How to Overcome Procrastination When Writing a Novel

Everyone knows the cliches about novelists.

  • They stare at a blank page, frustrated by their lack of inspiration.
  • They write something only to deem it embarrassing gibberish and delete it.
  • They organize their desks instead of writing.
  • They decide to do a little more background research so that they can inject brilliant nuances into their prose.

As someone who has written and published 11 novels over the years and received good reviews at multiple online retailers, I have plenty of advice to offer. Let’s go through each procrastination challenge one by one.

The Blank Page

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You’ve been daydreaming. You’ve been imagining exciting and unforgettable scenes, but all of that evaporates from your mind when you sit down to write. The great challenge with writing is organizing thoughts and choosing what order to present them in.

When you’re really stuck, I recommend free writing. When I use this tactic, I start writing like I am talking to myself. I throw out ideas about how to open the scene and what should happen. I may add notes about good lines of dialogue that come to mind. This process pushes me past the paralysis of the blank page. Free writing releases me from concerns about right and wrong and just sets my mind afloat in ideas. The physical act of typing overcomes inertia and pushes me past frustration or indecision.

After a 10 or 20 minutes of free writing, I usually gain a new sense of direction and can proceed with adding more content to a manuscript.

I don’t always use the free writing tactic. Sometimes I know what I want to do but feel uncertain how to express it exactly. This is the primary challenge for almost every sentence that appears in a novel. To get typing instead of staring at a blank screen, I evict the inner perfectionist, make a decision, and start writing.

I often find that the first one or two paragraphs might not be very good, but by the third paragraph the magic will start to happen. I keep going. Once the writing session is done for the day, I can go back and edit and rewrite the rough bits until something good takes shape.

The blank page when you start a novel is a different animal than the blank page that confronts me when I’m in the middle of a manuscript and need to keep going.

When figuring out how to start a novel, I imagine that I am in a movie theater. The lights have dimmed and the first scene lights up the screen. I ask myself questions while in this frame of mind.

  • What should happen to get me excited about the story?
  • Which character do I want to introduce to start the story?
  • At what point in the life of the character do I want to launch the story?
  • What is the most essential information that needs to be in the first paragraph or two to establish the setting and introduce a problem so that I can build from that in a way that encourages a reader to keep reading?

As for overcoming the blank page when I’m in the middle of a manuscript, I have two great suggestions.

  • 1. I go back and lightly edit what I wrote in the previous writing session. After doing that, my brain is warmed up, and proceeding with the next lines of text becomes easy.
  • 2. Before I end a writing session, I leave a few simple notes about what will happen next. This gives directions to follow when I pick the manuscript up again.

Deleting Unwanted Garbage

To be honest, I sometimes delete writing that does not meet expectations. This is always unpleasant and quite inefficient. I did this often in my first years as a novelist. (I’ve been writing fiction since 1997.) My inexperience made it more likely that I would write something that I would later discard.

Now, with so many writing years under my belt, I recognize much more quickly when I’ve taken a wrong turn. Instead of writing pages or even a whole chapter and then killing it, I now see after a couple paragraphs when I need to start over.

The trick to knowing if something should stay or needs to be hidden from the universe for eternity is switching my mindset from creator to consumer.

To judge if something needs to be deleted, ask yourself:

If I was a reader, would I like this or wonder what the hell was going on?

  • Does this make any sense for the character?
  • Is this advancing the plot?
  • Is it boring?

Being able to look at my work 100% objectively may be impossible, but I can be 75% to 80% objective. I view everything through the reader’s lens and measure it against the standard of “Is this like a good book that I would enjoy?”

Housekeeping Instead of Writing

I get out the laptop and decide to write, but I’m feeling a little cold in the brain and decide to organize my notes, clear rubbish off my desk, or go online and shop for blue-ink pens for editing on paper. Any of this is classic procrastination.

As a novelist, I try to be honest with myself. If I am wasting time, then I need to admit it. I can force myself to stop wasting time with this question:

How will I feel if I do nothing productive compared to actually making progress on my manuscript?

I write because it allows me to enter a flow state and feel an incredible release from my personal problems and the problems of the world. I’m not going to have that experience if I decide to scrape dust out from between my keyboard keys.

Because I want to enter a flow state and feel a sense of accomplishment at the end, I write instead of frittering away my time on nonessential tasks.

Researching Instead of Writing

Oh, this is so easy to do.

Everything that I learn leads to new information. I can never know enough. The details that I learn will ADD SO MUCH to the story. New details can even drive the direction of the story when they are inspiring and interesting. When I wrote the Werewolves in the Renaissance series, I learned a great deal about 16th century Central Europe, the Ottomans, and the Holy Roman Empire. The landscape and history adapted wonderfully to a fantasy adventure.

But at some point I needed to write the story.

To accomplish this, I set limits on research by asking myself “Do I have enough to get started?” or “Do I have enough to finish this chapter?”

The act of writing will raise more questions about what I need to research further. When this happens, instead of halting the writing, I may add a note like “Confirm this fact” or “Get more information about X” and then keep writing. I can fill in pertinent details later.

Remember, a novel is about characters moving through a story. The details matter, but the essential flow of drafting a manuscript is deciding what the characters say and do when and where. I can go back and research the small issues while still making progress on the story.

With this technique, I keep research focused on the story instead of digging into every rabbit hole that I encounter while doing research prior to actually writing it.

Always Analyze Your Procrastination

Psychologists aren’t likely to stop researching the reasons that we procrastinate. The reasons for this behavior are many and varied. In the realm of writing, I believe procrastination arises mostly from uncertainty about how to proceed and the desire for immediate perfection.

Although I have the self discipline to push myself past procrastination, I recognize that sometimes I really do need more time to figure out what happens next in my work in progress. When that is the case, I narrow down exactly what is causing my hesitation. Once I identify the roadblock, I can unlock my mental prison, move the problem out of the way, and get writing again.

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