You’re home from work. The kids are asleep. The house is––not clean, but not a disaster area, either. Now you have time to write.
You should reply to that email before you forget. And what about that book you bought yesterday? Besides, you need a shower…
Before you know it, it’s 10:30 and you wrote a grand total of four words (“Rachel sighed. She was”). You’re reading an article about elephant hawk moths while watching the latest Netflix show while pretending to read your new book (if it’s on your lap, it counts, right?). You haven’t been productive. You haven’t even replied to that email.
How do you break this cycle of procrastination? There are a lot of guides for this––I recommend Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K for anyone who wants an in-depth guide––but if work, family, and screens have fried your concentration, let me show you what’s worked for me.
Turn Off the Internet
So simple, yet so hard. The internet never runs out; it never goes down; it’s a tap of the keyboard (or the smartphone screen) away. Turn it off anyway.
You might think you need it. Your main character found an elephant hawk moth at the site of an art heist. What’s the genus and species for elephant hawk moths? Another character mentioned the “elephant’s foot” in Chernobyl––what year was Chernobyl? And you need Google Maps to know what that intersection looks like. What kind of tree is that?….
Twenty minutes, forty minutes, two hours disappear down a funnel. Now you’re reading some pointless argument on Twitter, and the baby’s crying. Congratulations. You played yourself.
The real enemy of genius is the router in the hallway. Turn it off. At least turn off the internet on your computer before you start. Otherwise you can lose hours, even days to endless distractions.
Don’t Break the Chain
(a.k.a. the Seinfeld Calendar Method)
Here’s how it works:
- Print out a blank month-long calendar. No doctor’s appointments, birthdays, holidays, et cetera.
- Write a goal to hit each day. It could be anything from 100 to 10,000 words. Make it a little beyond your comfort zone, 20% higher at the most.
- Every day you hit your goal, draw an “X” through that day on the calendar. When you don’t, don’t.
- Hang the calendar somewhere visible, e.g. your office door.
That’s it. it’s a simple, effective way to get yourself to write more. When you’re on a streak, you’ll feel more motivation to push past any resistance and reach your goal.
If you’re having trouble concentrating, try a “stupidly easy” goal, like 100 words a day, then build up from there. I’ve done that a few times.
Outlining has been a mixed bag for me. I find it best to write a “beat outline” for all the major beats to hit, e.g. inciting incident, key incident, midpoint, etc. The story always diverges from that outline, but having the outline keeps me from wandering too far into the weeds.
I’ve used a Rowling-style subplot spreadsheet during the editing process. They’re too detailed for a first draft, when I’m still figuring out the plot and sorting through different subplots . I’m planning out a more formulaic book so I might use a subplot spreadsheet for this one. We’ll see how that goes.
Think of an outline as a trellis for the story. The story will create its own path over the trellis, but the outline keeps it from tangling around itself, and gives it an underlying structure that might not otherwise be there.
Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel, both by K.M. Weiland, are great guides for this. Her first act, second act, and third act timelines are also good at-a-glance reference guides.
Describe Your Scene Before Writing It
This comes straight out of 2K to 10K. It’s been a lifesaver on numerous occasions. Rachel Aaron suggests writing a 300-400 word description of what happens in the scene you’re about to write. For me, a few sentences suffice for most scenes.
It doesn’t matter if how prosaic your descriptions are. Nobody will see them except for you. Here’s a tweaked example from my own notes:
Rachel wakes up, wants to sink back to bed, then sees an unpaid bill on her nightstand. Gets up with many groans, notices photograph of her mother. Remembers her own mother working back-to-back shifts, coming home exhausted. Throws back the covers.
Not a thrilling synopsis, but it gives direction to the scene. You might prefer to write something more in-depth, or do a bullet-point list, or catalogue the main beats you want to hit (unpaid bill––mother’s photo––memory: mom smoking on edge of bed––covers). Experiment, see what works best for you.
Characters can and will surprise you. Rachel might end the scene by calling a number scrawled on a napkin, or fetching a diamond ring out of her pocket, or stealing the neighbor’s motorcycle. It doesn’t matter. No one will read these descriptions, so no one will care if the scene doesn’t follow them. Let the story go where it will. Think of T.H. Huxley’s words:
Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.
Your book’s “job” isn’t to follow your outline with complete fidelity. It won’t be what you imagined it would be, but it might be better.
Nonfiction writers can also use descriptions to make their work simpler. Before you start an essay, a chapter, or a section of your project, try to list all the points you want to make, or the key topics and events. This can make it much easier to write without hitting a wall.
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The above post shows some notes I wrote for my review of Swim Through the Darkness by Mike Stax. Instead of translating these notes into prose, I recorded myself giving a lecture (to no one) based on them, transcribed the recording, then edited the transcription. This review was the result.
I’ve found great success in recording myself for fiction and non-fiction. I can quickly note what I want to say, even if I don’t know how I’ll say it yet. When I say something out loud, I know at once if it sounds stupid or not, and can add something that sounds less stupid while I’m recording.
I can also use bullet points, speech/thought bubbles, stick figures, and arrows to connect different ideas and characters. This helps me record a rough draft in a short time.
When to Record Yourself
Find a time and place where nobody will interrupt you. You need a recorder or an app on your phone. If you want to knock out an entire chapter, or more, you either need to jot down your notes in advance, or write and record your notes during the same session.
And that leads to another possible hang-up: if you write notes ahead of time, when will you record them? If you don’t make time, it won’t happen. You might not understand your notes if you don’t record them within an hour or two of writing them down. You might not understand your own handwriting.
The third big hang-up is transcribing your recordings. You can transcribe them yourself, which takes time. You can pay someone to transcribe them for you, by finding them on Upwork, Fiverr, Stenosearch, or another transcription website.
Some transcriptionists will give you a slight bulk discount, but expect to pay about $1/minute for English-language dictation services.
I’ve used Rev, which allows you to record yourself speaking, and pay for a transcript within the app, for $1/minute. Be careful though, Rev automatically rounds up, so if you’re created an audio file that’s three minutes and one second long, it’ll cost you $4.
To save money, you could record yourself reading the same notes twice; the second time around, you may speak more quickly, since you know the material better.
You can also use dictation software. That takes a little patience to master. Dictation software’s done me dirty in the past, but many people swear by it. It’s up to you.
Write in the Mornings
I’ve been a night owl since I was a kid, so I honor this advice more in the breach than the observance. However, I find I’m more productive when I write in the mornings. It doesn’t happen often though.
Even a small amount of caffeine makes me jittery and unfocused. Cutting out tea and chocolate works well for me. Your mileage may vary with this one.
The one drug that improves my concentration is a lot more addictive and stigmatized…
I’ve never smoked or vaped. However, I used to used to chew nicotine gum when I had to study for or take an exam. It was startlingly effective. I could focus, without distractions, for at least an hour, often longer. The gum energized me without making me jittery. No wonder people get addicted to this!, I thought.
I stopped using nicotine gum when I noticed my usage creeping up to two or three times a week. Nicotine is addictive, and addictions can sneak up on you. I now chew nicotine gum a few times a year when I’m stuck like a fly in syrup.
Don’t use nicotine gum if you’re under eighteen, pregnant, trying to get pregnant, breastfeeding, easily addicted, somewhat-easily addicted, or if it makes you uncomfortable for any reason. I’m not a doctor, so talk to your doctor if you’re worried this might interfere with your health.
Hire (or Acquire) a Babysitter
This is for parents, especially moms. You’re still “on duty” when your kid is asleep, while your partner’s wrangling the kids, or while you’re in the house with them. Negotiate regular time off where your partner, a family member, or a babysitter you trust watches your children. Tell them not to disturb you during your writing time unless it’s an emergency.
Consider hiring someone for this one. Grandma’s doing you a favor when she watches the kids. Unless she’s putting them in danger, what’s your leverage? You can tell her not to give them junk food or plop them in front of an Xbox, but these are suggestions, not commands. Your options are: find alternate (and more expensive) childcare, or go without.
Even if Grandma is the nicest woman in the world, even if she loves the kids to pieces, this knowledge will inform her behavior on some level. “Megan doesn’t want the kids to play video games, but she had to have this time to write her book. If she does what she wants, why can’t the kids do what they want?”
A babysitter faces more livelihood-altering consequences: a bad review, a complaint with her agency, getting fired, losing income. If you’re paying her to babysit, then you can pay someone else instead. A babysitter is less likely to care what you’re doing while they’re watching the kids, unless it interferes with their work.
Take all this with a grain of salt. There are plenty of wonderful families and horrid babysitters in the world. Go with what works.
Leave the House
In your house, you’re confronted with things you need to do: bills to pay, dishes to put away, lawns to mow, surfaces to clean. A fresh environment allows you to step away from that daily grind. That might mean a library, a coffee shop, a study hall, a hotel lobby, anywhere you can work on something for a few hours without being disturbed.
Nervous? I get it. Who wants to be the pretentious snob writing in their Moleskine at a coffee shop? Trust me, nobody cares. People worry most about their own lives and concerns. Unless you’re making a scene, they don’t notice you. Maybe leave the black beret at home though.
What helps you write? How have you overcome your own procrastination habits? Let me know in the comments.