Thursday, February 26, 2009

Well, I Think I've Put This Off Long Enough...

Current Reading: Still nothing. Does that make me a bad man?

Inspirational Quote: "You may delay, but time will not." -- Benjamin Franklin

Note: I'm not a psychologist. I don't even play one on television. What I've done here is collected some information from web-published sources (much of it published by psychologists) and synthesized it into a whole that may or may not reflect effective treatment. If you have (or suspect you have) a psychological problem, stop looking for answers on the web. Contact a professional.

Since the causes of procrastination are not well understood, there exist a myriad of ways to combat the tendency with greater or less success. Some of them are quick fixes that rely solely on will power, the effectiveness of which I always doubt because you're fighting yourself and both of you are employing the same will power so it balances out. I'm also not a fan of the quick fix because, like duct-taping, it addresses the immediate consequences of the problem while doing nothing to actually address the problem. I prefer more in-depth treatments that work on the underlying causes of behavior. Unfortunately, changing habitual thoughts and behavior requires considerable time.

A lot of information about procrastination comes from educational institutions, since student procrastination is one of the most studied and documented forms of the problem. Most college/university counseling services offer informative cheat-sheets on how to overcome reluctance to finish a paper or study for a test.

A few actions can be taken to address mild forms of procrastination:

Break down a goal into sub-goals. These sub-goals need to be S.M.A.R.T:

Specific: No vague, "work on the story," type of goals. Get detailed and concrete: "Finish first draft of chapter 14" is good. There's no hedging there.
Measurable: You should be able to mark progress toward your goal either in a "pass/fail" sense, or in a fractional/percentage sense. Not only should you know when the goal has been achieved, but you should be able to tell how far along you are toward that achievement. Word count goals are great for this.
Achievable: Make sure the goal is something you can achieve, and not just wishful thinking. "Finish final draft of chapter 14" is fine, provided you haven't set a deadline of midnight tonight and you've just written the first sentence of the first draft. Setting goals you already know you can't achieve is just setting yourself up for failure.
Realistic: If you've never written more than 1500 words in one sitting, it's unrealistic to set a goal of 5000 words a day. Use common sense and your realistic assessment of your capabilities to set a sensible goal.
Timed: The previous four letters specified the WHAT of your goal, but a WHAT is not truly a goal until you also specify WHEN. "Finish first draft of chapter 14 before Saturday" is good. "Write 1000wds/day" is good. "Work on the story Saturday," isn't.

Start off with small goals, even tiny ones. Often, some of the anxiety that causes procrastination comes from fear that goals are unattainable, that your goals are beyond your abilities. The best way to combat that kind of thinking is to start accumulating evidence to the contrary. Small goals let you see results right away, and give you confidence in your ability to meet more challenging goals. 1500wds/day may seem daunting, but you can look at writing 500 or even 100 and think, "Even blind, arthritic Aunt Milly could do that." It may seem pathetically small, but consider that 100wds/day adds up to 36500wds/yr: a third of an epic fantasy, half a YA, or even a full MG novel.

Plan on a reward for achieving your goal. The nature of that reward is up to you, but it should be something you enjoy. Lunch out. A new book. Twenty minutes under an apple tree admiring the sky. The reward is often a supplementary motivation for success.

Psychology tells us that those who clearly perceive their own success are most likely to achieve it. Imagine yourself working on a goal. How does it feel? If the emotions associated with working are unpleasant, try to figure out why (see the bit on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy below). What changes can you make to your perceptions to turn those negative emotions into positive ones? Imagine completing each of your goals. How does it feel to be done? If your only emotion is concern about the next goal, then reconsider the nature of your goals and come up with something a little less challenging. Allow yourself to imagine feeling relieved, elated, deserving of congratulations. Every accomplishment is a victory and should be celebrated.

Keep Your Energy Up:
Life wears one down. Stress and responsibility consume spiritual and mental energy constantly. If you do nothing to replace that energy, you'll run out. Exhaustion of emotional energy is one of the triggers for depression, and no-one can do anything well when they're depressed. So make time to relax and do something for the joy of it. Read. Walk. Meditate. Play.

Set aside time to write. Schedule it the way you do all your other important activities. Make it as much a priority as the kid's dentist appointment or reporting for work. You don't skip out on those, and you shouldn't skip out on your writing time if you're serious about this. You don't need much time. How long does it take to write 100 words? Twenty minutes? Fifteen? Five? Don't ever tell yourself you can't set aside enough time. The time you require depends on your goal, and if you can't find enough time to achieve your goal, then your goal isn't realistic.

Once you have set aside time to write, commit to it. Put your tail in the chair. Fire up the word processor. Write. Another frequent component of procrastination is the expectation of perfection: the words have to be right, and there's no point in starting until you are confident that they will be. That's defeatist thinking, because perfection is not a realistic goal. What is realistic is that you write something: 100 words (or 500, or 5000) of whatever occurs to you. They don't have to be the right words. They just have to be. Everything changes in revision anyway.

Once your deadline expires, whether you've succeeded in your goal or not, take a look at your performance.

If you didn't achieve what you set out to achieve, congratulations. You're in the majority. However, step out of that majority by trying to figure out why you didn't succeed. Maybe your goal was too challenging to be achievable. Maybe you ran out of energy. Maybe you kept violating your writing time, or just stared at the screen instead of pounding keys.
Don't be hard on yourself, and don't criticize yourself. That you've gotten to this point is a tremendous step forward whether you're willing to recognize it or not. View the unachieved goal as an experiment and examine the results without taking them personally. Remember that you set the goal and the bar for achievement, and we're not the best judge of our abilities. If we were, we wouldn't need critique groups. In fact, it's unusual to set the bar at the right height the first few times as you explore your capabilities.

If you did achieve your goal, more congratulations are in order. Still, you need to take a look at your performance. Maybe your original goal was achieved too easily. You wrote 100 words in an average of ten minutes, and you had set aside thirty minutes for writing. Chapter 14 turned out to be only about 5000 words, and you'd given yourself a month to complete the first draft. Jumping over a high-bar that's on the ground is not really a challenge, and there's little emotional satisfaction in victory over trivial opposition. Next time, raise the goal a little bit. Don't set goals as high as you may think you can achieve given your performance this time, because initial enthusiasm tends to give a boost to production that quickly fades.

Examine your goals and, in light of your performance, modify them accordingly. Find the balance between challenge and achievement with which you are most comfortable.

If you did succeed in your goals, then enjoy your planned reward. Don't put it off. You've earned it just as you earned your paycheck, and you wouldn't put off collecting that. Your reward is now positive re-enforcement of your victory over procrastination. It's encouragement. It's short-term payment for work in a field where the usual, tangible rewards are often years away.

Procrastination is a habit that cannot be canceled by a single act. It must be eroded, replaced with other habits, and habits are only formed by repetition. Set goals, visualize, watch your energy, act, assess and reward. The positive cycle of achievement will give your subconscious evidence of your abilities that will reduce the anxiety that pushes you into putting things off.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
Again, I'm no psychologist. I do, however, have some experience with using the following technique to modify emotional responses (see Mind over Mood in the Reading List). It's excellent at bringing subconscious thought patterns up to conscious awareness and providing a method for changing them.

When faced with a strong emotional response, as when sitting down at the keyboard and suddenly needing to do anything other than write:

  1. Consider your emotions. What do you feel? Anxious? Afraid? Nervous? Write down every word that seems descriptive and accurate. Now rank these according to how strongly you feel them, and identify the dominant emotions.
  2. Listen to your thoughts. What are you thinking when you feel these things? "I can't do this." "It's not ready yet." "The words aren't going to come out right." Write these down as well. Don't stop to consider or assess them, just write them down as they occur to you. Once you've collected a bunch, rate them in order of contribution to your feelings. Choose three of the dominant thoughts.
  3. For each thought, gather some evidence to support it. When you have a few instances, gather some evidence to oppose it. "It's not ready yet." Go back into what you've written before. Find some examples of times when you wrote even though you didn't feel ready. Read them over. Can you tell you weren't ready? Can you fix them in revision? Do you think it will matter that you weren't ready at the time you wrote them? Try to be objective in your selection and assessment of evidence.
  4. Based on your assessment of the evidence, do you need to formulate some new thoughts more in line with reality as you now see it? If so, write them down. Repeat them a dozen times.
A list of web references for the curious:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rejection, Where is Thy Sting?

Current Reading: Nothing, actually. I notice I had a reading break last year around the same time. I wonder why?

Inspirational Quote: "I wrote for twelve years and collected 250 rejection slips before getting any fiction published, so I guess outside reinforcement isn't all that important to me." -- Lisa Alther

Yes, I've noticed I haven't finished up the series on procrastination. Don't look so surprised.

So let's discuss rejection.

It's a fact of life. Written work is statistically more likely to be rejected than accepted. It should be a default expectation, and anything other than rejection should come as a wonderful surprise, like finding a bloom in winter.

But the other fact of life is rejection STINGS. Good word, "stings." Very appropriate. It calls up a bee-sting: that quick, sharp jab that becomes a hot throb that seems to go on forever before finally fading. Someone has decided my work, an expression of my mind and my soul, of the things that make me unique, is "not quite right" for them. That hurts. I think my work is good, but I'm never sure if I'm being objective, or if my personal perspective has warped my judgement completely out of reliability. Maybe I'm deluding myself. Maybe I've come up against an objective measure and been found wanting. My story could be flawed beyond correction, maybe because of my flaws. Maybe I should find something else to do with my time.

Writers looking for publication have to walk a very thin psychological line. We have to accept that our work will be rejected repeatedly while simultaneously holding on to the hope that THIS TIME will be different. Although this may be easy for the incipient schizophrenics among us, those of us with lesser illnesses have a difficult time.

I've been out of the commercial writing market for a decade. Never out of the writing, of course, just out of the competitive selling arena. Things have changed. I have changed. In the midst of my efforts on the Magnus Somnium, I thought I'd write a few short stories. I decided to try and sell them as a reminder or a test or just a way to re-familiarize myself with the realities of a writing life. Well, it's worked. I'm familiar with rejection again. Ow.

One big improvement since my last attempt is the creation of the web and e-mail. I used to have to buy a copy of Writer's Market and spend a day reading every word of the science-fiction/fantasy section looking for prospects. Then I'd have to write away for guidelines and sample copies. After a few weeks, I'd get them back, or maybe a note indicating they were closed to submissions, or possibly a "No longer publishing" card. I'd study the material I got back, reading the stories, looking at the advertising, thinking about the audience for my work and trying to figure out whether they were the magazine's target readership. Only then would I send my story off. Six weeks to twelve months would pass before my SASE would come back to me. Most of the time with a slip of paper that had the word "No" written on it in one-hundred words intended to soften the blow.

Now most markets have their guidelines up on the web. They have tables of contents and advertising, sample-copy order forms and editorial comments on their web pages. Research time is cut from weeks to hours or days. A lot of magazines accept electronic submissions as well, and their response times have shrunk accordingly. I can now receive rejections in a matter of days instead of weeks, weeks instead of months. And then there's the savings in stamps and international reply coupons,..

So now I'm rejected faster. To that, I give a qualified, "Yay!"

The rejections themselves haven't changed much. Mostly they're just form letters. That's alright. "No" is succinct and to the point. Once in a while there's a bit of encouragement, or a sentence of critique, which is nice because it means someone's taking me seriously and believes my work (maybe not this work, but another one) has potential.

I have a proven method for dealing with rejection:

  • I curse a couple of times. The world has yet again refused to acknowledge my overwhelming genius, and it's frustrating.

  • I mope for a while, during which I may curse some more because a good curse needs mileage to really sharpen its impact.

  • I do my job. My job is writing and selling stories. If A isn't buying, then it's time to pitch to B. The story goes out to the next market and I brace myself for the likely results of that submission.

  • I write another story and then I send that out to face rejections too.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother. It's easier to just write, and enjoy my writing, and talk about it with friends who aren't too critical, and just feel like I'm an undiscovered genius. It's a lot harder to put my work out there, to accept the certainty of rejection and cling to the slim hope of acceptance. So why? I leave you with the words of John F. Kennedy (who was talking about a moon landing, but the principle is the same):

"We choose to write and submit and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Book Report: The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum

This was a big book, and a difficult read. Maybe it's the times I find myself in, maybe it's just a product of its own time (written in the late 1970's) and doesn't fit well with new-millenium taste. Regardless, I found the language to be a trifle melodramatic especially when the book tries to convey the protagonist's disorientation, panic, passion and other emotions. I didn't think it was done well. I found the characters to be a little shallow and a few times had to make the effort to recall which names belonged to which dramatis personae and what their role was in the overall scheme.

However, the plot... oh my goodness, the plot! Complex, layered, tense, twisty! The characters fit into it like beautiful puzzle-pieces, their individual prejudices leading them to make logical mistakes that end up increasing the protagonist's jeopardy. That the book is about a person who is pretending to be another person who is pretending to be a third person is only the simplest part of things. That this person develops amnesia complicates the whole thing and places the reader in the mind of a man who does not know who he is, or who he is supposed to be pretending to be, or who that person is pretending to be. Although unraveling the mystery was occasionally drudge work, the mystery itself was engaging enough to keep me reading.
That the book revolves around Carlos the Jackal, a real-life terrorist whose legend far outstripped his reality, adds an interesting touch of historical realism I hadn't expected. Unfortunately, this reliance on realism forces the book to let its Carlos escape at the end, providing an unsatisfactory conclusion to the action.

I've seen the Matt Damon movie. I enjoyed it. As often happens in Hollywood, though, the movie has drifted so far from the source material that the two bear only a tangential relationship. The book is far more complex and forces the reader to do far more work to truly understand the events.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Happy Luddite

Current Reading: The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum
Marching as to War, by Pierre Burton

Inspirational Quote: "Phone. Fax. E-mail, voice-mail, instant messaging. Blogs, texting, tweeting, social networking... Technology has brought us so many ways to communicate! Now we just need something worthwhile to say to each-other." -- Me (Ulysses).

Telemachus plays rep hockey, which means we spend a lot of time hunting down arenas in obscure communities in our area of Ontario. As a consequence I and my fellow hockey-parents spend a lot of time in those communities waiting for the game to start, or the zamboni to finish resurfacing the ice. During this waiting time, I do what I always do: I read.

The other day, during the second intermission, I looked up from a passage where Jason Bourne acts confused and violent. To my right, a woman was chatting rather animatedly on her cellphone. To my left, another woman was bent intently over her Blackberry, thumbs flying. An eight-year-old, sister to one of the other players, was dialling up something on her i-Pod while a teenager near her frantically pushed the buttons on his PSP. I looked down at my book, originally published in 1980 on cheap newsprint and felt pathetically out of the high-tech loop.

Strangely enough, I'm happy with that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A History of Blue Fur

Current Reading: Marching As to War, by Pierre Burton
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

Inspirational Quote: "It's not easy being green." -- Kermit the Frog

Muppet fans, rejoice! The real-world origins of your favorite muppets here.
...Because there is no upper limit to muppet content on this blog.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Procrastination, Part III: How to Defeat Yourself In One Easy Step

Current Reading: Marching As To War, by Pierre Burton and The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum

Inspirational Quote: "Putting off an easy thing makes it hard. Putting off a hard thing makes it impossible." -- George Claude Lorimer

I woke up this morning and lay in bed thinking about all the things I wanted to do today, including writing this post. I lay there a good twenty minutes, not wanting to get out of bed, not wanting to start. I don't really understand why.

Procrastination is putting off a task. It doesn't make sense in a purely practical manner. If something is unpleasant enough to make one procrastinate, it would make more sense either to get it over quickly (I used to eat my mashed potatoes first before enjoying the rest of my supper), or avoid it completely (like feeding the potatoes to the dog... who didn't know any better). Instead, we take some tasks and put them off, often getting around to them only at the last moment.

The tasks we put off are invariable important, which is why we find we must do them in the end, but there is something about them that makes it impossible for us to start. Instead we fill up the time, often with trivial things that suddenly seem incredibly urgent. Everyone knows a student who could not start their essay until they had first cleaned their entire dorm room. I once spent an hour practicing my hand-writing when I should have been studying for a university physics exam. I only got 57% on the exam, but my answers were beautifully scribed.

We pay two prices for putting off necessary tasks. First, consciousness of our efforts to delay, of looming deadlines and of the need to complete the task ahead lead to stress. Strangely, this stress doesn't motivate us to get started. It motivates us to delay more, as though the anxiety of undertaking the task could possibly be greater than the anxiety mounting inside us as the deadline grows nearer and task remains undone. Second, when we finally do put our hands to the task, the deadline is almost upon us and we are forced to rush. We produce a sloppy result because of the corners we cut trying to fit the task into the remaining time.

We are ashamed of the result, feel guilty about our behavior, and each time promise ourselves that we'll not be so foolish next time. We are invariably wrong. Yet it's not laziness, lack of ambition or a failure of willpower. It's not unusual for procrastinators to put greater effort into the things they do to procrastinate than they would have put into doing the task they're avoiding.

And the question remains: Why?

An interesting point to note is how many web resources exist to discuss and address student procrastination.

Causal research is divided. Common accepted wisdom holds that it's a reaction to the anxiety caused by starting or completing the task at hand, but that seems unlikely given how intense the anxiety resulting from procrastination becomes[1]. Fear of failure or fear of success would seem more likely to push us to abandon the task altogether rather than merely delay it. Some researchers believe it a product of perfectionism. Tasks are delayed to avoid facing the unpleasant fact that perfection cannot be achieved[2]. A third school of thought holds that we condition ourselves to seek lesser but more immediate rewards at the expense of greater rewards in a distant future[3]. Certainly, given the cultural preference for immediate gratifaction, this theory makes a fair bit of sense.

It leaves me wondering, though, what was so great about neat hand-writing? I really should have cleaned my room or washed the dishes or something.

Next time (maybe): Treatment!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Book Report: Watchmen

For a time, I was a comic collector. As I've mentioned before, I love superheroes. I was lucky enough to be interested in the medium at the same time it was truly growing up. Of course you can still buy the Marvel and DC funnybooks with heroes in spandex costumes, which I love, but even they are trying to tell deeper, more compelling and more human stories instead of concentrating on the bad-guy beating of the week. And beyond that genre (sub genre? Sub sub-genre?) are all the other books that really take a great story and marry it to great art to create something as thought-provoking and moving as any book while simultaneously as exciting and visually interesting as a Monet or Renoir (eg: Maus, V for Vendetta, Persepolis, etc...).

Watchmen is fascinating. It takes the superhero conceits and penetrates them, explores them, satirizes them and reconstructs them, forcing the reader to think beyond what makes a hero to what makes a human being. Along the way, the central story of a murder investigated by a masked vigilante is supported by parallel stories of an alternate 1985 where Nixon has remained president for four terms, the Soviet communists have remained in power, and the world stands only days away from nuclear war. Each parallel story involves other characters, ordinary people with ordinary problems whose struggles reflect some light on the character of the costumed adventurers who populate the core tale. The question, "what kind of person dons a costume and fights crime?" is turned on its head and becomes, "what kind of costume do ordinary people wear?" Supplementary text (journal reports, diary pages, police blotters...) provide background at the end of the chapters and add depth to the stories told in the illustrated sections.

Watchmen is about images and expectations, dreams and reality, despair, hope and a thousand other dichotomies. It's about what must be sacrificed to find some moral compromise between those dichotomies, and at its end it is about the complications that arise from those compromises.

Ulysses Rating: 5 -- I'll read this again and again.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Procrastination, Part II: The Thief of Time

Current Reading: Marching As To War, by Pierre Burton

Inspirational Quote: "Procrastination is opportunity's assassin." -- Victor Kiam

I get up an hour and a half before I leave for work so I can shower, eat, and write. But I hit the snooze button instead of getting up, and I read while I eat and before I know it, it's time to go and I haven't even turned on the computer. Or, in the evening, after the boys have retired for the night, I've got an hour, maybe an hour and a half to catch up on correspondence and write. But there are blogs to read and web sites to visit. Then I'll go talk with the fair Penelope a bit, just to remind her that I'm alive and we're still legally married. Or I'll decide I've had a hard day and I need to relax by playing a game. The next time I look at the clock, it's 10:00, or 10:30 and time for me to get to bed before I pass out from exhaustion. Except I haven't written anything yet.

And the days pass. I feel guilty. I have read stories of writers who have sacrificed sleep and relationships and sometimes sanity just to get a few more words out. Stephen King plunked himself down at a typewriter in a closet after spending his days at a truly horrendous job. Sharyn McCrumb was sometimes so tired and frustrated and pregnant that she wrote while in tears. I don't do that (nor am I pregnant, but that's not my point), and I feel bad because all these other writers wanted it so much they were willing to sweat blood for a few more words while sometimes I can't bring myself to even hold down the shift key. I just don't seem to measure up, and how can one not feel discouraged by that?

To my credit, I've produced published short stories and I've knocked out uncountable many others, some of which will be submitted for publication in the fullness of time. I blog semi-regularly, which counts if I treat it as a serious piece of writing (which I do. I take every piece of writing seriously... and the humor pieces more seriously than others, which proves that if reality were made of metal, that metal would be irony). I write, but not with the dedication, intensity and productiveness that I feel I ought.

It's not that I don't have time. I make time. I just don't use it for its intended purpose. For instance, instead of adding a few lines to the Magnus Somnium, I'm writing a blog entry about procrastination (another instance of real-world irony).

I went to a Science Fiction convention once, longer ago than I care to admit, and a panel of writers gave their advice on how to join them in the ranks of the accomplished. One lady summed it up nicely: A.O.C. -- Ass On Chair. If you can't manage that, then the rest will be forever out of reach. I believed then, as I do now, that there is no greater wisdom, no hidden secret that could possibly exceed the value of those words. However, the difference between knowing it and living by it is the difference between blog posts and a three-book deal.

Exhibit A: a blog post. It appears I have some work to do.

Next time (or possibly the time after next): Understanding the Causes of Procrastination.