be the very opposite of that, and that children left to their own devices can be remarkably resourceful and resilient.

When I began Displacement, my second novel of contemporary fiction for adults, I set off in a similar vein as I had with Change of Life. My main characters had arrived unbidden – one while I was hanging out the washing and the other while I was driving to work. The story would involve some romance, the main characters would be post-fifty, and there would be challenges aplenty – challenges that would lead to the characters’ complete displacement from their normal lives. I knew that the setting would have a big role to play this time, and I knew that the story would have two main locations: the Scottish island of Skye and the Middle Eastern country of Israel-Palestine.

Even although I knew both locations reasonably well, having lived in one and having visited the other several times, I did expect to have to do some research, what I didn’t expect was just where my research and plot development would take me.

I had to delve further into both twentieth century history and current Middle-Eastern politics than I’d intended. I had to confront the realities for a Jewish child escaping Nazi Germany. I had to investigate Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan and what it takes to be a Royal Marine commando. I had to confront parental grief after the loss of a son. I also came to see that displacement can happen on many levels, have many causes and that it can have both positive and negative effects.

And again, I realised as I progressed with the writing, that this was more than a simple romance, more than two characters meeting and, after overcoming a series of obstacles, living happily ever after. Once more I was in the complex territory of real-life, later-life, relationships and real-life, meaning-of-life issues.

Once again I was pleasantly surprised by just how rewarding and intellectually stimulating working on a multi-layered story can be.

And now I’m writing the sequel to Displacement – working title is Settlement. The first thing I got out of it was the surprise of doing it at all. I hadn’t planned to write a sequel. The second thing was an important lesson: do NOT throw your original novel notes away, even when the novel is complete. Yes, I wrote them by hand in a notebook, no I didn’t store them electronically. Duh! So character biographies and house layouts had all to be done again.

But the third and main thing I’m getting out of the writing this time is bigger than those practical discoveries, and bigger than the discoveries made while writing earlier work.

Working on Settlement has me intrigued. It sees the main female character back working in the Middle East partly as a way of settling some personal issues. Meanwhile, the main male character is also dealing with some significant unfinished business from his past. And the plot is developing and operating on so many levels that I hadn’t foreseen.

I did foresee the relationship difficulties between the two main characters. They see life differently. It was apparent in the previous book that one is a romantic and the other is a realist, one prizes loyalty and the other is fickle, one works at relationships, and the other walks away. And I did foresee a parallel between the consequences of upheaval and settlement in the personal lives of my characters and the wider consequences of displacement and settlement on a national and international level.

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But I didn’t foresee just how much the personal aspects would come to underpin the wider political aspects of the story. I came to realise that just the act of letting someone speak, and of listening to them as they do so, can have far-reaching and profound consequences.

I don’t know if there are more surprises to come as I complete the final third of book, but that’s why I love writing so much. I never know where it’s going to take me or what I’m going to discover.

It’s exhilarating!

My next post will look at what (I hope) my writing has in it for readers…

 

Writing Fiction: The how, the what, and the why of what works for me

It’s all about the story…

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When I start writing a novel, I’m not sure where the story is going to lead. But, as an author of both adult and children’s fiction, I do at least know which audience the novel is aimed at. Other than that, once the seed is planted, I wait to see what grows.

I don’t tend to plan in great detail. I have a rough outline that develops as I go and I usually have some key points or scenes or turning points that I’m aiming for. And I don’t always have an ending in mind, preferring it to, in the words of author, Rose Tremain, ‘be earned by all that will go before it’. It’s not till the redrafting stage that I check it all out for rhythm, relevance and cohesion.

So how do I work when creating a novel? What is the process I follow? Why do I write what I write?

It usually begins with a character.

Rosie in Change of Life first presented herself to me when I was wrote a short story for a competition. The story didn’t win any prizes, but Rosie stayed with me. However, it wasn’t until the writer, Ali Smith, who was the tutor on an Arvon Foundation residential course that I attended, said that the short story had a novel in it trying to get out that I dared to take Rosie further.

Rachel in Displacement came to me when I was in the garden hanging out washing. I paused to look out over the croft and the loch beyond and there she was––not in a hallucination or anything––but in my head, in my ear telling a bit of her story.

But Caitlin in The Silver Locket wasn’t my original inspiration. She came after the setting and plot popped into my head. I was still working as a primary school teacher at the time and was on a visit to The Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre along with a class of Primary Six pupils. They’d been learning all about the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie in class, hence the visit. We were out on the battlefield re-enacting, with great relish, the Jacobite charge at the Redcoat army. And the idea came to me: what if time slipped and we were suddenly transported back to 1746 and the actual battle? It was a short step from there to children’s adventure story and Caitlin and her two friends soon made themselves known.

And the characters lead me to issues.

It’s the issues the characters are facing that give the story its heart. The plot arises out of how the characters deal with the issues facing them and it’s from those issues that the themes in my novels appear.

Now, I recently did a post on the role and use of themes in fiction generally and in my own writing in particular. And in that post I explored the notion that literary fiction is driven by themes whereas commercial fiction relies more on character, plot and setting. I came to the conclusion that the divide between the two sides of fiction is often an artificial one.

I don’t write literary fiction, at least I don’t think I do, but I can’t seem to avoid themes any more than I can avoid using characters.

For example, in Change of Life the issues faced by Rosie include her having breast cancer and suspecting her husband has been unfaithful. This meant the book dealt with the themes of one’s own mortality, and of marital love and trust. In Displacement issues faced by the characters include the disorientating and devastating loss of a soldier son, the loss of one’s sense of purpose and place in the world, the end of a long career, and falling in love in later life. This led to the themes of politics, war and the displacement of people being explored, along with those of love, bereavement and the significance of home. And even in my children’s book, The Silver Locket, there were themes, those of loyalty, bravery and self-reliance.

And then there is the question of setting.

In my first novel, the setting of the city of Edinburgh and its neighbouring area of East Lothian, wasn’t crucial or significant to the action, but my characters had to live somewhere. And so I chose the place I was born and lived in for most of my life up to that point.

Setting was, however, crucial in Displacement. By the time I came to write it I’d moved north to the highlands of Scotland. The character of Rachel presented herself as a native of the Isle of Skye. Not only that though, she was also the daughter of a German Jew who’d arrived in Scotland as a child refugee just before the Second World War. I’d recently watched a TV documentary on the Kindertransport when this part of Rachel’s biography came to me. And, having Rachel’s story take place both in her island home and during her visit to Israel to explore her heritage, allowed me to explore and describe two settings I know well. They were also ideal places in which to deal with the themes of displacement, oppression and cultural destruction as they all loom large in Scottish history and of course persist in the Middle East today.

And of course in The Silver Locket the setting was also crucial. There would have been no story for the three young friends without the time travel that took them back to the setting of eighteenth-century Scotland. The setting allowed them to escape their everyday twenty-first century lives, escape their parents and grow in independence and confidence. It allowed them to have their adventure.

And what of the plot?

So, I take all these ingredients and I just crack on. I go to the desk and I mix and remix them till they hold together in a coherent mass. The characters, their situations and their issues all come together and I make a story.

But why?

Why do I write what I write? I can’t help myself. I write what I’ve got to write. I write about what’s important to me. I write the sort of books I want to read.

In my adult fiction, I address the lives of real, middle-aged contemporary women. I address the realities of reaching fifty or sixty years old, the realities of maintaining a long-term marriage, or of starting a new relationship or a new career, of coping with bereavement and one’s own mortality.

Yes, there’s romance in my novels, but it’s tinged with the realism of experience. Happy ever after is just a phase; the real work starts after that––and this is central to the novel I’m working on at the moment which is the sequel to Displacement. And I like to present the positive sides to being older and a bit wiser, to include the new possibilities and opportunities that go with ageing.

And I also like the stories I write (and read) to move beyond ‘the village’ of much contemporary fiction and to travel from the personal to its links with the universal. And if all that involves the big themes, borders on the literary, and makes categorising my books difficult, so be it.

Because in the end, whether the writing is for adults or children, and whether as writer or reader, all that really counts for me is, is it a good story?

 

Maintaining Focus as a Writer

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image via shutterstock

A question that’s been concerning me of late: should I, as a writer, take the wide landscape view when deciding what to work on, or should I zoom in and maintain a tight, close-up focus?

Yes, the above sentence is a metaphor. Hey, I’m a writer. What do you expect?

But seriously, the wide view or the close focus question is something I’ve been thinking about recently as regards my writing.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m currently working on my next novel, the sequel to Displacement. However I haven’t added a word to it for about a month. It’s not that I haven’t been at the desk and it’s not the case that I’ve done no writing in that time.

And to be fair to me, during this monthly hiatus, one of the weeks was taken up with having the family, including young grandchildren, to stay over Easter, which was lovely but quite rightly precluded getting anywhere near my desk. And there was also the weekend away at the Scottish Writers annual conference – another lovely and worthwhile time away from the keyboard.

But the rest of the month I was at my desk. I just wasn’t working on the novel. No, I was working on entries for writing competitions, writing blog posts, writing book reviews and doing all the apparently necessary online networking that writers have to do nowadays. I was spread rather thinly, spinning many plates, pick your own metaphor…

I was also procrastinating as far as the novel is concerned. I’ve hit the metaphorical wall (okay, I’ll stop with the metaphors now). The novel has stalled and having lots of other writing, and writing related, tasks to do gave me the perfect excuse to put it to one side.

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However, I’ve now got a grip and regained some focus.

This is partly down to me giving myself a talking to – a talking to that involves reiterating that procrastination is for wimps and requires to be worked through and overcome. And it’s partly down to something the keynote speaker, crime novelist, Caro Ramsay, said in a workshop she gave at the aforementioned Scottish Writers’ Conference.

I realised, just as in any other job, I needed to prioritise. I needed to remind myself why I write – answer I love it – and what it is I most enjoy – I most enjoy being immersed in my characters’ lives. I also needed to remind myself that I’m in the privileged position of having been able to take early retirement from my teaching job in order to have more time to write. But that time waits for no-one and it’s fairly galloping along.

And Caro Ramsay’s words also came back to me and helped me sort out my priorities. She’d asked those of us attending her writing workshop why we went in for competitions, why if we were novel writers did we not just get on and write our novels?

She pointed out that she had no pieces of writing ‘in a drawer’. Everything she writes is for publication and gets published. This wasn’t said in order to boast about her publishing success, but rather to emphasise the point that all her writing has one purpose, i.e. to produce and publish a novel. She was urging focus and commitment. And this is someone who works fulltime as an osteopath and who writes in her ‘spare’ time AND who has published many novels with major publishers, Penguin.

Now there’s nothing wrong with writing competitions per se. I’ve entered many in my time with varying levels of success. Something I find very useful about them is the deadlines they provide and in some cases the feedback that is given. However, they’re mostly short stories and I’ve now come to accept that writing shorts is not my forte. And I must admit I’d recently got sidetracked by the whole competitions thing.

And I accept that social media networking, reading and reviewing the work of others, and writing my blog are all not just a vital way of connecting with readers and other writers, they’re also enjoyable in their own right.

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BUT novel writing is my thing. It’s my strength, my first love and my passion. And so I must get back to prioritising what I love the most. Like Caro Ramsay, I want all my writing published. So I’m going to focus on what’s got a chance of being worthy of publication and that’s definitely the novels. I also have a sense of loyalty to my readers. I promised them a sequel and a sequel that shall have.

Therefore I’ve put a moratorium on competition entries for the foreseeable, and I’ve made diary commitments to when and to how much time I’ll give to the different aspects of my writing life each week with the novel getting the biggest share. No excuses, no procrastinating. I show up and even if I write drivel, I get on with the damn book, I move it forward.

I know that sometimes my focus will falter, sometimes real life will get in the way of the imaginary one, but that’s fine and I’ll attempt always to pay back any novel writing time lost. I might fall, but I’ll get right back on the horse – sorry – metaphor crept in there!

So here’s to getting Settlement finished and out by the end of the year. And yes doing this post was in the diary for today.

What sidetracks you and how do you stay focussed on what matters most?

Theme Tunes for Writing

Music to make masterpieces by…

 

Since my youth, and yes, I know that’s going back a bit, I’ve always preferred a bit of background noise when trying to concentrate. And when I say noise, I mean music.

Music has always helped my brain get, and remain, focussed on any task requiring the use of what passes for my intellect. I don’t always hear every note or lyric. Indeed a whole album can play out and all I’ve consciously heard is the first few bars of the first track. But just having it playing away in the background has maintained my concentration. I know if there’d been complete silence while I worked, my mind would have wandered.

I contributed a guest post on this topic on writer, Roz Morris’s, blog back in 2014 and this is a more in-depth look at the subject.

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The ancient past

When I was studying for exams, both as a high school pupil, and as a university student, my *portable record player would be belting out my latest *LP. By the time my final exams loomed, my *hi-fi-stereo-cassette player would be doing the job. It would play *compilation tapes consisting of favourite tracks from several LPs (or from Radio 1’s Sunday night Top Twenty in the *Hit Parade show) as I tried to commit to memory the names, facts and figures I’d be required to regurgitate in the exams. Thank you Beatles, Stones, Bowie, Pink Floyd, 10cc, Carole King, Janis Ian, Simon & Garfunkel – to name only a few.

And then, around twenty years after that, whilst studying for my Masters, it was my *CD-Walkman that provided the background music. Yes, it was mainly The Verve and The Lighthouse Family who got me through the writing of my thesis on Early Literacy and How Children Learn to Read.

*if the asterisked terms mean nothing to you, ask your parents or grandparents for an explanation. They refer to music related artefacts from the electronic Stone Age of the twentieth century, many years B.I.(Before Internet).

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The present day

And nowadays, music still has an important role in getting me started and keeping me on task when at my writing desk. Now of course it’s played from the music folder on my PC. And I have playlists dedicated to my writing.

Unlike in the past when music aided my learning and studying, it now gets me in the writing zone and keeps me there––and it also inspires me.

For each of the three novels I’ve written to date and for the one I’m currently working on there’s a specific set of tunes.

So no matter how heavily procrastination, self-doubt, or lack of inspiration are weighing on me, just those first few notes of the first track of the relevant playlist gets me started. It transports me instantly into the atmosphere of the story or the head of a particular character. And although, just as it was when I was studying, I don’t consciously hear every note or track the music in the background keeps me in the writing zone. Indeed, at times when my concentration lapses and attention strays, it is focussing on the music that gets me back to composing those sentences. And even more than that it can be a part of a lyric or a musical theme that actually provides inspiration. For example it might clarify for me what motivates a particular character, or how they might be feeling. It might also help me set the tone or describe the mood or setting for a particular scene.

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How I think it works for me

The background music isn’t acting like a tone poem or movie soundtrack in reverse; that is where the music is written in direct response to a story or a movie in order to enhance it or reinforce its depiction.

It’s not that I hear a character and their story in a song and then write a longer novel version about that character. And neither am I transcribing and interpreting an entire instrumental piece into a chapter or novel. (The copyright issues alone would put me off, quite apart from it being quite beyond me and it not being what I’m using the music for).

No, it’s more subtle than that – or maybe subtle isn’t the right word. It’s probably, at least partly, something as simple as a Pavlovian response. It’s about how the music makes me feel, it’s about the psychological effect, a sort of conditioning almost. So when I hear that song, I really can’t help but be transported right into the heart of the work-in-progress. And then maybe we’re into more subtle psychological territory with the background melodies, harmonies, cadences and rhythms keeping the brainwaves synced––or something–– and maintaining the concentration.

Do you find music helps or hinders you when you’re working?

 

My Musical Muses

Below I’ve included a few examples of the many tracks that have helped me to get my three novels written and to maintain progress on the new one.

Change of Life

My first novel had a fifteen track playlist and included:

This Woman’s Work by Greg Laswell

Wilderness by Bat for Lashes

Gossip in the Grain by Ray LaMontagne

Lay Lady Lay by Bob Dylan

And I love you so by Don McLean

Displacement

When writing my second novel I sometimes used the Change of Life playlist as well as the dedicated fifteen track set which included:

Man of the World by Fleetwood Mac

Fix You by the Military Wives

It’s Getting better by Mama Cass

Not Ready to Love by Rufus Wainwright

Home by Zero 7

The Silver Locket

For my novel for children, it was a twelve track list and if you thought the others were eclectic, this set is a very weird mixture.

On Battleship Hill by P J Harvey

Even the Ravens Mourn Over You by Peter Ostroushko http://www.peterostroushko.com/

Gortoz A Ran by Denez Prigent

Michaelswood by Catriona McKay & Chris Stout

Baba Yetu by Lucas Richman, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Soweto Gospel Choir

Settlement

And for the work-in-progress, which is a sequel to Displacement,  there’s the biggest yet playlist of twenty-one tracks which includes:

I Still Care For You by Ray LaMontagne

Everything I Own by Bread

Make You Feel My Love by The Military Wives

Nocturne by Secret Garden

The Ashkovan Farewell by Ungar & Mason