Sometimes, whilst busily procrastinating, I consider whether writing is more something that I want to have done, than something I want to do; but then once I finally get myself over the hump and sit down to apply words to screen/notebook/scrap paper, I remember that the process itself is also (…at least most of the time) deeply enjoyable.
What I don’t quite understand is why I can’t remember that while I’m poking around the internet, deciding to tidy my desk, refilling all my fountain pens, or engaging in another alternative avoidance pattern du jour. (Most recently, that would be playing Zelda: Breath Of The Wild “just for ten minutes, honestly”, though my cough-mumble hours invested in that since Christmas have at least given me a great deal more enjoyment than hitting refresh on Twitter ever has.)
In any case. Writing is great, editing is satisfying once I get into the swing of it, starting to write appears to require effort on a par with that time we left some horseradish in the allotment for two years and then tried to dig it out. (Do Not Do This. It was over a decade ago, and as far as I know the damn stuff is still there.) I have, therefore, developed a series of tricks for getting myself started, which may be of assistance to other serial procrastinators.
- Turn off the internet/turn on Do Not Disturb/etc. This requires some initial mental effort, but works surprisingly well as a signifier to my brain that yes, it is time to settle in. The downside is that the initial effort is not, sadly, always available. There are various pieces of software that will do this for you on a timer basis but unfortunately when I use these I find myself sufficiently resentful of Past Me for setting them up that I will take steps to get around them up to and including rebooting the laptop and creating a new login. Thus I am forced instead to rely on being able to make the commitment in the moment.
- Change the method. Writing in a notes app rather than in Scrivener. Obviously I’m just making notes! Not actually writing. Nothing to worry about here. Writing in a notebook and not on the laptop at all, similarly feels less like a commitment, and the bonus of getting to use a nice fountain pen. For when even a notebook feels too portentous: scrap paper. (Downside: losing the scrap of paper afterwards and knowing that I will never, ever recapture the flare of genius inspired by the back of that particular charity begging letter.)
- Change the place. Writing in bed, or on the sofa, or in the garden. As with the notebooks: if I’m not at my desk, this can’t really be writing, can it?
- Writing with other people. Obviously not in person at present, but a friend runs a regular morning co-writing Zoom, where we all check in for 5-10 minutes at the start and the end, and otherwise mute ourselves and get on with it. This is remarkably effective. Obviously if at the end I said “in fact I spent the whole time looking at tea plants and ericaceous compost on the internet” (I am going to grow my own tea! No really!) no one would criticise, but it would feel something of a waste of my own effort in terms of sitting down on time and turning the camera on.
- Bribery. Doesn’t work. As with timed internet-blockers, I begin to resent Past Me for their unreasonable insistence that I should write 500 words before eating the chocolate. So I eat the chocolate immediately, and then some more chocolate, and then I go get the Switch and spend some more time running Link around Hyrule; because Past Me is a tyrant, that’s why. In your face, Past Me.
- Setting a timer and staring out of the window and/or knitting. It turns out that if I do not let myself do anything else for an hour, however stuck I feel, I will come up with something around the 20-25 min mark. The knitting needs to be quite boring, and I need to be strongwilled in the matter of not doing anything else. (Usually best in conjunction with notebook, not laptop. Laptop has too much internet. Notebook has very little internet.)
- A to do list with very small and specific goals, and ticky boxes. Prosaic, but functional. It lowers the activation energy — outline this scene, tackle that edit note, fix this specific comment. And I do like me a tidy box.
- Deadlines. These work remarkably well for me, even when they’re self-imposed, but have their greatest effect when I’m close to them, which makes them of more use for short stories than novels, and for the tail end of edits rather than first drafts.
I trust some of these may prove of use to others. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I really do have some urgent gaming, chocolate-eating, and comparison shopping for compost to get on with.
Juliet Kemp (pronouns they/them) writes science fiction and fantasy, and lives in London by the river, with their partners, kid, and dog. The first book of their fantasy series, The Deep And Shining Dark was on the Locus 2018 Recommended Reads list; the second came out in 2020. Their short fiction has appeared in venues including Cast of Wonders and Analog, and their story “Somewhere Else, Nowhere Else” was short-listed for the WSPA Small Press Award 2020. When not writing or child-wrangling, Juliet knits, indulges their fountain pen habit, and tries to fit an ever-increasing number of plants into a microscopic back garden. They can be found (procrastinating) on Twitter as @julietk.