Harper Lee, “Second Novel Syndrome,” and Situational Perfectionism

Harper Lee, author of the immortal To Kill a Mockingbird, died last week at 89. She never published another book except for Go Set a Watchman, which was published in 2015 in what many consider to be dubious circumstances. Lee may have suffered from second-novel syndrome, a form of procrastination in which an author becomes self-conscious due to the public attention she receives for her first book, and is consequently inhibited from publishing her second. I don't know whether she wanted to keep publishing or not, but she did tell one interviewer: “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death [of Mockingbird] at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement....I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.” If she did suffer from second-novel syndrome, she wasn't alone. Ralph Ellison … [Read more...]

Why We’re Such Poor Appreciators of Our Own Work

Here is a delightful two-minute film from Derek Sivers which discusses why we often fail to fully appreciate our own work. It also explains why it's a bad idea to compare your work with that of a famous person.  Comparisons are perfectionist, but comparing yourself to someone famous is especially problematic because of what you're not seeing: Their process, which is often longer and more laborious than we assume. (See this piece on a New Yorker cartoon that took six years to complete!) The years, and sometimes decades, of training and experience it took them to get to the point where they could create the work we admire. Their “failures,” which are probably more serious and numerous than we imagine. (Isaac Bashevis Singer called the wastebasket “the writer's best friend.”) You're also not seeing the financial, familial, or other lucky breaks that may have aided their success. Sivers's video also hints at the futility of striving for “originality” or wishing you had “talent.” Perfectionists … [Read more...]

If We Could Turn Back Time: Cher Models Nonperfectionism!

I've always loved Cher's tweets: they're so playful and sincere, even when she's making a sharp political point, which she does often. So naturally, I loved this New York Times piece about her Twitter style: She pays little to no attention to rules of grammar, like punctuation or sentence structure, and she capitalizes many words individually, causing her messages to read like bad novelty T-shirts or mock propaganda posters. She frequently — and comically — tacks on extra signoffs at the end of her tweets (“I was looking at tweets & saw that i really hurt someones feelings ! Im sorry. It was light blue background with white egg shape . Bye” ). She loves to load her tweets with emojis — her favorites include the birthday cake, sweat droplets, prayer hands and the American flag — even if they aren’t related to the subject matter of her message....The day after Christmas, she wrote, “Adults are SO PACMAN,” and a few weeks before that, she posted a message that simply said: “We Should B Vigilant, Aware Of … [Read more...]

Why “Positive Procrastination” is (Mostly) a Scam

Every week, it seems, someone publishes an article about how procrastination can be good for you. This week it's The New York Times. I am all about using whatever productivity techniques work for you. But in my experience pro-procrastination techniques work for very few people, and are actually more likely to undermine your productivity than boost it. The below piece—an excerpt from my forthcoming book on productivity for undergraduates—explains why. I hope you find it useful, and if you do, please share it! Why “Positive Procrastination” is (Mostly) a Scam People procrastinate in two basic ways: “unproductively” and “quasiproductively.” Unproductive Procrastination (UP) is when, instead of your scheduled work, you do a low-value activity like video games, Web surfing, or television. (Yes, in some cases these can be high value. But usually they aren't, especially if they're being used as a means of procrastination.) Quasiproductive Procrastination (QP) is when you procrastinate via an activity … [Read more...]

How John Scalzi Meets His Deadlines

This week, bestselling author John Scalzi blogged about how he's going to meet his 2016 deadlines: "For me, the major problem is not writer’s block or plot issues or anything structural involving the novel; I generally don’t have problems with those once I start, and with this new novel, thankfully, I didn’t have any real issues starting. "No, the problem is that the Internet is an attractive nuisance. And not just in the sense of that it distracts me when I need to be writing. No, as I get older, I find that actually plugging into it before I do any novel writing scrambles my brain enough to make it hard to get any appreciable progress made for the day. I think this is a combination of me getting older and the Internet just plain doing a better job of angrying up the blood or otherwise distracting me. I also think it also has to do with a certain amount of habituation, i.e., if I’m checking email, by brain just goes “Oh, we’re on the Internet now,” and just fires up those parts of my brain that work on … [Read more...]

How to Get Out of a Slump

I got a lovely note from a reader that included this passage (reprinted with kind permission): "For the last one and a half week I have been in kind of in a slump, disappointed after a school assignment I had trouble finishing. I thought I finally had my writing problem under control, but ended up using the whole exam reading and taking notes, never getting to the point of actually writing the paper. Since then, affected by the disappointment, I have struggled to follow through on my weekly schedule,  feeling uncommited and inadequate and procrastinating by frenetically thinking and reading about self improvement. But yesterday I picked up your books again, and read page 50 in 7 Secrets about back sliding. I decided to test scaling back for while - at least for some hours. So, with a compassionately objective statement of "You know what; lets just go for a walk, shall we, and bring some nice baked goods and just think stuff through?" - I did just that. And felt such a surprising, huge sense of relief! … [Read more...]

The Problem With Daily Word Counts

This list of the daily word counts of famous authors has been making the rounds. The top producers, by far, are the late thriller writer Michael "Jurassic Park" Crichton and the late British historical novelist R. F. Delderfield, who both apparently wrote 10,000 words a day. Then we've got one 6,000-word-a-day chap (thriller writer John Creasy), a few 4,000 and 3,000 words-a-day producers (Anne Rice, Iain Banks, Frederick Forsyth), and a host of 1,000 to 2,000 word producers. On the low end, we've got Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene (one of my idols), and Civil War historian Shelby Foote, who all clock in at a meagre-seeming 500 words a day. There are huge problems with this list. First, it's a hodgepodge. It contains famous writers and obscure ones; literary novelists and formulaic pop-fiction ones (plus, as noted, at least one historian); those writing by hand and those using computers; privileged Victorian and mid-century-American white male writers and less-privileged contemporary female writers … [Read more...]

Lively Interview on Writing Productivity and Overcoming Perfectionism (30 mins)

Check out this fun 30-minute interview I did on boosting writing productivity and overcoming perfectionism. The interviewers were the lively and knowledgeable Dr. Bob Wright and Christine Wright of StressFreeNow: … [Read more...]

Productivity Tips from Alex the Parrot

I just finished reading Irene Pepperberg's wonderful book Alex & Me, about her work and relationship with Alex, the African Grey parrot who became internationally renowned for his cognitive and communications skills, including being able to hold simple conversations, spell simple words, and do simple math. Turns out he could procrastinate, too. One problem Pepperberg had with Alex and the other parrots she worked with was that they got bored during the repetitive testing needed to gather data. When Alex didn't want to participate, she notes, he often would, “indulge in some suddenly urgent preening.” That's procrastination mimicking productive work, in case you didn't recognize it! It's no different than someone who decides to do “some suddenly urgent” laundry or lawn-mowing instead of his or her writing or other work. Alex apparently also mastered at least two key time management techniques. The first was saying no to unwanted work. Here is an example from the book: K (one of Alex's testers): … [Read more...]

Exclusive! John Scalzi’s Time Management and Career Tips

Last week, the publishing world was abuzz with the news that bestselling science fiction author John Scalzi signed a movie-star-like $3.4 million publishing deal for 10 books. Scalzi is someone I admire enormously, not just for his writing and career success, but because he's a genuinely nice guy, both offline (I've seen him at science fiction conventions) and online. Along with his time management and career strategies, Scalzi is a social media powerhouse, so I also interviewed him on his social media strategies. And he's an out, proud, and smart feminist, antiracist, and LGBT ally who regularly speaks out in support of social justice; and who, in consequence, has been a target of some of the Internet's obnoxious regressive elements. (Whom he handles with impressive good humor.) So another thing I asked him was about how he balanced his politics with his public professional persona. Along with novels such as Redshirts, Old Man's War, and the new Lock In, two must-read Scalzi pieces are his poignant … [Read more...]

Don’t Let Unintended/Unwanted Consequences Hold Back Your Projects

Reblogged from the Thesis Whisperer. The anonymous author of this piece, originally entitled "What's it like to Finish?", does a great job of articulating how even a great success, like finishing a thesis, will almost always yield some unwanted consequences. Often we at least intuit these, and the fear of them can cause us to procrastinate, since delaying our project is a great strategy for avoiding them. All of this applies to all writers and other creative workers, of course, and not just Ph.D. students! Your thoughts, experiences, and questions are, as always, welcome in the comments.--Hillary In the weeks and months leading up to the submission of my PhD, I found myself imagining what life would be like on the "other side." As a means of forcing myself over the final hurdle, I visualised how amazing it would be to be free of the thesis, to once again recover my weekends and my academic freedom, and how relieved I would be to hand over the culmination of three and a half years’ work. And yet, when … [Read more...]

Well Paid New York Times Writers Have Interesting Theoretical Discussion on Whether Poverty is Good for (Other) Writers

"Do Money Woes Spur Creativity or Stifle It?" This was the dingbat question editors of the New York Times Bookends column considered worth debating this week. I'll share my full comment on the piece in a moment, but first: can you even imagine asking this about practitioners in any non-arts field? I can't! Gives you a sense of how artists are valued in society. Unfortunately, the two writers the Times chose to address the question waffled and waxed poetic and seem to have needed to show off their erudition. So the question didn't get shown up as the bonkers thing it really is. If I sound peeved it's because I think it's obnoxious and irresponsible for editors and writers who are presumably being paid well for their work to speculate airily on whether poverty is good, especially in a field where so many wonderful and talented people go underpaid. Here's my answer - it would be great if you could take a moment to "like" it on the NY Times website. "The answer to the question in the title is … [Read more...]

Why a Course on Weight Loss for Writers?

I will soon be starting my next SavvyAuthors' exclusive Weight Loss for Writers class. To my knowledge, you won't find another class like it anywhere. But why a class on weight loss just for writers? Well, for one thing, writing is a sedentary occupation, so it's easy for writers to gain weight. For another, overweight (yes, I use it as a noun for convenience's sake!) has a lot in common with that other unfortunately common malady for writers, writer's block. Both are forms of procrastination fed by perfectionism and ambivalence, and exacerbated by time constraints and resource deficiencies. Think about it: every time you eat something you don't want to, or don't exercise when you want to, you're procrastinating on your weight loss. And if you've ever, (a) compared your body to that of a genetically-gifted model or athlete who also exercises hours each day; (b) maligned yourself because of your body size or eating habits; or (c) tried an ultra-low-calorie or otherwise deprivational “crash” diet, … [Read more...]

Sisyphus should not be your role model! (Or, what to do if you’re distracted by the Internet.)

Wasting too much time online? The solution is actually easy: disconnect. At various times, and in various situations, I've done all of the below—and sometimes two or more at a time: In households where others needed WiFi access, I've chosen not to give myself the WiFi password. That meant that while everyone else could access the Internet freely from any location, I had to take my laptop to a specific location (usually, in another room from where I was working), and plug in a cable. In households where I was alone (for instance, when everyone else was out at work), I unplugged the wireless router. (Note: not the modem, which can cause IP address hassles!) I blocked my PC's access to specific problem sites (like addictive games). It's easy! Just Google “How to block a Website in Windows [or Mac or Linux]” and follow a reliable-looking set of instructions. I worked on a “vanilla” PC from which all Internet access, email, games, and other distractions had been removed. (And used a separate PC for those … [Read more...]

You Can Literally Do the World’s Toughest Rock Climb and People Will Still Find Something to Criticize

So after seven years of planning and preparation, and nearly three weeks of grueling effort and inspiring teamwork, two guys succeed at literally the toughest rock climb in history and some people can still find something to criticize. When I first spotted the critical comments alongside the New York Times articles on Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell’s Yosemite Dawn Wall free climb I couldn't believe it! They seemed not just petty and banal, but completely insensible to the awesomeness and beauty of what these guys were doing. Turns out I wasn't the only one who noticed them. Adventure-Journal.com's Brendan Leonard compiled some in his article NY Times Commenters Explain Why The Dawn Wall Climb Is Dumb. Here's a sample: “They have supplies delivered to them!? That’s like climbing with a porter. Not legit.” “Impressive, but nowhere near as impressive as actually free solo climbing without any ropes, where one slip would mean certain death....The only serious risk here is failure, which is no big … [Read more...]