How To Write a Novel (When You Think You’ve Forgotten How)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a pathological procrastinator. I don’t know why, but I do know that I have never been able to delay gratification. So instead of rewarding myself with 7 hours of OJ: Made in America when the first draft of Book 2 is done and dusted and I can relax and enjoy it guilt-free, I watch it now and tell myself I will write after. I mean, I’d just be distracted by my wanting to watch it otherwise, right?

(Side note: OJ: Made in America is truly incredible TV.)

I joke that I’d call my would be productivity guide Don’t Start Until It’s Already Too Late – and that’s pretty much what I do. I can only work under pressure, while panicking. I read somewhere that the procrastinator’s sweet spot is the exact moment when the fear of creating something crap is overtaken by the fear of not having enough time to create anything at all. That’s almost always when I start work – and not a moment before.

This past year or so, my procrastination problem has got worse. This is the first time I’ve ever had to write a book under contract, and I’ve had to do it in a period of time that’s, at most, half as long as the time I spent writing the first one. So for starters, you’ve got pressure. I believe procrastination is something like 30% laziness and 70% fear. Distress Signals has been incredibly well received by critics, book bloggers and readers. It’s wonderful but it’s also terrifying. Can I do this again? How did I do it the first time? So, we’ve got plenty of fear in the mix too. I’m a binger, in that I do my best work when I can clear my schedule, lock myself away and write from dawn to dusk – or maybe through the night – without stopping, hopped up on caffeine and sugar. A slow and steady 1,000 words every day just doesn’t work for me.

But now, I’m much busier than I was when I was writing most of Distress Signals that way. Being in university full-time means essay deadlines and exams and more reading than any person who sleeps could possibly do (I maintain). Then there’s everything Distress Signals demands as a book that’s out in there in the world. Online promotion, U.S. edits, a one-day 10-stop bookshop road trip, a signing, an interview for a newspaper and preparation for a literary festival in a couple of weeks are just some of the things I’ve had to do in the last two weeks. So most days I just can’t binge-write any more. The schedule is too busy to clear.

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Last Friday I visited ten bookstores in Limerick, Shannon, Ennis, Newcastle West and Tralee. The Eason’s on O’Connell Street in Limerick had a side entrance onto Cruises Street – perfect! (Distress Signals is about a murder on a cruise ship.) 

So we’ve got more fear, more pressure and then more things to do/less time in the mix too. It’s the perfect storm. It’s the reason why the first draft of Book 2 still isn’t finished, even though my original goal – back in the rose-tinted days of last summer when the world was all rainbows, puppies and unrealistic plans – was to have a vomit draft by last Christmas and a first draft by the end of April, just before Distress Signals came out.

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(I really want to go back to Summer 2015 Catherine and slap her in the face. Hard.)

The good news is we’re almost there. I’m almost there. This is the last week I’ll work on this draft of the book. But I’ve had to sort of trick myself into writing it.I’ve had to hunt down procrastination, sedate it, bound and gag it and lock it in a basement room. (Hey, I’m a crime writer, okay?) In the process, I’ve been reminded of things – tips and tricks and truths – that I’d forgotten. In case you’re struggling with your project, here they are.

Build Write It and They Will Come

I’m a big plotter, so the first thing I have to do in order to write a book is sort mine out. I don’t plan everything out in advance, but I like to have some signposts along the way. I open a Word document and create a simple outline using numbering. It’ll be a longer version of this (the notes in square brackets pertain to my specific plot):

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Then what I’ll do is I’ll take my ideas for scenes, plot developments, etc. and fill as much of this in as I can. The problem was that when I sat down to do this for Book 2, I ended up with mostly blank space. Erm… Hang on a second. Do I even have a plot for this book?! I started to panic. Yep, totally screwed. I’m just an impostor. I knew I’d be found out. But because I was contracted to write this book, I had to sit down and write it anyway, which is when I realised/remembered:

The ideas come while you’re writing.

I’ve put that in bold and italics because it’s the most important point of this whole blog post. You can sit in all the cafes you want with your notebook, chewing on a pen, dreaming up plot lines and characters and killer twists. But – at least in my writing life – I will never come up with stuff that way that’s half as good as what I come up with while I’m actually in the midst of writing the book.

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This is what the plot of Distress Signals looked like by the third and final draft (the one with my editor at Corvus). But this is the end game. It’s okay to start with mostly blank space on your plot charts. You probably should. 

So don’t panic. You may have no idea what goes in Part 3 right now, or you may not even be sure you have an ending. Your plot plan may be mostly blank space. But don’t wait until you have a plot to start writing. A few signposts will do. The ideas will come. Until then, just concentrate on writing this chapter.

Early, First, Focused

There’s a difference between saying ‘I’m going to spend all tomorrow writing’ and ‘I will write for no fewer than six hours tomorrow’. I turned 34 yesterday, you’d think I’d have discovered this before now. But that’s one lesson that has really been driven home to me recently, because so many hours and days seem to disappear into time-sucking, pointless tasks, and I end up with nothing to show for them. It’s not enough to intend to write tomorrow or this week. When you’re a procrastinator, you need to plan exactly how, when and where you’re going to.

I get the most out of my writing days when I:

  • Start early. This is allowing for the fact that even though you may have eight hours free in which to write, you’ll be lucky if you spend half of them actually typing words into your manuscript. The other thing is that you don’t know what’s going to happen during the day. You could get an exciting e-mail or an unexpected invitation or a toothache. Best to start now, as early as you can, before real life wakes up and starts distracting you.
  • Do the writing first. It’s the only way. Otherwise you end up watching OJ: Made in America before noon. (Trust me on this.) Also, the best thing about doing the writing first is that it’s done, it’s out of the way, and you can spend the rest of your time not feeling guilty or anxious, but smug and overly pleased with yourself that you got it done.
  • Focus. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But as I said at the top, these were things I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten that the internet is like a fibre optic cable plugged directly into my brain – I can’t work with it. Blocking apps don’t work for me; I can’t bring myself to turn them on and whenever I do, I pick up my phone before they’ve timed out. The best thing for me to do is go to a cafe or a library, not connect to the wifi and leave my phone in my bag at my feet. I can get as much done in an hour without the internet as I can in a whole day with it, and I write much better when I’m deep in my fictional world as opposed to being yanked out of it every five minutes, distracted by shiny things.

Change of Scenery

When writers moan about how lonely a profession this is, I roll my eyes. To me, that’s like saying ‘I love being hairdresser but – ew! – touching people’s hair. Yuck.’ I love the solitude. I need it. But I work from home, and my home is very small (I’m a writer and I live in Dublin city centre, so I’m essentially in a telephone box), and lately I’ve been experiencing cabin fever. So now I get out.

I’m surrounded by coffee shops and live only 15 minutes walk or so from my university, where there’s a whole library I can work in during office hours that’s comfortable, quiet and even has plug sockets. I’ve been making the most of this. The best things about writing somewhere else are that (a) you have almost none of the distractions you have at home and (b) when you do come home, you can enjoy it. There’s a separation between work and play.

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Think outside the box. One day last week I was really, really fed up. The weather was terrible, I was struggling to write and I honestly could not look at these four walls for a moment longer. So I did something drastic: I went on Booking.com and looked for cheap hotel rooms available for that evening within walking distance of my home. If a hotel has availability and it uses a third-party site like that, it might drop its rates during the day to try and fill empty rooms that night. I got a bargain, threw my toothbrush and my laptop in a bag and walked 30 minutes down the road to the hotel. I refused the receptionist’s offer of the wifi password and brought enough milk and coffee with me to see me through the night. Then I wrote 6,000 words, falling asleep as the sun came up. It was ridiculous, but it was just what I needed.

* * *

So there you go. I also recommend (i) whingeing and moaning to your writer friends over gin-based cocktails, (ii) re-reading Rachel Aaron’s From 2K to 10K on a regular basis and (iii) investing in a Nespresso machine. And reminding yourself that, hey, this is your dream job. Jobs are hard and sometimes they suck and you’re not going to love every single day, and some days will be more productive than others. But don’t forget about the “dream” part. These are all good problems to have. I mean, I used to have a job where I spent my days stapling things together for Satan himself, and my nights crying about my blackening soul in the shower.

This writing gig? It’s not all that bad…

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Distress Signals has a new cover! And it’s still only 99p! More exclamation marks! 

How’s your writing going? Do you suffer from procrastination? What do you do to help overcome it? Let us know in the comments below… 

Where The Crying Happens

I love seeing where other people work (My Writing Room is my favourite feature on Novelicious) so today I thought I’d share what mine looks like.

That thought had nothing to do with the fact that I’m knee-deep in Book 2 and don’t have time to write an actual blog post, of course.

Nope.

I used to live in the most gorgeous apartment. It was lovely, and it was relatively big. Open spaces, full of light, a balcony perfect for coffee drinking and contemplating, and a whole wall just for my bookcases.

[gets teary-eyed just thinking about it]

Then, for some reason, I moved to Dublin, where the same rent was just about enough to cover a telephone box. I live in a studio apartment, essentially, although there is a door between the teensy kitchen and the main room. (Thank fudge – some of the places I went to see came with the added benefit of being able to reach the microwave from the bed. Hmm…) This means that everything has to be very organized, not take up much space and look nice, because I’m looking at it all the time.

So here it is, where the magic crying happens…

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  1. Excellent writing advice from Hemingway (and a birthday present from my friend Iain that came all the way from the famed Powell’s Books!)
  2. My Erin Condren life planner, filled with stickers for added procrastination. You can get one here. I recommend that you calculate the price based on the daily cost, i.e. divide the price by 18 (months) x 31 (days, on average). There. That’s much better, isn’t it?
  3. I keep this photo of eight-year-old me two-finger typing on the typewriter Santa brought to remind me that this is all I’ve ever wanted. (See it here.) I stare at it a lot when I have a synopsis to write. In front of it is a small blue deckchair encased in an acrylic cube, that reminds me of one of my favourite places: Nice.
  4. A blanket. I am always freezing. (Plus it disguises the fact that the chair does not match. MY EYES.)
  5. Coffee. Obvs, as the kids say.
  6. My vision board. I’m into the law of attraction, but not because I believe that you can order what you want from a magical universe like a drive-thru window. Instead, it’s because I think focusing on your goals or dreams does just that: it focuses you on your goals and dreams. Bonus: it takes AGES to go through piles of old magazines and Pinterest looking for images that appeal to you, and longer again to cut them out and glue them to a sheet of cardboard, and as you know I’ve never met a procrastination activity I didn’t like. (I’ve blurred out some of my loftier goals and dreams because, you know, hashtag potentially mortifying.)
  7. The Dreaded Draft Calendar. Ideally I have to finish a vomit draft of Book 2 around mid to the end of November, in order to stay on track with its delivery date and get my college assignments done. This is a constant reminder of how terrifyingly little time I have left. Yeah. So I should probably go…

Where do you write?

10 Steps to Perfecting Procrastination

Recently I noticed that all the procrastination-related tweets/posts/motivational CDs of questionable legality costing just five easy payments of $199.99 seemed to be aimed at solving our habit of doing anything at all that we can think of except the thing we’re supposed to be doing, which for many of us is writing another chunk of words.

But what if want to procrastinate? What if we need to? What if we’ve never finished a novel before and are happy to stay here for a while, just before the end, and enjoy the view for a few minutes (or days, or weeks), before we send our double-spaced baby out in the world so that the awful waiting game can begin?  What if we’d rather finish a few weeks behind and prolong the dream, delaying that inevitable day when someone will tell us that our characters are two dimensional stereotypes, our scenes lack conflict, our plot is confusing and that one of our characters is pregnant for eleven months?

I figure I’ve spotted a gap in the blog post market. So here is (drum roll, please): Catherine’s Not So Patented 10 Steps to Perfecting Procrastination Today: Everything You Need to Know and Do To Never EVER Finish That Novel!

1. Only Work With Wi-fi

It is imperative that you only work in areas with wireless connectivity and with your computer set to receive it, so that you have the constant temptation to check for new e-mail messages, Facebook notifications and the latest on Tiger Woods. Mac Users: don’t even THINK about using this.

2. Use Twitter to Bookend Every Task

Twitter can be the ultimate procrastination facilitator but only if you know how to maximize its potential. The simplest way is to bookend every task/action/bodily function with what we like to call the TwitterCheck. For example: you are writing and decide to make a cup of coffee (see step 7). While this alone will waste a good 5-10 minutes of your time, the TwitterCheck method can push that to a minimum of 30 minutes. Yes, really! All you need to do is check Twitter BEFORE you go to make the coffee and AFTER you get back, i.e. ‘bookending’ the coffee making with TwitterChecks. It’s just that simple!

3. Become a Neat Freak

Refuse to work in any space that isn’t clean, dusted, organized, colour-coded, alphabetized, arranged for optimum feng shui and has ‘a good energy.’

4. Don’t Use Sky+ or Online iPlayers

Services like Sky+ and online ‘catch up’ players will be the death of procrastination – stick with live TV. If you want to watch something at 8pm and you set it to record, you could find yourself working as late as ten or eleven o’clock safe in the knowledge that you can watch that program at your leisure. However if you give yourself no option but to watch it live, you are far more likely to stop working at six-ish (to have your dinner), spend the intervening two hours watching TV you’re not even interested in (because what’s the point of going back to work? It’ll be on in a minute) and doing nothing for the rest of the night (well, you’re here now so you may as well watch ‘celebrities’ you don’t recognize camping/dancing/figure skating).

5. Invent a Need for Time Swallowing Tasks

Learn from this example from my own not-so-creative life: I have a self-published book-like thingy coming out in March and am trying to not finish a novel to submit to an agent at the beginning of January. (It was supposed to be this week, incidentally, that I was to originally submit it – see how effective this procrastination plan is?) But instead of finishing the novel first and then working on publicity for the self-published book (which is called, FYI, Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida and is about, FYI, one girl’s – i.e. this one – search for happiness in the happiest place on Earth and has, FYI, several funny bits), I took three days – THREE DAYS! – off from the novel to make a book trailer and to make this Facebook page, which you looking at for a couple of minutes and then clicking the ‘Become a Fan’ button will help your procrastination! Don’t say I never give you anything.

6. Two O’Clock is the New Seven

As I’m at home writing full-time at the moment (I believe “unemployed” is the common term), I find myself with ample opportunity to finish my book. In fact, on some days I’ve got as much as five or six thousands words done. Disaster! To combat this productivity, I initiated the ‘Two O’Clock is the New Seven” Rule, which works like this: if I haven’t started by two then I won’t start at all, because what’s the point? The day is practically OVER. To help yourself not start by two, see steps 3 and 9.

7. Develop a Caffeine Addiction

If you never want to finish your book, this step is non-negotiable. Not only will making endless cups of coffee waste an hour or so every day, but the Caffeine Depleted Syndrome (also known as ‘The Jitters’) that sets in about 3pm – symptoms include nausea, clouded thinking, headaches, shaky hands and an overwhelming urge to dance to Britney Spears’ songs – will prevent you from writing anything of note in the afternoon.

8. Chart Your (Lack of) Progress

This may surprise you but your unfinished book is a wealth of procrastination in itself! It has lots of confusing things like plots, characters, scenes, timelines, words, sequences – all of which can be charted, graphed and listed, wasting hours upon hours of your time (and paper)! To maximize the procrastination, alternate between hand-drawn charts (rulers, pencils) and Excel spreadsheets, colour-code, cross-reference and refuse to use any on which you’ve made a mistake. Happy graphing!

9. Sleep

Sleeping can be a procrastinator’s best friend. For maximum results, utilize naps and throw out your alarm clocks.

10. Write Random Blog Posts

Finally, the Number 1 Step to Perfecting Procrastination and making sure that novel of yours never gets written is to write numerous random blog posts – like this one.

Here are your 3 FREE BONUS Procrastination Tips:

– Leave comments on blog posts (well, you’re already here so…)

– Follow people who have nothing of import to say on Twitter (well, you already know me so…)

– Unlearn how to touch type and/or break a couple of fingers.

HAPPY PROCRASTINATING!