I try not to beat myself up over procrastination

Some of the things I write about here are more advanced-stage writer stuff that might be dangerous in the hands of an apprentice or journeyman (journeyperson?) writer, and this is perhaps one of those topics. Because I know that people often procrastinate for years, or even a lifetime, when it comes to writing. In the science fiction and fantasy world, they procrastinate by developing complex worlds or strange fictional languages instead of writing. People procrastinate by saying, oh I’ll write the book when I retire, or after I sell enough short stories, or when I finally get an agent or a book deal or…or…or…

I’ve done my fair share of procrastinating in my day. But usually what would happen (I’m talking ten years ago, when I was in my early twenties) is I’d set some wildly ambitious goal, fail to meet it, and then, through guilt and shame, shove writing out of my mind entirely for months at a time.

A key part of beginning to write was to set more manageable goals. I didn’t need to write a story a week. I didn’t need to write a novel in X number of days. I just needed to do a little bit each day. Once I started setting limits on how much I needed to write in order to feel like I’d done something, I. paradoxically, became much more productive. Some people’s way of becoming productive is to say, “I will just work all the time.” And more power to them. But that’s not my way.

Rather, at each stage in my writing career, I’ve learned to relax. First I stopped keeping track of word count. Instead all that mattered was how many hours I spent at the keyboard. Then I stopped keeping track of that too, because I found I was just spending many hours writing nonsense or writing stuff that I’d never used.

It’s taken me a long time to quiet down and learn to listen to the work. This is not something that people emphasize in commercial fiction. Whether it’s YA or science fiction, there’s an assumption that you just write, write, write–that you can crank out novels as if they’re widgets. And that’s an assumption that I imbibed for a long time, with both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, I’ve written a lot of books. I’ve experimented with a lot of things. And out of all the writers working at my level (in terms of quality of the work), I’m probably on the faster side when it comes to productivity.

But the focus on productivity also made me lose sight of the work itself and lose sight of the thing in the work that makes it compelling. I gradually came understand that to be good a novel needs “the heart of longing.” But I was working so fast that if the heart of longing didn’t come immediately, I had no time to find it. And that’s how you produce work that might be competent, but which has no soul.

Nowadays I’m able when I work to listen for the heart of longing. And I don’t try to sort of find it or to approximate it–I either hit the heart of longing as close to dead-center as I’m able, or I don’t write at all.

This means I pause a lot in my writing. It means I spend a lot of time thinking. It means sometimes I stop writing after an hour or two. It means I scrap projects that seem to be going fine. It means I go back and rewrite a lot, and it means that I sometimes take many days off from a project without quite knowing why.

Procrastination has become, for me, a very valuable tool, because it’s often a sign that my plans for the book are almost but not quite right. Sometimes I think I’m procrastinating out of laziness, but during the hours or days of idleness I realize my conception of the book is wrong. Sometimes I have an epiphany about a new direction for the book, but I procrastinate about going to work, and a few hours later I realize the epiphany was glib or shallow and that I need to think harder.

I think ideally writing should be exciting, and that when I’m really hitting the heart of longing, my urge to write ought to more than outweigh any natural torpor I have. And when the torpor wins out, it’s often because there is something fundamentally unexciting in the work.