By: Dan Brotzel
“Habitual procrastinators will readily testify to all the lost opportunities, missed deadlines, failed relationships and even monetary losses incurred just because of one nasty habit of putting things off until it is often too late.” ―
That Was Then…
For 25 years or so, I bored people about how I was going to write a novel.
I had periods in my life when I had lots of time to get started on one. As a student, I spent a year as a teaching assistant in France, where my duties were light and my time was mostly my own. Later I worked for several years as a freelance journalist, where I could organise my entire schedule however I wanted.
But somehow I just never got round to getting started, not really. It wasn’t like I was doing something else really important instead. I was just too busy… not doing very much. Or talking about the books I was going to write.
I had a friend in a similar position. We were both obsessed with literature, mad about certain authors, desperate to get published. We’d sit in the pub for hours and rave about the books we were going to write.
One night, we even made a pledge to jack in our jobs and head for the hills, where we’d rent a tiny cabin and finally get started. But next day came round – and found us both still in our day jobs. The hills were merely a metaphor, it turned out. I found it hard to look my friend in the eye again.
If You Want to Get a Job Done…
Looking back, what finally changed things for me was having children. Suddenly I had no time to call my own at all. Or energy. Or sleep. I learned at last how valuable a commodity time is. Or rather, I went from knowing this as a fact – to feeling it as an urgent, overwhelming reality.
If you want to get a job done, they say, give it to a busy person. As my children got a little older, I started working flexible hours so I could do my share of the childcare. Eventually, with my youngest was in preschool, I found myself with half a day in the week to myself.
Use Your Time Wisely
Over the next five years, I went from writing small stories to completing five full-length manuscripts. I got my stories published in several litmags, made the shortlist of several writing competitions, and even won a couple. My agent found a publisher for a collection of short stories (out next year). I co-wrote a comic novel with a couple of friends (different ones), which is currently crowdfunding with another publisher, Unbound.
And so, after about 25 years, I finally got down to the writing. And once I started, I found I couldn’t stop. I plugged away, I loved the process. (I still do.) And one day, it did not seem too fanciful to be able to say: I am a writer.
Here, then, are a few thoughts on how to stop putting off getting down to the writing…
There is no perfect time to start. Distractions and excuses prevent many of us from writing. Unfortunately, there will always be distractions. There will always be a excuses to put off starting.
But now is all we have, and if you really want to write, you will find a way. Read a book like Daily Rituals, and you will be amazed at the stories of writers and artists who found ways to squeeze their writing in, like the poet who kept his poetry tucked under his copywriting work, and added a word here and there when no one was looking.
How to Stop Putting Off Putting Off
Here are some simple strategies to stop procrastinating and get down to the writing.
1. Start by noticing things.
Let’s say you want to be a novelist. But at the moment you have a full-time job and a small child. So don’t start by embarking on your follow-up to Moby-Dick. Start by writing small things. Write a journal. Jot down ideas down that amuse you. Record all the random whimsical thoughts into your phone.
Start looking at life around you, with all its blessings and its bruises, and start registering your response to what you experience. Don’t worry about what these jottings are or will become. You are building up your writing muscles, opening up that inner writer’s eye.
2. Use prompts and exercises.
Try the daily #vss prompts on Twitter, a great stimulus for writing. There are comps for drabbles – very very short stories. Paragraph Planet publishes a daily story of no more than 75 words. Read Wild Mind: Living the Writers’s Life by Natalie Goldberg and follow her practice of just sitting writing whatever comes for 10 minutes.
3. Set yourself deadlines.
I started by writing short stories, and I found it useful to enter competitions. The chance, however slim, of getting your work validated by a mention was motivating; better still, competitions have deadlines, and deadlines help us to get things done. Start reading litmags too.
Find the ones that publish the sort of material that chimes with you, and start subbing. These mags often have submission periods with cut-offs, giving you another reason not to put off the work.
4. Do the important bit first.
Let’s say you have an hour to yourself all weekend, to get some writing done. As you sit down to get started, it’s easy to be distracted by finishing off a few admin tasks first to feel that you have mentally cleared your decks: check emails, reply to a few messages, perhaps read something on Twitter, look at the news headlines, text your mum back, pay the children’s school trip. Etc etc. etc.
All these jobs can wait. You have an hour to write – so start writing, from the very first minute of that hour to the last.
5. Find ways to write while living life.
Even when life takes over, and you can’t find time to write, there are ways to be focusing on your creative project even when you’re not at your keyboard. You can read books about plotting and storytelling, for example, or books about creativity and time management. You can be listening to podcasts and audio books.
Or you can be doing research – for my first novel, about a fake guru, I spent many happy hours on my commute on the London Underground reading about cults and esoteric movements. You can jot stuff down. Best of all, you can daydream. Sit on the train, watch and wait, note what good stuff comes bubbling up.
Plan to Be Successful
Planning is your friend. This is a lesson I have been learning the (very) hard way. My cult novel fell over after about 50,000 words because I just ran out of energy to keep making stuff up; because the book had no real plan, the strands of the story were all over the place, and I couldn’t find a way to bring them all together.
Much has been written already about the difference between plotters and pantsers, and I’m not about to say one approach is better than the other. But if you’re ready to start writing something longer, and you only have limited bursts of time to do it in, it will be a lot easier if you come to the desk already knowing roughly what you want to say.
It’s really worth putting in time – a few days or even weeks – sketching out the shape of your story, building the back story of your characters, thinking about setting, arcs, resolution and all the rest. If like me, you’re not a natural planner, you may find this process a frustrating, restless period, but it really does pay dividends.
It means that instead of sitting down with your head a blur of loose ends and radical uncertainties about what’s going to happen next, you can say: ‘OK, today I’m going to start on that scene where Andrew finds out that his wife has been getting texts from an old flame.’ With your limited time, you now have something very concrete and specific to work with.
The other great thing about plotting is that, contrary to what some pantsers might think, it doesn’t restrict and dilute your creativity; it actually provides a framework you can rest on as your fancy takes flight.
Final thought: Just do it. Or don’t.
When I look back at this journey to writing, I’m struck by the vast amount of time I wasted not getting down to the one thing I always wanted to do. But that’s not really true, of course. I did lots of other wonderful things, like get married and have a family, make friends and travel, learn things and do interesting work.
It was only when I started writing in earnest that I realised it was quite a different thing to the idea of writing that I’d been clinging on to all those years.
In my head, writing was a mystical, crazed, magical thing, whereas in practice it’s a lot more pragmatic perspiration than pure inspiration. I realised then that I had to accept the unthinkable: I might not be cut out for writing after all. I might not be good enough. Or I might not just like the actual process (as opposed to the idea).
I made my peace with that idea, and started to imagine what I might be thinking and doing with my life if the goal of writing was no longer in it. You might in time find that writing isn’t what you thought it’d be, and that’s fine too.
And yet: once I accepted that I might never actually be a writer, the words started to flow.
Bio: Dan Brotzel
Dan Brotzel is the co-author of Kitten on a Fatberg, a comic novel about a writers’ group. As a reader of this blog, you can pre-order Kitten on a Fatberg for a 10% discount — quote code KITTEN10
His short story, ‘Ella G in a Country Churchyard’ was the winner of the 2018 Riptide Journal short story competition and was highly commended in the Manchester Writing School competition 2018.
He has words in Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, The Esthetic Apostle, Spelk, Pithead Chapel, Ginger Collect and Fiction Pool.
His first collection of short stories is to be published in early 2020.
He is also co-founder of leading UK content agency Sticky Content, and an expert and popular trainer in tone of voice, digital copywriting and content marketing. He remains a director of Sticky Content, which was acquired.