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Self Sabotage is Easier than Writing

Monday, July 16th, 2012 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

snoopyA lot of writers I know are pretty good at self-sabotage. It’s not that writing is hard, exactly, except that it is. Physical labor and exercise isn’t required, and it sure doesn’t look like you’re doing much when you’re staring at that screen and pecking away at a keyboard. But getting good work, consistently, means constant effort. And constant effort = work. I’d like to have those moments where an entire chapter writes itself and stays virtually unchanged through every draft because I can hear, see, and picture it so clearly the first time; but it just doesn’t happen very often. The trick is sticking with the process so that the reader can’t tell which chapters you labored over and which chapters flowed naturally the first time. And that takes time, and effort, and sometimes it’s easier to do nothing.

I’ve learned different ways to practice self sabotage over the years, and different ways to fight my tendencies. Never keeping computer games on my computer, no matter how great they look, for instance. I won that battle. But there are two others that cropped up this last month. One is an old enemy. The other one is new.

I know that the best way to get started every day is to allow myself a transitional moment – check a couple of e-mails and respond to two, say, or play a game of mine-sweeper, and then get to business. It is so, so, so much easier to notwrite than it is to write, and it’s incredibly easy to go to a news site, check a few headlines, then notice a few other interesting articles while you’re reading those, then have those articles remind you that you never knew what year Green Lantern was invented, or how many drummers the Rolling Stones had or some other tidbit completely unrelated to anything productive you need to get done.

the-war-of-artSteven Pressfield’s excellent book on Writing, The War of Art, calls this Resistance. Different writing tips work better for different writers, because we all have varied strengths and weaknesses. I found Presfield’s book a revelation, and swore that I would defeat the enemy now that I understood it. Unfortunately, you never vanquish Resistance. It’s like that damned fox from Dora the Explorer. If you’re not looking, your time is swiped, and it’s your own fault. You just have to stay vigilant. One of the ways I stay vigilant is with the Dr. McCoy test, but you may have your own methods.

That’s an old enemy, and an old battle. It was my wife who showed me I was battling another. I woke up early last Saturday and sat down to revise the first chapter of the third Dabir and Asim novel. When I woke my wife a few hours later (as requested, so we’d arrive for an appointment) she asked how things had gone, and I told her that I’d finished another pass on chapter 1, and that I was really looking forward to getting back to writing new chapters. She thought about my response for a while, then asked why I was always excited when I made progress on the rough draft, but not pleased when I revised it. She pointed out that being excited about 2000 words when 1000 of them might change was sort of delusional, whereas being pleased when a chapter started to sound good might be more healthy.

She’s a wise lady, and so I mulled that over. I always allow myself a feel good moment when I meet my 2000 daily minimum, so why didn’t I pat myself on the back that morning when I wrestled chapter 1 into near final condition?

I thought of four reasons.

  1. For years, revising was easier for me than drafting, so I’ve trained myself to be more excited when drafting goes well.
  2. Long ago I used to stop after a few chapters and revise and revise until I’d get sick and give up completely, and I swore I wouldn’t do that anymore.
  3. It feels better to have the work approaching the completed stage, especially when you’re under deadline.
  4. It is challenging to switch gears between rough draft and revising.

They all make sense to me, but they’re all excuses. With a good outline in hand, drafting is no longer as challenging. I’ve long since given up the bad practice of “looping” over and over and then giving up. The other two are states of mind.

So what’s to be done? I’m not completely sure, but I have a plan in mind. The next time I’m feeling grumbly that I’m not making progress, I’ll try to remember that there are different ways to measure it.


Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the historical fantasy novels The Desert of Souls, and the forthcoming The Bones of the Old Ones, as well as the related short story collection The Waters of Eternity, and the Paizo Pathfinder novel Plague of Shadows. You can keep up with him at his website, www.howardandrewjones.com, and keep up with him on Twitter or follow his occasional meanderings on Facebook.

8 Comments »

  1. […] Black Gate Monday I’m going  live with a long post about how writers sabotage themselves, and I thought of a corollary that I’ve been thinking of as the McCoy test. On those days when I […]

    Pingback by Writing Tips from Doctor McCoy | Howard Andrew Jones - July 16, 2012 8:12 am

  2. Let’s hear it for self-sabotage! My personal favorite is getting so excited about a piece that I send it out before it’s ready, to the best possible market, and thus ruin my chances of being published/accepted by said market because what my piece really needed was another ten rounds in the heavyweight ring of rewriting.

    The irony of this oh-so-minor (yet disastrous) failing is that I truly love revision––that I think of revision as the reward at the end of the compositional rainbow. The chance to go back, to polish and perfect…bliss. And so unlike real life, where the only thing one can do to go back and fix mistakes is to offer abject apologies.

    Which explains in a nutshell why writing (and re-writing) is such a beautiful endeavor.

    Now hang on a moment while I dive back in and revise this comment…

    Comment by markrigney - July 16, 2012 12:29 pm

  3. I always try to remember this adage:

    “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.” –Kingsley Amis (1922-1995)

    Comment by John R. Fultz - July 16, 2012 5:52 pm

  4. That picture reminded me of a nifty little book on writing: Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life. It’s not the best (I vote for Lawrence Block’s ‘Telling Lies for Fun and Profit’). But it is short, cute and has some nuggets.

    http://www.amazon.com/Snoopys-Guide-Writing-Barnaby-Conrad/dp/1582971943

    Comment by Sherlock - July 18, 2012 9:16 am

  5. Hey Mark,

    I know that self-sabotage step. I don’t trip over it as often as some others, but as with anything, mileage will vary.

    Revising IS more fun. It seems less… risky, somehow.

    John, yeah, seat in chair = big difference.

    Sherlock, I don’t know EITHER of those books, so I’ll have to look into them. What does Block emphasize, and what kind of nuggets of wisdom are there in Snoopy’s book?

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - July 18, 2012 9:58 am

  6. One of the common forms of resistance arises from demanding of yourself writing sessions that are too long. The biggest block I ever suffered eventually succumbed when I shortened my writing sessions. My productivity skyrocketed because in the shorter sessions nearly all of my time was on task.

    The McCoy test is beautiful. Do you mind if I share it with my students?

    Comment by Sarah Avery - July 18, 2012 9:26 pm

  7. Hi Sarah,

    I’m glad you like the test. Share it, by all means… although I’m not sure today’s students will know McCoy enough. More’s the pity…

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - July 18, 2012 10:02 pm

  8. […] Self-sabotage-is-easier-than-writing […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 30 Black Gate Posts in July - August 31, 2012 1:52 am


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