18 October 2011

Procrastination & the Power of Priorities

I started writing my second novel a while ago.  This one was more difficult than the first, mostly because the subject is something very close to my heart, and it felt a little too personal at times.  So, although I started working on the manuscript over a year ago, I haven't really been working on it.

I wrote a couple of pages, told some people about the project, showed my first chapter to my writing group, then shoved the whole thing in the back of a drawer and only thought about it briefly when someone asked, "So how is that story about the letters coming along?"

In the meantime, I completely rewrote, then revised and polished my first novel, wrote two picture books and started a third.  I told myself that I wasn't procrastinating.  I was simply too busy to work on that other novel right now.  I didn't want to get distracted from my work on these other, much more pressing projects.  I told myself I'd pull it out again as soon as I finished everything else, when I could devote my full attention to this very important manuscript.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, as I worked on some polishing revisions for one of my picture books, I started thinking about what I would work on when I had finished.  I found myself dreaming, plotting and planning novel number three, a story that would be so much easier to write than the half-finished work in progress I've been ignoring for months.  That's when I realized it wasn't my other projects that kept me from finding the time to work on this novel.  I was creating distractions to keep me from feeling obligated to write the novel I'd already started.

I know that sometimes, an idea simply doesn't pan out.  Sometimes, you start with a story idea, and you simply don't love it enough to ever make it into something wonderful.  And I believe that when that happens, it's totally okay to put that story aside and move onto something you do love.  But that wasn't the case here.  Truth be told, I love this story and the characters in it.  Before I put it away, the story was virtually pouring out of my pencil onto the pages of my story notebook.  And even after I shoved it aside, I kept thinking about these characters, dreaming of their daily lives, watching their stories unfold.  The story had become a part of me, and I still felt like it was an important one for me to tell.

The real issue was nothing more than good old fashioned fear.  This story had become so deeply personal to me that I started to worry about how others might receive it.  What if it didn't get the warm reception I hoped for?  What if people didn't think it was a story worth telling?  What if I got bad reviews?  I realized I was channelling George McFly (from Back to the Future): "I just don't think I can take that kind of rejection."  That's not how I want to live my life!

So I took a deep breath and pulled my manuscript out of the drawer.  I told myself, my family and all of my friends (in real life, as well as on facebook and twitter) that I was going to finish the first draft by this coming Friday (October 21st).  I turned off my Internet, silenced my phone and put my TV and DVD player off limits. 

It's amazing how much you can accomplish when you stop allowing fear of failure to keep you from trying.  Without the constant distractions and interruptions from my favorite time wasters, and armed with a newly discovered determination to keep going, I finished my first draft last night - four days ahead of schedule.  I even swallowed my terror and sent it off to my writer's group for critique.  I know it will be picked and pulled apart as they help me turn a very rough draft into a polished manuscript, but the point is that in the end, I will have a great story to share with the world - as long as I don't let fear keep me from trying.

The moral of this story?  When you're looking for an excuse to procrastinate, you will never have a shortage of other projects to fill your time and keep you too busy to work on the one you're avoiding.  You can always find something else that you "should" do first.  But when you make the important things a top priority, you can accomplish monumental tasks.

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