Motivation and Procrastin – ooh, shiny!

I gave a version of this blog post as a presentation at my writing class on Monday. You should have seen their little faces. I’m not sure if they were expecting something a bit more ‘inspirational’ and a bit less ‘unvarnished truth’ but they all looked a bit shell-shocked by the end of it. So here we go.
Let’s start with a couple of classical quotations to get us in the mood.
Ancient Chinese Proverb:
“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Then the next step. Then the next one. Then all the other steps. What were you expecting, a travelator? This is ancient China, not Heathrow Airport. Put your back into it.”
Latin motivational motto:
“Memento mori” (remember you will die)

Are you a procrastinator?
Well, you’re reading my blog post rather than getting on with achieving your life goals, so I’m going to say yes. Unless your life goal is to read my blog post, in which case, yay!

What causes procrastination?
It’s easy to say procrastination is a result of laziness, or a lack of clarity around goals, or an absence of motivation. But in fact, the most common reason, among writers at least, is this: fear of failure.

What are you afraid of?
That your writing will suck and people will judge you harshly for it? Well, here’s a little secret for you. Everyone’s writing sucks at first. Tolstoy sucked. Jane Austen sucked. Stephen King sucked. EL James sucked. Oh wait… so, ok, some people’s writing still sucks, but there’s only one way to get better. Guess what it is? Yep, that’s right, write. Write write write. Try to get feedback so you can improve. If you’re too scared to show your writing to people you know, try the Internet: Wattpad allows to you to post your work pseudonymously and get feedback from complete strangers. I’ve also heard WriteOn recommended, although it is part of the evil Amazonian empire. If you’re into fan fic, there’s An Archive of Our Own. Even if you don’t get any feedback, you’ll still improve just by practising your writing. ‘How to write’ books, workshops, classes etc will also help, but aren’t a get-of-jail-free card: you still need to write. Think of it this way: if you write enough, you might, eventually, not suck at it. If you don’t write, you’ll definitely always suck at it.
But I’m just not feeling in quite the right frame of mind…
Neither am I. But I’m writing this anyway. If you wait until the right mood takes you, you might be waiting a long time. I’m sorry to have to break this to you, but writing is not always easy. If you want to have written something, you need to write something. So grit your teeth and get on with it.

But how…?
If I’d give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, based on my personal experience, it’s this: set yourself a daily word target. And then hit it. Having a quantitative target provides clarity and encourages you to work quickly. It’s great to have a n-year plan, but plans need to be achieved day by day. And if you break your aims into chunks, they seem easier. Let’s say you want to write the first draft of a 90k-word novel in a year. 90/12=7.5. So that’s 7,500 words a month. 7,500/30=250. So that’s 250 words a day. That’s not so much, is it? You can do that in half an hour before breakfast, or on your lunch break, or when you get home from work. Now get on with it.
I’ll finish off with some general tips and tricks…
– Abstinence can be easier than moderation: try swearing off the Internet (or daytime TV, or housework, or whatever is your particular crack) altogether for a day, a week, a month, a year, or forever
– Scheduled time for writing is good if you’re busy. Make sure it’s focused time though – short bursts of eg 10 mins can be better for this than longer stretches
– Having two or more writing projects on the go at any one time can help since you can procrastinate from one by working on the other…
– Although working on only one thing at once makes it more likely you’ll get it finished
– Beware of ‘fake productivity’ ie spending lots of time on research, planning etc – sooner or later, you’ve got to get down to business
– And finally, when in doubt, write something. Anything. Doesn’t matter if it’s crap. You can always improve it later. Words on a page are always better than a void.

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The best things in life are free?

I’ve been on holiday with my husband this week, staying at a cottage with no wi-fi in a remote corner of the Lake District. This experience has certainly taught me a lesson about what I truly find most valuable in life – ie, a decent wi-fi connection.

It’s annoying enough not being able to check Facebook or the weather forecast – or the tide-tables if you want to go bouldering at St Bee’s – but what especially got on my nerves was BlinkBox. Before departure, I’d downloaded a few things – the movie Interstellar and some episodes of Supernatural – thinking we’d be able to watch them offline. But when I settled in to see what oogly-boogly Sam and Dean have to deal with this time, the file refused to play unless it could access the appropriate media licence. Which it could only get via the BlinkBox website. Which I couldn’t get on, because no sodding wi-fi. Whaaat?! Dick move, BlinkBox. These were files I had paid for, files I had downloaded under the mistaken impression that I somehow owned them and would be allowed to watch them on my own laptop without any further trouble. Wrong! Stupid Digital Rights Management. I’ll bet you don’t have problems like this if you just PIRATE stuff.

Which brings me on to writing. While DRM is imho definitely evil – punishing as it does only those who have actually paid for things – many creators are understandably concerned about piracy, and that doing away with controls is just an invitation for everyone to help themselves to your intellectual property. On the flip side, an awful lot of writers have embraced the possibilities of the internet age to connect with readers directly, via digital self-publishing and websites such as Wattpad, which allows readers to comment on books and even help edit them as they are written. The problem with most of this stuff is that you don’t get paid for it, which I guess makes it a form of voluntary self-piracy. I’ve heard older writers – and the Society of Authors – complain that too many people giving their writing away for free has lowered prices for everyone and made it harder for writers to make a living. While I’m sure this is true, it also reminds me irresistibly of the case study in Superfreakonomics about prostitution in Chicago, which found that prices for sexual services had dropped dramatically over time as more and more women were prepared to sleep with their boyfriends without getting rings on their fingers first. Like the Chicago ladies of negotiable affection, professional writers can moan all they want about being undercut by the amateurs, but you can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle: everyone’s having too much fun.

And there are cases which show that it’s possible, if enough people like your writing, to monetise the giving-it-away-for-free model; bloggers and fan fic writers who’ve scored publishing deals, authors who’ve launched books via Kickstarter. My current obsession, the surreal comedy-horror podcast Welcome to Night Vale, is a good example: it’s available to download entirely for free, but they make cash via PayPal donations, live shows, and merchandise sales. Plus they’re bringing a book out later this year – the kind you have to pay for. Unless you pirate it, I guess, but don’t do that.

Where does all this leave me? Well, I suppose I sit in an interesting position; on the one hand, I’m trying to get a traditional publishing deal complete with actual, you know, money, and I’m certainly not about to post the full text of my novels online for anyone to download for free. On the other hand, I am writing these words on a blog, and I sure ain’t getting paid for them. I’m a firm believer in the right of writers to be remunerated for their work: and if you’re not prepared to pay for something, you have to be prepared to be given whatever people are prepared to provide for nothing. But there’s also something quite comforting in the thought that, if no publisher ever picks up my work, that’s not necessarily the end of the story.

Postscript: fear not, dear readers, I did eventually manage to jerry-rig an internet connection via my phone’s spotty 3G signal, and I got my fix of the Winchester brothers. But I’m never staying at a cottage without wi-fi again, that’s for sure.