All the work while crying

If procrastination was a sport, writers would medal. Going to the gym, cleaning the toilet, de-frosting the freezer, in-box zero, baking, scrolling instagram …these are novice moves. A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon search engine optimizing this website. A new low or levelling up?

But there’s another, more insidious, way we procrastinate. We avoid the difficult scenes.

Write the difficult scenes

You know the ones I’m talking about. You’ve brought characters together to have a knock-em-down-drag-em-out fight but just as the tension rises, you panic and fade to black. Or: something horrible happens off stage and the reader is informed of it after the fact.

As a reader, nothing is more disappointing than being cheated of the juice. But as a writer, I’ve been guilty of wimping out.

There were several scenes in The Boat People that were not written until late in the game (read: until my editors forced my hand). The scene where Sellian is born, the one where the UN leaves Mahindan’s hometown, the one where Priya and Charlie take Sellian somewhere he doesn’t want to go (I won’t spoiler the book and say where). Consistently, readers tell me these were the most gutting scenes, the ones that made them cry, the ones they won’t forget. I’m proudest of those scenes. They were hard work but that’s not why I love them. I love them because they are the scenes where stakes were high and characters were in peril and therefore, they contained the most emotion. Emotion is a story’s heart beat. If the emotions are dialled down, if you let the characters off easy and nothing they do is fraught, your story will flatline.

Unconscious procrastination

The odd thing about those scenes was that I always knew they took place in the timeline of the story, I just didn’t think they were necessary to show. Unconscious procrastination is insidious: we don’t even realize we are avoiding the hard work.

We create characters we love and then we can’t stomach making their lives hard. So we don’t write those difficult scenes. Instead, we write a whole bunch of unnecessary material. We add side stories and secondary plots, create minor characters and let the big, bad stuff happen to them. Deep down we know the story is flatlining and we try to breathe life into it by padding it with all this extra stuff. We procrastinate by writing.

How to write faster

Here’s the foolproof way to write your story faster: identify the scenes you are avoiding and get them over with. No excuses. March that character down the gangplank and push her into the shark-circled waters. Now, the climactic scenes need not be ones of injury and death. The big scene could be a character telling his parents something they don’t want to hear. Or a character having tea with the Queen of England and dropping the cup. Or kicking the corgi under the table by accident.

Figuring out the scenes you’re avoiding isn’t always easy. It helps to have another writer or a blunt friend read your work. Even better: hire a professional to help you with your manuscript. If neither of these are options, here are some signs to watch for on your own:

  1. Is a minor character getting more action than the protagonist?

  2. By the end of the story, who has experienced the most change and transformation? If it’s not the protagonist that’s a problem.

  3. Are confrontations/ fights avoided or resolved too quickly?

  4. Is life a little too easy for the protagonist? Do they bounce back too quickly and/or un-harmed from every set back?

  5. In a tense scene, where were the characters physically in relation to each other? Long distance fights don’t have the same punch as two characters having it out face to face.

  6. What action happens off stage?

  7. What scenes made you squirm/ want to walk away? Did you wimp out? Did you end them too soon? Be honest.

Remember: stakes + peril = emotion. What is at stake for the protagonist? Have you put them in peril? Are the stakes and the peril present on the page? Count the words. Make sure you’ve devoted sufficient time to your protagonist’s discomfort. Don’t procrastinate on your own discomfort. Sweating, the shakes - these are solid signs you’re doing the hard work. Bonus points for tears.

ps. Was this post helpful? If you’d like more feedback, specific to your project, you can hire my services. I’m taking bookings for 2020. Get in touch for more info or a quote.