THE WRITING LIFE – productive procrastination for writers

Does anyone else suffer from ‘between-books paralysis’? When you know you should be planning your next novel, but every time you try and think an idea through, you either hit a brick wall very quickly, or you’re daunted by the sheer size of the mountain you’re about to climb.

I’m in that situation right now. Book 4 (STILL untitled) is all but finished apart from the copy edits, but book 5 remains elusive. I have four or five bits of ideas bubbling around in my head, some overlapping, but none clear and solid enough yet. I keep reminding myself that I have to commit to an idea, and then I have to make it clear and solid – it’s not going to magically happen on its own.

But in the meantime I am procrastinating, as authors are wont to do at times like this. It makes me feel guilty – I hate these horribly non-productive periods. A few years ago, I blogged about ways writers can actually justify procrastination – if you’re a committed procrastinator, you can justify anything – and I thought I’d return to that theme now, with a few new tips thrown in. So, in no particular order, here are some ideas:

Watching TV
Choose programmes that can feed your storytelling skills or give you ideas for characters. Films and TV dramas can be great for this, especially as they can demonstrate how to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ – note how characters’ actions, dialogue, and facial expressions show what the characters are thinking and feeling.

Looking on Rightmove
Houses can be a great source of ideas, and the way a house looks, both inside and out, can tell you a lot about the people who live there. I love looking around other people’s houses, but I draw the line at posing as a potential buyer so estate agents will show me round someone’s gaff. Rightmove is the next best thing. You can look at any type of home, in any city, in the countryside, on the coast.

I go for the ones with lots of photographs, and I prefer houses that are not empty. That way, you can get ideas from the way the rooms look while people are actually living there. This can be a starting point for a story, or you can use it to develop characters in something you’ve already started. If you’re learning about who your character is by discovering more about where they live,  you’re not just dreaming about what it would be like to live in that gorgeous house should you ever have a spare million knocking around – you’re doing legitimate research.

Looking around the shops
Like looking at houses, this is also justifiable research. What  sort of clothes, shoes, food, furniture, artwork, bedding, etc  does your character choose? From which shops? Does she buy her clothes from Top Shop? Harvey Nichols? M&S?  Or does she prefer charity shops? And is that because she’s hard up, or because she has an alternative way of dressing? Mooching around the charity shops can be good for ideas, too – handling a worn pair of shoes, a well-thumbed cookery book, or a still-perfumed scarf can suggest things about a character that you may not have thought of otherwise.

Going for a walk
Walking outdoors, preferably somewhere green and beautiful, is not only healthy and pleasant, but it’s often a brilliant way of solving problems in your work. There’s something about the action of putting one foot in front of the other that seems to stimulate ideas – right now, I’m hoping it’ll help me formulate an idea for my next novel.

And to be honest, even if it doesn’t help you move forward with your current project, it’s got to be better to be out in the fresh air, preferably somewhere green, than rotting in front of your computer while you stew on your own laziness, lack of imagination, and the certainty that you will never write anything decent again… or is that just me?

Cooking meals for the freezer
If you hate cooking, skip this one, but personally, I find cooking hugely therapeutic, and if I’m not producing any writing, at least I can stash away some ready-cooked meals so that when I do finally get started on my next novel, I’ll have a supply of quick meals in the freezer for those days when I find myself writing well into the evening.

Getting your accounts up to date
In the same vein as cooking while you have time, why not use the time you have now to reduce stress at the end of the tax year? I loathe doing my accounts, and if I’m deep in writing my novel at the time I have to submit my tax return, dragging myself away from something creative and fascinating in order to do something bewildering and boring is virtually impossible. I spent yesterday working on my accounts from the beginning of the financial year. So even if I don’t keep to my plan to record everything as I go along (I always plan to do this but…) at least the first three months are done.

Phoning a (writer) friend
Talking to other writers is never time wasted. whether you’re talking about your process or your progress (or lack of it),  just talking about writing will make you want to get on with it, and bouncing ideas off another writer is always useful, even if it’s just to hear your own thoughts spoken aloud. Sometimes, acting as a sounding board for someone else can help to stimulate your own ideas, too.

Thinking about and promoting your published work
If you’ve already got something out there, why not give it a little boost to remind people it’s there? Has it just had a lovely review you can tweet about? Is it on a special promotion somewhere? While we’re on the subject, my first novel The Things We Never Said is in the Kindle summer sale for less than a quid! (My other books have great reviews, too, and I’m crossing my fingers that What She Lost will be chosen for a price promotion soon.)

Look at the book or books you’ve already written to remind yourself that you can do it, that the random collection of thoughts, character sketches and half-formed ideas knocking around in your brain will eventually morph into a new novel, just as they have done before. Or if you’re stuck on your current project, remind yourself that you’ve had problems in the past, and you’ve overcome them. Remember that time when you thought your last novel was a pile of crap and you would never finish it? Now go read your five-star reviews….

And finally: Reading
We so often see reading as something to be done only during leisure time, but you’re a writer so it’s different. Every book you read is a training session – you’re learning more about technique and craft and storytelling with every novel you pick up. With some books, the main thing you’ll take away is how not to do it, but that’s okay, too. If you have a current work-in-progress, or are thinking about the next project, you can probably include some fiction in your research reading – there’s nothing wrong with benefiting from research done by other authors!

So, I am now going to attempt to follow my own advice. I’ve already done a few of the things on this list, but they’ve mainly been the catching-up-with-other-stuff  ones rather than the imagination and idea-stimulating ones, so I guess I’d better get on with that.

Oh, and there’s one other thing you can do towards productive procrastination – write new blog post…


4 thoughts on “THE WRITING LIFE – productive procrastination for writers

  1. Juana R says:

    The tip about using Rightmove to get ideas on houses and people living in them is brilliant. I often struggle to have a clear picture in my mind of how a character’s house should look inside – what furniture have they in there? What’s on their coffee table? What colours are the mugs, the curtains…? – even when I know how the rooms are arranged. Also visiting shops is a good tip, although I see a side effect there and that would be going back home with an empty bank account… But suppose that can still be considered a productive trip, can it not??

    • Susan says:

      Yes, I find it a very useful thing to do, especially when you get interesting, clattered houses were they haven’t bothered to tidy things away to show the house at its best. You’re right about the side-effect of visiting shops, though – I love charity shops and I have to be very careful not to spend too much!

  2. jomcarroll says:

    As someone in the process of moving, and therefore unable to access any sort of writing brain, Rightmove is the last place I want to be looking at the moment!

    • Susan says:

      Ha ha – I quite understand. These are extenuating circumstances! Moving is so stressful, isn’t it? Good luck – hope it goes reasonably smoothly.

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