Procrastiwriting Revisited

I’ve written before about what I like to call procrastiwriting, but that post was about all the things I do to avoid writing. As in, actively avoid it. I’ll readily admit to my tendency to procrastinate when I have no-one to answer to, and no deadline looming.

I’ve often wondered why I didn’t think of doing something similar for the things I get up to when I do have a deadline. In part because it may look similar (Ooh! Shiny thing! Distraction steals 10 minutes writing time!), but it performs a different function. For starters, it actually has a function.

For me, writing is a strange mix of thinking very hard about things and then not thinking about them at all. I think about the words I’m setting down, and how they work together, and what they’re building towards. I think about characters and setting and whether things feel/sound/read as real.

But a heck of a lot of the work goes on when I’m doing something completely different, and sometimes I need to do something different so I can let things simmer away on some back burner of my brain without me poking at them constantly. If you want a technical term, let’s go with percolation. Because coffee metaphors are the best metaphors. (We’ll ignore the part about percolation also being used in septic tanks, because eeeeeeeeew.)

When you have a deadline, and a short one at that, and you’re making stuff up out of whole cloth (1), you kind of have to have a system for how you do it. One that means getting it done, and done to the best of your ability (no half-assing, you must be entirely whole-assed hearted, WHOLE-HEARTED!). Spoiler alert: I do not have any such system. If you tried to condense the way I work when writing a story into a Visio Flowchart it would be a mess. I’m not even going to try to do that. Sorry (not sorry)!

What I can do is break down what I did while writing a story last weekend. I’ll give you the raw data, and you can point and laugh at my “process”, such as it is.

The story was written for a very dear friend who is leaving the country because she has earned herself a fabulous new job. I didn’t want to add weight/mass to her luggage but wanted to give her something personal, so I decided to go with a story. I asked her on Friday evening to give me a word or phrase to build the story around, and I knew I’d have until Sunday morning to get the story written before I hopped on a train to go and see her on Sunday afternoon. There was my deadline.

She chose the word “zombie” and I was immediately relieved because I had started writing a zombie story 18 months ago and abandoned it.  So I figured I already had some of the writing done and would only need to finish that story, making that deadline much more reasonable. I also vaguely remembered that I’d really liked the concept I had, but couldn’t remember why I’d ditched it. I was hoping that having a head-start meant I could produce something awesome for her. Silly me. What follows is an almost-exhaustive list of things I did while working on that story.

CASE STUDY: Orla writes a thing that has something to do with zombies for her friend Hazel’s going-away present. She has approximately 40 hours to complete this task. Some of that time will need to be spent on other things, such as sleeping/eating/family time. Let’s say she has 18 hours in total, and that might be being generous.

Click on the links below to see a full breakdown of what I did during each time period. Warning: some of these lists are long (2), but they’re all honest. Some of the things I got up to may even be embarrassing. Shame: I have none.

Day One (Friday) 8.55PM-1.42AM

Rummage out the zombie story I’d started but never finished Realize that the main character has a name that will NOT work for this particular reader. Giggle and message her on FB about this. Try to come up with new names for both the MC and the story itself. Dump the very sketchy draft into Scrivener and split-screen it with a blank page. Make coffee. Try to book train tickets online and discover the option is “not available” for the dates I need. Grumble. Open Spotify. Make a new playlist. Get distracted by an interview with the creators of Person of Interest on i09. Scold self, close Chrome. Read sketchy draft and realize VERY quickly why I never finished it. Panic. Make more coffee. Try to persuade cat that his role as self-appointed editor of everything I write does not mean that he has to literally sit on my shoulder and watch as I type. Finally start typing on the blank page. Hate every word. Decide to change from present to past tense. Do this in the original sketchy draft before realizing that this is a colossal waste of time. Am unhappy with the new name I’ve chosen for the MC. Change it again. Write about 200 words. Get unreasonably hung up on a word. Tweet about it. Check the word in a dictionary. Tweet about how the dictionary may be full of lies. Write another hundred words. Read over them (still not feeling it). Make more coffee. Write another 200 words. Start listening to my Drag and Dance playlist. Tweet about how listening to “Sissy that Walk” may mean that the words “fly, fly, fly, fly” will end up in this story somehow, completely randomly (3). Write another 250 words. Playlist cues up Hi Fashion. Start vogueing in my chair. Realize that this means I am unlikely to be productive for the rest of the night. Save project, close Scrivener, shut down computer. Go to bed.

Day 2 (Saturday) 10.15AM-1.30PM

Get up, boot up computer. Feed cat. Make coffee. Check that scheduled blog post did actually post.Open Scrivener. Still do not like the MC’s name. Change it again. Read over stuff from last night.Tweak it a bit. Realize that I forgot to update the blog chain thread on Absolute Write, log in and do that. Restrain self from browsing the forums. Close Chrome. Write some more words. Make more coffee. Open Spotify. Tinker with a paragraph. Cue up some Curve. Open Chrome. Spend an hour on the RuPaul’s Drag Race subreddit without actually commenting on anything. Scold self. Make more coffee. Write more words. Realize that I have written 1,400 words and have no idea how the story will end. Panic. Sing along with The Distillers to distract myself. Notice that I am receiving odd looks from the cat. Think maybe I should stop “singing” and maybe also change out of my pyjamas. Play three games of Bejeweled Blitz instead. Read back over everything. Change the main character’s name again. Still have no idea where the story is going. Decide to take a break for a bit (4).

DAY 2 (Saturday) 4PM-6PM

May have an idea for story ending. Stick it in a note in Scrivener. Go to fridge to retrieve snack. Make coffee. Sit down for some srswritingbsns™. Write another 200 words. Prepare chicken for roasting and sling it in the oven. Make more coffee. Write another 200 words. Break to finish cooking dinner.

Day 2 (Saturday) 7PM-10PM

Write more words. Take an air-drumming break while listening to Mike Doughty. Open Tweet Deck. Close it again because today’s words are for that story, not for Twitter. Mentally pat self on back for being all disciplined and on-task. Write more words. Hit a road-block. Make more coffee. Write more words, getting there. Realize I will have to write an action scene. Distract self by looking up Belly lyrics for an opening quote. Find lyrics, am still worried about prospective action scene. Make more coffee. Shut down Spotify. Grit teeth and start in on action sequence, decide it will be a very short one. Insert cameo from a character in my novel even though it makes no sense for her to be there, just because I can. Also, everything is better with some Bee in it. Write more words and finish zero draft. Decide I’ve earned myself a pre-editing break.

Day 2 (Saturday) 10.30PM-12.30AM

Re-read the story. Start first editing pass. Double-check words for mental dictionary failure / actual dictionary lies. Tell self to let go of the notion that “exemplarily” might not be a real word since more than one dictionary says it is. Make peace with fact that lexicographers are not likely to be trolling people with their definitions. Leave “exemplarily” in the story. Add and subtract words. Re-read again. Add more words, remove some others. Check that tense is consistent. Do a spelling and punctuation pass. Move story from Scrivener to Word. Format and triple check for typos. Save in Word. Upload to Dropbox. Check it uploaded successfully. Re-read from Dropbox in case I missed something. List what I did for the past two hours here (5). Close Scrivener. Close Word. Make a celebratory cup of coffee.

As you can see, I finished well within deadline. I’m pretty happy with the story too. It’s 3.5k words about androids, zombies, a hypermarket and a guy called Milo who has his own special way of managing life during an apocalypse. I hope Hazel likes it. If she doesn’t, I figure she’ll laugh her ass off at this post anyway so it’s all good.

I’ve tried to figure out if there’s a consistent ratio of faffing about to words produced, but I don’t think there is. Sometimes I write more/better with music, sometimes without. I can have a couple of hours of being extremely focused, surrounded by many more hours where I’m all over the place. If there is a system it pretty much boils down to:

  1. Task = write story
  2. If stuck then make coffee.
  3. If making/drinking coffee does not kick-start brain, then consult the internet for additional distraction.
  4. If really stuck, play some music.
  5. Return to task.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 until done.

Then edit.

Then drink some more coffee.

For science!

Footnotes (!)

(1) All of this applies exclusively to writing fiction, writing anything factual is VERY different. I know this because I used to write factual things for a living. Yes, dear reader, I once was fancy. Factual stuff boils down to knowing your shit and being able to translate that into something that’s both clear and engaging for as many readers as possible, within the perimeters of your in-house style guide and without any ambiguity. The challenges there are different, but I found I was less distractible in general while working on something more concrete. I did take what I liked to call “click breaks” but they were generally a couple of minutes once per hour to boost flagging concentration.

(2) The lists would be a lot shorter if I just wrote, “When in doubt I make coffee”, but I figured it might be more illustrative if you could see just how often doubt set in.

(3) They didn’t. I guess you could say I did not successfully Sissy That Story.

(4) Yes, I am aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Just go with it.

(5) I have, of course, been doing this all along. I also did not include all the times I saved the document while I was working on it, which was many.