The Way I Write Part 3: Refinement

Once more we’re taking a look at my writing as it’s progressed over the last twenty years to see how it’s changed and if it’s improved. The first post focused on pretty amateurish works of fiction from the early aughts. The second post jumped ahead a few years and we saw what might be called an evolution of style and voice. Still, the fiction in these first two posts was flawed, overly wordy, and pretty much the polar opposite of how I write now. In this post, we’ll jump ahead a few more years, starting with 2010, and see what’s changed.

“Blasted Heath” (circa 2010 A.D.)

This passage is ones of the first bits of fiction I wrote for Privateer Press, not too long after I took the position of editor-in-chief for No Quarter Magazine. This was a bit of league fiction supporting the organized play of the tabletop miniatures games WARMACHINE and HORDES.

Grim Angus stared at the faint tracks in the muddy ground, rubbing his chin with one blunt-fingered hand. He’d expected to find skorne tracks—the Bloodmseath was full of the murderous bastards—and maybe even tracks of the few humans that lived in the marsh. But these weren’t skorne; neither were they human or trollkin.

By the size and spacing of the tracks, Grim counted two dozen man-sized creatures. The depth of the depressions on some of the tracks suggested armor, and heavy armor at that for such narrow feet to leave lasting impressions in the swampy earth. Others tracks were fainter, left by lighter armored troops – scouts perhaps.

“What’s that, Grim?” A deep, gravelly voice asked over Grim’s shoulder. A resounding thud that shook the ground followed the question.

Grim sighed, stood, and turned to address the speaker. Noral Stonemapper was an immense trollkin, easily seven feet tall and so stoutly muscled he was often mistaken for a full-blood troll. The huge trollkin was a krielstone bearer. His honored burden, a six-hundred-pound chunk of granite inscribed with the great deeds of trollkin heroes, was sunk a full foot into the mossy sward in front of him.

What I like about this piece, as opposed to the earlier passages I’ve shown, is I’m definitely starting to simplify, to edit down, especially when the voice of the character demands it. In this case, Grim Angus, a trollkin bounty hunter, and a stoic and pragmatic one at that. In addition, this just sounds more like the stuff I currently write, but let’s look at the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 6%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 75.1
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 6.0

Now that, folks, is pretty damn readable, and it’s well within the parameters of most published fiction. Additionally, if you look at the stuff I’m writing for Privateer Press today it’s within this range, so as far back as 2010 I was starting to dial in my fantasy fiction voice. Now let’s look at something in another genre.

“At the Seams” (circa 2012 A.D.)

This is from one of the first pieces of flash fiction I wrote back in 2012. I initially wrote it as apart of a one-hour flash fiction contest, and the following passage comes from that first draft.

My head is throbbing now, but I have to maintain focus. If I let the thought slip for just an instant, I’ll lose something—maybe just a bit of fingernail or a few flakes of skin and maybe a whole lot more. I almost look down at the smooth stump where my left foot used to be but manage to avoid it. I’d like to hold on to my right foot a little longer.

In the end, I know it’s pointless. How long can you keep thinking about not falling apart? How long can you think about any one thing at all? It’s not really possible. The mind wanders, and you just can’t—

Blinding pain in my right hand wrenches me away from thinking about thinking. I look down to see that my right index finger now ends after the second knuckle. The rest of the finger lies on the floor. There’s no blood or anything, just a clean separation, as if my finger never had that extra inch of flesh and bone.

If you were to look at a some of my fiction now, I think you’d see a lot similarities, but let’s look at the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 85.8
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.7

Yep, this is pretty much where I live now. Sure, the occasional story goes a bit higher or even a bit lower on the readability scale, but for the horror, crime, and even sci-fi I write these days, this is my happy zone. My style has grown into something you might call streamlined, hell, even straightforward (I can even live with spartan), and I’m happy with it. One other thing to note is I published this story with The Molotov Cocktail in 2013, my first flash fiction publication.

Well, I think the improvement between 2007 and 2010 was a big one, and it’s pretty clear my style became much more streamlined, less wordy, and well, actually publishable. Again, for reference, here are the readability score and dates for the excerpts we’ve covered so far.

Date Story Reading Ease Grade Level
2000 Lullaby 53.5 13.4
2005 Rearview 37.9 14.4
2006 The Tow 61.6 10.7
2007 The Fate of Champions 62.9 8.7
2010 Blasted Heath 75.1 6.0
2012 At the Seams 85.8 4.7

In the final post in this series, I’ll look at stories I’ve actually published in the last few years and see if we can detect any further improvement.

The Way I Write Part 2: Evolution

Last week, I delved into the earliest existing examples of my fiction (all unpublished) to see how and what I was writing back in the early aughts. I gave examples from two short stories and used the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores, plus the old-fashioned eyeball test, to gauge the quality and publishability of what I was churning out back then. To refresh your memory, both stories were crazy wordy and very purple. If you’d like to see for yourself, check out The Way I Write Part 1: The Early Years.

Now we’re going to jump ahead a few years and look at two more pieces (still unpublished) and see if I improved at all. One quick note, I was working and publishing in the tabletop gaming industry during this time, but that is a decidedly different kind of writing, and these posts will focus solely on narrative fiction.

“The Tow” (circa 2006 A.D.)

This passage comes from a 3,500-word story I wrote in early 2006. I remember when I finished this one I really thought I had something, but I was still too chickenshit to submit it. Of course, what follows is not publishable, but let’s take a look and see if the work has improved at all.

Jack owned the only towing service in town, and for that matter, the only tow truck. Most of his time was spent hauling the broken-down junkers that dominated the streets of Arbuckle, dragging their rusting metallic carcasses to the scrapyard, or, if the owners had any money, to Kyle’s Repair. But this tow was different. The call he received from Norman Gaston at the Lucky Load this morning offered Jack the rare opportunity to make some money from his small impound yard.

Jack could not suppress a smile when he thought of the exorbitant amount of money he was going to charge the owner of the Mercedes to get it out of hock. He figured a person who owned a car like that was bound to have enough spare cash to make Jack’s morning one of the best he’d had in weeks. He sat for a moment behind the wheel of his modified Ford F-650 super cab, idling thirty feet away from the Mercedes, soaking in the sight of the lonely German luxury car. He was grinning and imagining crisp hundred-dollar bills floating out of an expensive alligator skin wallet and into his own dirty canvas and Velcro rig. He savored his good fortune a minute longer, then put the truck into gear and rolled forward to claim his prize.

What I think is interesting about this passage and what surprised me when I dug it up is that it’s kind of an embryonic version of how I write now. Yeah, it’s still way too wordy and it’s definitely clunky in places, and, yes, it highlights some of the issues I STILL deal with (like being overly procedural), but I think there’s maybe, kind of something that could be called a voice here. Anyway, let’s look at the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 61.6
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 10.7

Like I said, still very wordy, but this is a definite improvement over the two stories from my first post. Both of those had reading ease score below 55 and grade level scores above 13 (college textbook density). This is better. Not great, but better. All that said, I love the concept in this story (which you can’t really see from the excerpt), and I’ve started rewriting this one from scratch. I dig what I have so far, and I hope to finish it and submit it in the new year.

Let’s jump ahead to 2007 and switch to fantasy instead of horror and see if things improved.

“The Fate of Champions” (circa 2007 A.D.)

This passage is from an unfinished story I began in 2007. It is decidedly high fantasy and thus includes some fantasy tropes (like long, impossible-to-pronounce names) that tend to bloat readability scores.

Umbar stared up at the ragged battlements of Illumar’s Shield, counting the wasted, ashen faces staring down at him. The fortress had once been a shining beacon of purity and law, its white towers gleaming like the halo of Illumar himself. It was now a decrepit, magic-scorched wreck. Still, the walls had held. After six months of relentless pounding, both magical and mundane, Illumar’s Shield stood defiant of everything Umbar had thrown at it.

A single arrow soared out over the battlements, wobbling in its flight from the unpracticed hand that had loosed it. The shaft, guided by luck or perhaps even the vengeful hand of Illumar himself, struck Umbar’s blackened steel breastplate with a hollow clang. It had been a simple hunting arrow with a blunt iron point, and it failed to pierce Umbar’s armor, doing little more than adding yet another scratch to its battle-worn surface.

Hey, now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not perfect, and it’s still far wordier than I write today, but this a bit more readable than the earlier excerpts (once you get past the names). I even like some of the imagery here, and I’m not wracking the poor sentences (as much) to do it.

Let’s have a look at the numbers:

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 62.3
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 9.1

That’s a definite improvement, and it’s getting closer to what you might actually find in popular fiction, especially fantasy. One interesting thing here is that you see a divergence of styles. The first excerpt is the beginning of how I writing everything but fantasy, and the excerpt above is the beginnings of a style I use for things like Privateer Press and the steam-powered fantasy setting of the Iron Kingdoms.

This is another story I actually quite like and I think might have legs with a serious rewrite.

I think there is definite improvement in these two excerpts over the very early ones from the first post. The work is becoming less wordy, more readable, and, dare I say, more publishable (but not actually publishable) than what I was doing a few years earlier. So, yeah, I’d call this improvement, evolution, or, you know, positive yardage. For reference here are the readability score and dates for the excerpts we’ve covered so far.

Date Story Reading Ease Grade Level
2000 Lullaby 53.5 13.4
2005 Rearview 37.9 14.4
2006 The Tow 61.6 10.7
2007 The Fate of Champions 62.3 9.1

Next week we’ll continue on and look at some of the first short stories I actually published and see if those readability scores improve further.

Reading Your Readability Scores

How easy (or difficult) is your work to read? This is a question that can be answered to some degree with the Flesch–Kincaid readability tests, which (in very simple terms) are designed to provide a readability score and indicate what grade-level education is needed to understand the work.

The purpose of this post is to explore how and if the Flesch–Kincaid readability tests are useful to writers (well, this writer anyway). Why am I using the Flesch–Kincaid readability test when there are other readability tests out there? Simple. Flesch–Kincaid comes with MS Word, so most writers have access to it and are probably familiar with it. To get the Flesch–Kincaid readability scores in MS Word do the following. File > Options > Proofing > Show Readability Statistics. Then, simply run a spelling/grammar check on your document. When it finishes, you’ll get a popup box with your readability scores (plus a bunch of other numbers that factor into those scores).  We’ll be focusing on three numbers:

  • Passive Sentences – The percentage of passive sentences in your work.
  • Flesch Reading Ease – This is a score between 0 and 100 that indicates how easy or difficult your work is to read. Higher is easier.
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level – This is a score, usually between 1 and 12 (but can be higher), that indicates the years of education someone would need to understand the work

So, now that we know what these number mean let’s take a closer look at what might influence these scores. Note, I might compare my scores to those of famous authors referenced in a very in-depth article on this subject by Shane Snow (and in my own research), but I am in now way inferring I write as well (or as successfully) as these authors. All I’m saying is that based on some raw stats, there may be similarities in things like sentence length and word choice (stuff the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores take into account).

One thing that tends to influence readability scores in my stories is the amount of dialog in them. So let’s look at a couple of pieces and see if that pans out.

1) “A Point of Honor” published by Radix Media

  • Passive Sentences: 1%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 86.6
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 3.7

“A Point of Honor” is a 5,000-word near-future sci-fi/horror piece. Looking at the readability scores, a couple of things jump out at you. Grade level and reading ease are very high, in the same ballpark as Hemingway. Why is that? Well, out of of the story’s 544 sentences, 191 of them are dialog, around 35%. I do my best to write dialog like people might actually talk, and that generally means shorter sentences, simpler language, and so on, which is reflected in the readability stats. Now, let’s see if that changes in a story without a lot of dialog.

2) “Paint-Eater” published by The Arcanist 

  • Passive Sentences: 1%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 78.3
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 5.8

This is a 3,800-word horror story, and looking at the stats, it’s still pretty readable, somewhere around Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer. Out of this story’s 257 sentences, only 29 are dialog, about 10%. The lack of dialog here means I have to tell the story in a different way. It’s more descriptive and introspective, which for me means more complex sentences, multisyllabic words, and so on. That lowers my readability score. Of course, these scores are still well within the parameters for popular fiction, but the lack of dialog does change my stats in a noticeable way.

What else might influence my readability scores? How about genre? Let’s take a look at two more stories and see what that looks like.

1) Acts of War III: Stormbreak published by Privateer Press

  • Passive Sentences: 3%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 72.3
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 6.8

This is roughly 20,000 words of steampunk fantasy, and as you can see, it yields my densest prose yet. Now why might that be? Fantasy, especially steampunk, is filled with jargon and pseudo-technical words. This piece is littered with words like necromechanikal and Vindicator warjack and annihilator axes, which, uh, all have more than a few syllables. In addition, even when there’s dialog, these words tend to pop up because they’re important to the story. Also, the folks talking are trained experts in various fields from magic to military, which can increase sentence length and complexity. All of that adds up to lower readability scores. Now, compared to some genres, like lit-fic, and authors, like, say, Lovecraft, this is still incredibly readable stuff, but you can see how genre can affect readability. Let’s check out another piece and another genre.

2) “The Back-Off” to be published by On-Spec Magazine

  • Passive Sentences: 1%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 82.5
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.6

“The Back-Off” is a crime/noir/urban fantasy mash-up, but I think it shares more stylistic elements with the first two genres than the last. As you can see, readability goes way up, and I think that’s due to a couple of things. One, the story’s primary characters aren’t the type to wax poetic in dialog, and there is a lot of dialog in this one. Two, there’s a fair bit of action in this story, and I generally write action with short sentences and short paragraphs to convey urgency and motion. Those two things equal lower readability scores. Now, does everyone write crime fiction this way? Of course not, but a quick a dirty look at some excerpts available online showed me that Michael Connelly’s scores are in this range, as are Elmore Leonard’s.

One question I think is important is can you use these readability scores in real time when you’re writing a story? I think so, and they can be a useful tool if you’re going for a very specific voice. Case in point, I published a story a while back called “Where They Belong,” which is from the first-person perspective of a six-year-old boy, and I wanted the language to reflect that. Here are the readability scores on the final version of that story:

  • Passive Sentences – 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease – 94.1
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level – 2.7

Pretty simplistic, and that’s what I wanted. As I was writing, I would grab a passage, run it through Flesch-Kincaid, and see how complex it was. If I got reading ease and grade levels that felt too high, I’d go and see if I could simplify the prose a bit more. You could do this the other way as well. If you’re writing a story and you want a character to sound particularly erudite, you might check and see if their dialog is scanning a bit lower on the readability scale. Of course, this is just one factor of getting a character’s voice right, but it can be a useful data point.

So, what does all this mean and should you worry about these scores? I’d say if your work is falling somewhere between 60 and 90 for reading ease and between 4 and 9 for grade score, you’re probably in good shape. That’s gonna put you within the norms for most published adult fiction (from Shane Snow’s article and the separate research I’ve done). That said, I think the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores can be useful when you’re trying to get a handle on whether or not your work is consistent with what readers expect from a genre. I don’t think you should look at these numbers as hard and fast rules for how to write any genre, but they can be one more piece of data that helps you target markets more effectively. For example, if you’re writing middle-grade fiction and getting readability scores in the 50s and grade levels in the low teens, maybe it’s time to take a look at your prose. That’s an extreme example, but I think you get the idea.

If you’d like to know more about how Flesch-Kincaid readability scores are calculated, the Wikipedia entry is actually a great place to start.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what might influence a story’s readability scores. For example, POV might be a factor, as would something obvious like a writer’s personal style, but what I referenced above is where I tend to use them in my own work. You might find another use for these numbers, and if you have, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Aeryn’s Archives: Vault of the Dragon Kings

This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll talk about the projects I’ve written and worked on over my professional career, from fiction to RPGs to tabletop war-gaming stuff. I’ll try to add insights into how the project came together and maybe an amusing anecdote or two. Anyway, with over 400 writing, editing, and development credits, we could be at this a while, but I’ll try to restrict my posts to the more interesting projects. 🙂

Let’s kick things off with my very first professional job in the tabletop gaming industry way back in 2005: Dungeon Crawl Classics #30: Vault of the Dragon Kings. 

For the uninitiated, what you have here is a module or adventure for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. This is not an adventure produced by the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons,  Wizards of the Coast, but a third party product created under license by Goodman Games. The lead writer on this one was Jason Little, and my role was as a stat editor and monster creator (I was credited under Stat Blocks & Creature Development and Additional Writing & Development). This essentially means I checked a lot of math and created some monsters for the adventure. That’s not the interesting part of this gig, though. How I got it is.

When Wizards of the Coast released the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons (often just called 3E) back in 2000, they created a version of the game that was more versatile than any before it. The rules let you build characters and monsters in a clearly defined way that allowed for endless customization. In addition, they opened up the game to third party publishers to produce material through something called the Open Gaming License (or OGL). I won’t go into the specifics because it’s mostly a bunch of math and legalese and stuff, but this new system sparked a creative fire in me. So I started making monsters, mostly by taking existing D&D critters and upgrading them with the new rules system. I also wrote little backstories for my creations and posted them on a popular Dungeons & Dragons message board. In some ways it was similar to fan fiction, though the OGL made it more commercially viable. (I also actually wrote fan fiction, but that’s a story for another day).

My creations earned me a small following from D&D players who frequented that message boards, and a few of those folks turned out to be publishers as well. One of them, Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games, liked what he saw and reached out to see if I’d be willing to work on a module in his very popular Dungeon Crawl Classics series. Needless to say I was thrilled for the opportunity, and thus began my career in tabletop gaming. Better yet, it also started a great professional relationship that’s lasted nearly fifteen years, and I still do the occasional job for Goodman Games to this day.

Oh, for you old school gamers, you might recognize the cover artist on this one. Yep, that’s a piece by the incomparable Erol Otus.

If you’d like to check out this module up close and personal, it’s still available through Goodman Games via the link below (or the giant cover illustration above):

DCC #30: Vault of the Dragon Kings

Futures: A Point of Honor

I have a new story out today called A Point of Honor published as a chapbook by Radix Media as part of their Futures series. It’s a near-future sci-fi piece I’m pretty excited about, and you can check it out (and purchase it if you’re so inclined) right here.

The United States has instituted archaic dueling codes overseen by a government agency called the Bureau of Honorable Affairs. Victims of slander and libel, among other crimes, can force their tormentors to face them in state-sanctioned combat. Jacob Mayweather is challenged to a duel by a man he has never met. The accusation is for a considerable crime, and Jacob must choose whether he will fight or be blacklisted as a duel dodger.

Here’s a little background on the story (no spoilers), mostly because unlike a lot of what I write I have clear memory of where this idea came from. I was reading book called The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch by Jonathan Gottschall (highly recommended) which is about “an English professor who trains in the sport of mixed martial arts and explores the science and history behind the violence of men” when the idea came to me. In his book, Jonathan Gottschall discusses the history of dueling and the the social ramifications around it.

One aspect of dueling that really stuck with me was that refusing a duel was sometimes considered worse than the possibility of dying in one because of the effect it could have on a person’s social standing. They might be labeled a coward and whatever accusation they levied against the challenger would be viewed as false simply because they chose not to fight. That whole concept of the social structure around a duel fascinated me, and I wondered what that might look like in the modern (or near future) world. What slights and insults (and through which mediums) might push people in a world driven by technology to seek a duel to the death to restore their social standing? How would the government handle or sanction it? What consequences would there be for refusing a duel in the digital age? And, of course, who might seek to profit on such a thing. 

This nifty in-world poster that Radix Media created for the chapbook gives a little more insight into the story.

So, head on over to Radix Media and check out A Point of Honor, and while you’re there check out the other books in the Futures series (below).

Proofing Checklist: Just Nod & Smile

I recently finished the latest revision of my novel, and after all the heavy lifting was done–you know, adding new scenes, tweaking character motivations, all that–it was time for one more proof before it goes back to my agent. Now I have a pretty lengthy proofing checklist that includes all kinds of things, from overused words, sentence structure bugaboos, adverb annihilation, dialog tag correctification, the works. What I want to focus on today, though, is body language and nonverbal cues, and more importantly the ones I tend to overuse.

As usual for these things, what follows is how I write, revise, etc. I’m trying for a specific style with my work that won’t be a good fit for everyone. So with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s nod, smile, shake our heads, and grimace this thing to death. 🙂

As I alluded to above, the prime suspects for overused body language in my work are nod, smile, and shaking heads. The first two, especially, can get pretty egregious, and I end up removing half or more of them in a given manuscript. I also tend to overuse frown, grimace, and, oddly, shudder to a lesser degree, plus a few others.

So how and why do I fix my nods and smiles and so on? Well, here are some examples.

1) It doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I’m just writing along, making everybody nod and smile, and for some reason I pop one into sentence where it doesn’t make sense. Case in point:

When are you going after them?” Everett asked.

She nodded. “Soon, and you’re coming with us.”

So, uh, why is she nodding there? No good reason. This one just gets nuked, and the sentence and dialog are fine without it.

2) It’s redundant with the dialog. This is kind of a stylistic choice, but I prefer to let the dialog do the heavy lifting when it comes to character emotions, intent, and so on. Often as not, the body language is just redundant. Example:

Everett nodded. “Yeah, that night.” He took a risk and lied. “I spoke with Howard on the inside. He saw the same thing.”

I don’t really need the nodded here because he gives the affirmative in the dialog and I don’t think it adds anything. I might rewrite this one as:

“Yeah, that night.” Everett took a risk and lied. “I spoke with Howard on the inside. He saw the same thing.”

Now there are times where the body language, a nod in this case, does add something to the dialog. Case in point:

He didn’t sit, but he put his hands on the back of the chair and nodded. “Go on.”

I could remove the nod here, but I actually like the three little bits of nonverbal communication here followed by the dialog. Your mileage may vary, but this is one I’d keep.

3) There’s a better word. Sometimes I’ll default to one of my go-to bits of body language even when there’s a better choice. Now, this differs from point number one in that I actually want some kind of nonverbal cue in the sentence. Just, you know, a different one. Example:

He grimaced. “They could have brought you at night to spare you that.” He remembered his own troubles with the sun.

Now a grimace is usually used to denote disgust or pain, but that’s not what the character is feeling here. It’s frustration or even anger, so something different is needed. Maybe it’s:

“Goddamn it,” Everett said through clenched teeth. “They could have brought you at night to spare you that.”

In this case I think that extra bit of dialog and the nonverbal cue sells the emotion I want better than just a facial expression. I also think it works better without the last sentence.

So how many of the offending words did a remove from my 103,000-word manuscript? Here’s the score.

Word Start End
nod/nodded/nodding 108 47
Smile/smiled/smiling 89 47
shake/shook head 88 38
shudder/shuddered/shuddering 23 11
frown/frowned/frowning 15 14
grimace/grimaced/grimacing 13 9

Not bad. As you can see, I removed half or more of the prime offenders while I was more lenient with the others. It should be noted that not all those nods, smiles, and shaking of heads were simply deleted. Like the examples I included, sometimes they were replaced with a more appropriate word or action.

Well, that’s a glimpse into my proofing process, and, again, this is just how I do it. You may use more nods and smiles than me, and that’s cool. Hell, I recently looked at a best-selling novel around the same length as my book, and it had 276 instances of nod/nodded/nodding. That clearly didn’t keep it from getting published or selling in great numbers.

What types of body language and nonverbal cues do you tend to overuse? Tell me about it in the comments.

Why I’m Not Writing: Procrastination

Let’s talk about procrastination, one of the myriad demons that plague writers and keep them from achieving their goals. I believe procrastination generally stems from fear. You know, fear of failing, fear of writing badly, fear of that really difficult scene that’s out of your comfort zone, and so on, and so on. This is why I procrastinate, anyway.

Procrastination’s enabling bosom buddy is distraction, and, well, the writer’s world is chocked full of distractions (I’m sitting in front of one right now). I typically fall prey to the following distraction duo.

  • Something more “important.” Instead of working on the thing that scares me, I must write this blog post, or edit this short story, or start writing this novel outline. This is a tricky one because I’m still writing and being productive, but I’m absolutely avoiding the project I should be working on (he says, kind of avoiding the next revision of his novel). Shit, I may have created an entire blog for this purpose . . .
  • Internet and social media. Sometimes I tell myself my internet nonsense is actually “something more important,” you know, like, uh, marketing and stuff. Usually, though it’s more like: Yes, I know I need to start writing, but I need to watch these twelve YouTube videos about a dude restoring a one-hundred-year-old kitchen knife he found buried in his backyard. (Oddly, watching someone methodically remove rust is really soothing). Note, reading Rejectomancy posts does not count as procrastinating. I promise. 🙂

So, how do you deal with procrastination and distraction? Every writer who gets anything done has some method, but this is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Here are three methods I’ve employed in the past and how well they’ve worked for me.

  1. Iron Will. Yes, some writers defeat procrastination and distraction by just giving them both the middle finger and getting on with it. I know writers who sit down at their desks and say to themselves, “I will now write for eight straight hours,” and then, you know, do that. Crazy, right? I mean, for God’s sake, who’s checking their Facebook and Twitter feeds?! I have nothing but mad respect for these authors, but for we mere mortals such rigorous devotion can be difficult. I’ve had some success with this method, usually because I’m under the gun with a deadline and it’s write-or-die time.
  2. Distraction elimination. Some folks leave their homes and write on laptops or other devices that aren’t connected to the internet, so giving in to distraction and procrastination isn’t even an option. This is similar to the Iron Will strategy, though more attainable because you can’t access the thing keeping you from writing, so you might as well write. This is certainly effective, though it does require you to have a dedicated writing machine. I’ve tried this a number of times with some success. I also find changing your writing location every once in a while–a coffee shop, a park, a library, whatever–can be good for staying on task. Thing is, I’m not a big fan of writing away from my desk, so I don’t use this tactic as often as I could.
  3. Giving in. A little. This is my favorite and the one I use the most. It involves giving in to those distractions a little without going too far down the rabbit hole. What I do is make a deal with myself, and that deal is, “Hey, if you write 500 words or edit 25 pages, you can screw around on the internet for 10 minutes or work on that blog post a little.” Seems childish, I know, but it totally works for me, and I can bang out 2,000-3,000 words or edit 100 pages in a day pretty reliably. Of course, screwing around on the internet might be actual work too (research, answering emails, etc.), but if I want to watch that rust removal video, I don’t have to feel guilty. Well, I don’t have to feel guilty about not writing for 10 minutes.

How do you deal with distraction and procrastination? Tell me about it in the comments.