Monday, 17 February 2020

Is there Power in Procrastination?

By Candy Gourlay


I've fired up my favourite productivity app and typed the chapter number on top of the page.

I am ready to write this thing and remind myself of that quote from my new favourite screenwriter Greta Gerwig:

"You have to will it into existence because no one needs it until they know they need it."

This is what I'm gonna do today: will my story into existence.

But then I go downstairs and mop the floor.

Sounds familiar?

The good news is, I know I am not alone. All I have to do is check my Twitter / Instagram / Facebook feed ... and there they are, all my writing friends, in various stages of procrastination. It's a wonder that anything gets published at all.

If we're all procrastinating, is this a normal thing? And if it is, how do we avoid it?

Apparently screenwriter Aaron Sorkin likes to say:

"You call it procrastination, I call it thinking."

Hmm. Somehow when I'm giving those skirting boards one more polish, it doesn't feel like thinking.


Tim Urban, describes procrastination perfectly on his blog Wait But Why.

He says it's like there are several characters fighting over the steering wheel to your brain.

One is the Rational Decision Maker, who can visualise the future, see the big picture, make long term plans.

Unfortunately, the other character is the Instant Gratification Monkey, who lives in the present moment, has no memory of the past and "only cares about two things: Easy and Fun".

Explains Tim: "The Rational Decision Maker will make the rational decision to do something productive. But the monkey doesn't like that plan. So he takes the wheel and says, 'Actually let us read the entire Wikipedia page of the Nancy Carrigan-Tonya Harding Scandal because I just remembered that that happened ... then we're gonna go over to the fridge and see if there's anything new in it since ten minutes ago.'"

Then there's another character: the Panic Monster. The Panic Monster is in hibernation most times, but emerges in a frenzy when there's a deadline.

Panic is the only thing that can scare the Instant Gratification Monkey away from your brain's steering wheel.

(You can watch Tim's Ted Talk, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator below – but scroll down and read this blog post first.)

But what if you have to go sit in your garrett (without anyone nagging you to do it, of course) and come up with fresh chapters time and again.  How do you fight procrastination when, like many of us, you are still – in Greta Gerwig parlance – willing into being a novel that nobody is waiting for?

(Though this is a bit of a rhetorical question for me as my publisher is DEFINITELY waiting for me to finish writing my novel – yikes!)

Tim says creativity takes emotional and mental toil over time.

"Procrastination forces you to slow down, which is why it can be a direct asset."


Procrastination, an asset? Say what?

"If you really stretch time a bit and go deep into something, it gets more and more interesting, the deeper you're into it."

This is Tomas Hellum, a Norwegian TV producer who came up with Slow TV, streaming hours sometimes days of television.

Notes the New Yorker: "Most art, even the naturalistic stuff ... comes in espresso form: the complexities of human perception are picked when ripe, roasted to intensity, milled, tamped down, and infused into something that’s quickly consumed. It is surprising, then, to find a challenge to this ancient premise arriving in a novel entertainment form—suddenly everywhere—known as 'slow TV.'"

But Tomas insists that this is precisely what people need. "We are living in times when coherent stories and context is somehow exotic. People are longing for some kind of connection or an unbroken story."

"Slowness gives you the ability to take back some control."

1.2 million Norwegians watched Tomas's first seven hour film of a train journey to the Arctic Circle. Slow TV programmes have even been streaming on Netflix.

Listening to a Ted Radio Hour programme on Slowing Down, I was struck by how much my/our art – novel writing  – shares with the slowing down sensibility.

What we write has to compete with the bite-size snacking offered by social media, which has regrettably come to define leisure expectations around the world – entertain me with something easy, quick, disposable.

It's becoming harder and harder to hook readers into long reads, harder to persuade them to invest time and emotion into stories that require concentration and time.

So the idea of Slow TV gives me hope for my art.

But this is by the by. It's not just the consuming of art that needs to slow down, but the creating of it.


Have I mentioned that Greta Gerwig is my new favourite screenwriter? Watching her take on Little Women had me listening to every writing podcast I could find that featured her.

In The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, Jeff asked Greta about her process. Did she outline? Did she plan? How long did it take her to write her award winning films, Lady Bird and Little Women?

She said she keeps her writing "diaphanous" as long as she can, that she doesn't even put the manuscript in a screenplay form until much later because anything that looks final "gives you the illusion it's a final draft – it gives you a cosiness that you haven't earned" making it harder to change it.  "I find when I outline before I write its the fastest way to kill all my ideas. It makes everything quite literal for me."

Screenshot of Jo March laying pages of her manuscript on the floor  from the film Little Women
 Writing is a messy business – documents everywhere, sheets in longhand, she even writes using a typewriter. "I write a lot of scenes, gather a ton of material. I write until it feels like I can see a shape to it."

Tacked above her desk is a sign:


"I got good advice at the beginning: write everything. Write the things you think might be boring because there might be something in it. I think sometimes, when you're writing you’re in such a hurry to entertain, you can miss something that could be fruitful.”

FYI here is Greta Gerwig's Annie Leibowitz cover for Vogue

"It’s not about output it’s about sitting with the problem. That’s the thing about writing."


Hearing Greta explain that she is more interested in earning that final draft than writing it, is fascinating to anyone who feels the pressure to perform, especially in the children's book world, where your reader can outgrow you before you've finished writing a series.

American psychologist, Adam Grant tells the story of how Martin Luther King Jr was rewriting his speech until seconds before he took the podium before a 1963 civil rights rally in Washington, then leaving the speech in his chair to utter the words "I have a dream ..." which was not in the script.

"By delaying the task of finalising the speech until the very last minute," Adam says, "he left himself open to the widest range of possible ideas. And because the text was not set in stone, he had freedom to improvise."

Adam says we often misunderstand procrastination as laziness when it is actually discouragement that makes you want to flee a particular task. The danger is that the procrastinator might "rush ahead with their simplest idea because they didn't have time to work out their creative ones." But the non procrastinator is in as much danger of being less creative: "(non procrastinators) tend to rush ahead with our first ideas which are usually most conventional. We also make the mistake of thinking in very structured, linear ways."

In fact, says Adam, studies have shown that procrastination can boost creativity as long as it doesn't take too long. "People who started (work) early and then put it away for a while and then came back to it were more likely to do divergent thinking and incubation. Actually boosting their creativity."

Here is a video clip of what Adam said about procrastination in his Ted Talk The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers (watch it after you've finished this article!):


We procrastinate because of doubt.

Self doubt - an inability to believe in yourself – can be paralyzing.

Idea doubt, though, the kind that makes me mop my floor instead of writing the next chapter, is different. It can be energizing.

Says Adam: "It motivates you to test, to experiment to refine, just like MLK did.

"Instead of saying I'm crap, you say the first three drafts are always crap and I'm just not there yet."

Like Greta Gerwig, we need to put off our final draft as long as we can, we need to earn it. Says Adam: "Procrastination can become creative when you've actively grappled with the problem".

There is actually a name for why we are advised to set aside a manuscript's first draft before attempting an edit. The Zeigarnik Effect – named for the German phsychologist who identified the process  – describes how we unconsciously continue to work on incomplete tasks that we've set aside.

Explains Adam: "When you finish something, you check it off your to do list and  it's erased ...whereas incomplete tasks ... Your brain continues to work on a problem, testing out different ideas" even as you are pursuing other activities.


I was inspired to write this after listening to the Ted Radio Hour Podcast on the theme Slowing Down.

We writers often talk about how showing up is half the battle of writing a novel. But how many times have I shown up and ... no matter how hard I stared at my screen, could not make my writing go to the next level ... then, after setting a project aside in  despair, found myself refreshed, full of new ideas again?

I am always impatient when I write, wanting to churn out chapters quickly, religiously recording my word count, and hating myself when I fail to meet my objectives.

But learning about slowing down, thinking about Greta Gerwig's advice to "sit with the problem", I realise that I have known all along what gets my novels written.

I must turn up, yes. But I must also give myself permission to take time. Procrastination is taking time. It allows your brain to work on the problem. It's good for you, Adam Grant says, as long as you grapple with the problem first, and don't take too much time.

So I mustn't let it be a source of stress, but of creativity.

Besides, my house will be cleaner for it.

Candy Gourlay is the author of Bone Talk, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie and the Costa children's book awards. Her next book is a biography for young readers on the explorer Ferdinand Magellan. In the UK, it will be published in paperback by David Fickling Books this April. Pre-order here. In the United States it will be published in hardback by Abrams in September. Pre-order here.

First Names: Ferdinand Magellan by Candy Gourlay Illustrations by Tom Knight

Monday, 27 January 2020

What matters more - the destination or the journey?

by Paula Harrison

One of the oddest things about how I ended up as a published writer was being picked up from a publisher's slushpile. Most writers go through an extended "nearly there" phase. They are shortlisted in writing competitions. They get full manuscript requests from agents. Then they get signed by an agent and go on submission but their story doesn't manage to sell. These are normal stages. Writers' successes usually come in tiny increments. Whereas I spent years and years writing with little sign that I was getting anywhere at all. Then suddenly - bam! Nosy Crow wanted to offer me a contract for a series.

But I think we can get too fixated on our destination as writers. We forget that any creative endeavour is a journey. We focus on getting an agent and getting a publisher. Of course these are important, but looking back they seem less important than they did at the time.

I think we can get too fixated on our destination as writers. We forget that any creative endeavour is a journey.

I started writing around age six when I invented a world of talking bookworms. I drew a map of their country in an empty exercise book and started writing down their adventures. I can't remember why I chose to write about talking bookworms. I suspect someone had told me that I was a bookworm and my brain had run away with the idea. Somehow in late childhood I lost the belief that I was able to write and, aside from some teenage poetry, I didn't return to writing until I was in my late 20's and by then a qualified primary school teacher.

A focus on readers has been a key part of my writer's journey. I spent years noticing how the children I taught reacted to stories. I noticed which books they picked from the library. I saw how they would return to a series or an author they loved over and over again. Then I became a parent and I got an even deeper insight into how children love stories and how they grow into readers.

Like all of us here on Notes from the Slushpile, finding SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) absolutely transformed my journey. Not only did I find a wealth of expertise and information through their events, but I also met lots of lovely writers and illustrators. Nobody can work and improve in a vacuum, and suddenly I had a huge source of inspiration and commiseration for every stage I went through. Whether I was at the peak of a wave or down in a trough there was always someone there with me.

Suddenly I had a huge source of inspiration and commiseration for every stage I went through.

Around 2009, I was just coming to the end of submitting what seemed like my millionth middle-grade book to an slew of uninterested agents and publishers, when my children started enjoying young series fiction. Tired and fed up of endlessly writing and submitting fiction for 9+, I started writing my own younger stories. It would be a break from longer books, I told myself, and I could finish the books faster and get rejected faster too!

I was spending every bedtime reading all sorts of stories to a five and a seven year old. Somehow, without realising it, I internalised the story structure and pacing for young fiction. Suddenly I had a contract for my first series - The Rescue Princesses. Writing younger books gained me my first publishing contract and several more since. But I have found that more than anything, I love the journey. Success is wonderful. But publishers and readers often want more of the same. Writers like to try something new! So how do we balance the needs of our readers and the market with our need to move on as writers?

Publishers and readers often want more of the same. Writers like to try something new!
I am still working out the answer to this one. I have been lucky enough to publish several middle grade novels as well as the younger fiction that gained me my first contract. Writing is my living so I am always balancing creative and commercial impulses. I always have readers in the back of my mind and I am always up for trying something new!

Paula Harrison has published over 30 books including The Rescue Princesses, the Red Moon Rising trilogy and the Secret Rescuers series. Her next book Kitty and the Sky Garden Adventure publishes Feb 2020.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Well, how did I get here? Luck & making your own luck

I honestly think most of the things that set us down one path or another and change our lives forever are random chance.

Take my start at university. My air force dad was transferred to Edmonton, Alberta, to take effect the summer after I finished high school at the other end of Canada, in Nova Scotia. I sent off for the engineering prospectus at the University of Alberta; they accidentally sent me medicine. I read it and found a thing called medical lab science – and hey, presto: I applied and did the first year! It didn’t last, though: as soon as I found out if I kept on the course I’d have to spend the third year in a hospital taking blood, I was out of there. I have an absolute phobia of needles, and swiftly switched to science in my favourite subject that year, microbiology. 

It’s startling - and a little embarrassing! - how many of my other major decisions weren't planned or even imagined before the moment.

Was pursuing writing and getting published any different – was it inevitable or more a combination of unexpected twists of fate?

Yes and no to both.

I loved reading and making things up as long as I can remember. When I was 17 I decided I wanted to be a writer, so the intention was there from quite a young age – but the belief wasn’t. I’d never met an author or heard one speak; nobody I knew wrote. It felt kind of like saying I wanted to win lottery: it’d be great if it happened, but how likely was it, really? I was also desperate for independence and set out to get it – studying and working at various things in Canada and then Australia: science, law, optometry. I still wrote; poetry, mostly. But it was something I did on the side, didn’t talk about much and definitely never let anybody read.

What changed? In one of those twists of fate I found myself moving from Australia to England to get married, and needed to either retrain as an optometrist - my profession at the time - or have yet another career change. What was I going to do this time? And I remembered being that 17 year old who wanted to write but never really took it seriously. At that point I decided I didn’t want to wake up one day decades later and never have tried.

And try I did. My first novel I finished in the summer of 2006. Titled Life Lists, it followed three lifelong friends and how their lives changed from what they'd been so sure of as teens, written on lists and opened when one of them died years later. It was for adult readers and In hindsight it wasn’t great – though at the time I seem to remember feeling so immensely proud at finally having finished something that surely someone would congratulate me and publish it! Alas, no. But I did get some personal comments from submissions. 

I carried on writing – short stories, novels – but somehow felt something wasn’t quite right. Without really understanding why, I started to fall out of love with the process.

Then, chance intervened. I got a job at Calibre audio library – a charity that does audio books for the visually impaired and dyslexics – to develop the children’s side of things. For the interview I had to convince them I knew a lot about children’s books: I didn’t. I did a crash course in libraries and bookshops and somehow got the job. And then I thought I better read some of the authors I'd been telling him I knew all about: children’s books. Something I hadn’t done in years. And I fell back in love with words, reading, writing. This was where I was meant to be. 

I started my first children’s novel on an overnight flight back from Canada. My dad there was very ill and it was an emotionally fraught time to say the least. Soon after I read about the Winchester Writer’s Conference in a writing magazine, and I think I was desperate for an escape, to do something that was just for me. Away I went! I entered that first children’s story I’d started on the overnight flight into a competition … and it won. I'd tell you what it was about but it's still in my might-rewrite-it-one-day file. 

I finished it and then started subbing it to agents and publishers using the handy Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook, and somewhere in that book a children’s writing organisation was mentioned: the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I looked into it. And went off to their conference that November, in 2008.

And there I found my home. I met Candy Gourlay and loads of other children’s writers at that first conference. Other than one year when I wasn’t well I’ve been every year since, as well as to countless other events. I got a reality check or two along the way – apparently just finishing a novel that wins a prize isn’t enough to guarantee fame and fortune? And I learned and wrote and shared the good news and bad along the way.

There were all the slings and arrows of writing more novels, getting rejected, getting encouraged, getting rejected some more … and some more … and yes, you guessed it: some more. Finally, my novel Slated – the ninth I’d written and submitted – found a home with agent Caroline Sheldon and publisher Orchard books back in 2011; it was published in 2012.
So. How much of getting there was written in the stars, and how much was total luck? I like to think a bit of both.

Teri Terry is the author of best-selling award-winning thrillers for teens, including Fated, the Slated trilogy, Mind GamesBook of Lies and the Dark Matter trilogy. She has lived around the world but now calls a village in Buckinghamshire home. Teri loves all animals but especially Scooby, the world’s cutest puppy.

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