One of my favorite “writer stories” concerns none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs, who once found himself facing some uncomfortably frank feedback from a magazine editor. It seems Burroughs had just turned in a brand new adventure set in his prehistoric inner world of Pellucidar, and it wasn’t quite up to snuff. Even Burroughs’ most rabid fans have to acknowledge that the master nodded occasionally, especially around the fourth or fifth book of a series. The editor basically imparted this to Burroughs, offering the book’s pallid characters, tired capture-and-escape scenarios and general lackadaisical feel as evidence. To which Burroughs replied, basically, “You know, I kind of felt the same way when I was writing it; I just couldn’t seem to do anything about it.”
The whippersnappers will sneer: Old hack! Gee, his commitment to his craft musta been paper-thin, huh? But wiser (or at least older; or at least more honest) heads are more likely to feel an uncomfortable sympathy.
I, for one, have been there. So have most of us, if we will but admit it. Sunk hip-deep in a story that doesn’t seem to want to resolve itself or even just continue on for a few more pages, helpless is exactly how you’re likely to feel. Writing can be many things: invigorating, joyous, infuriating and, yes, erotic. But it can also be—not so much boring as infected with a strange, passive malaise. You find yourself willing to fling anything down on the page, resorting to the most appalling clichés, leaning on stock situations and characters that a younger you would simply sneer at. Anything to just get through it.
Because, you reason, as long as you do get through it, as opposed to tossing that manuscript in your “Isle of Lost Toys” trunk, then you’re ahead of the game. If you actually sell it and make a few bucks, that’s even better, right? But such “helpless” stories aren’t likely to garner many favorable reviews, assuming they do make it past your eagle-eyed editor. In fact, you’re likely to hear about their faults in living color. If That Helpless Feeling=Poor Work=Poor Returns and/or Negative Reviews, then a case can be made that you’ve crossed the line between “done is better than perfect” and “done is better than good”—and only one of those statements is true.
Which is why, friends, I’m here to talk to you today about the glorious benefits of procrastination.
What am I saying here? That you should just give up every time you get THF? That might seem reasonable at first, but eventually it’ll seriously cut into your productivity. And giving up might not be an option if, say, the project you were working on when THF struck is the next book in a semi-successful series and has a tight deadline.
But sometimes you can get extensions on deadlines, especially if you can make a case for the quality of the work being affected. This is an essential part of the fine art of procrastination: not avoiding work completely but making more time. There are some people out there who call that time “slack,” but never mind them.
Next you find yourself stuck in That Helpless Feeling, try stepping back and taking stock. How important is this particular project? Does it need to be done by a particular date? If so, is that deadline something that applies to you personally (“Colin, no more of your bullcrap, I want the next volume of the Sword of the Dominatrix series in my inbox by next Wednesday”) or a general deadline for an anthology or magazine submission? If the deadline is firm, make the most of the time you have. Go out for a walk and so some thinking about the project. The simple act of marshaling your resources like this can do wonders. The point is, you’ve taken yourself out of passive mode and into active mode.
In a better situation, in which you have considerably more time at your disposal, set yourself a personal “vacation time” of a couple days in which you can work on something else or simply catch up on your reading. Then go back and look at the project that was causing you trouble. Consider it from different angles. Try to reconnect with the elements that had you excited about the project in the first place.
Again, you may not be Superman in this scenario, but you’re no longer helpless. You’re doing something. You’re actively addressing the problem. And there’s a good chance you might just find that Helpless Feeling slipping away…