Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When first we practise to deceive

I have my baby brother to thank for this post (OK, he’s 32, not a baby at all, but still, he’ll always be the little guy my other brother and I dared to eat toothpaste mixed with shaving cream and tomato sauce, for a mere twenty cents. It’s a wonder the guy’s not in therapy.)

My brother is a busy physiotherapist, but when he’s not working on other people’s backs (and my hat’s off to him, there’s NO WAY I could touch a stranger’s nekkid flesh without first demanding they take an anti-bacterial bath) he is hard at work on his music. (Insert shameless plug for the sibling – go to his MySpace page if you’d like to sample his wares but please, ignore his Bio. Apart from the bit about the psychedelic red and blue baby blanket, it’s complete crap; the product of an over-active imagination and over-exposure to Monty Python as a child. But I digress …)

His first love is the classical guitar. He’s played a few gigs over the years and although I may be biased, I think he’s pretty damn good. The trouble is, a few years ago the combination of hours of guitar playing and hours of back-cracking finally caused his thumbs to break down. And because he needs those thumbs to bring home the bacon, he had to put his guitar playing to one side. In the meantime he branched out into composition, with the aim of securing a gig composing scores for movies, television, radio, that sort of thing.

This has all be going well for him. But when I spoke to him last week, he said he’d recently seen some of his guitar mates perform, was amazed at how much they’d improved in the years he had not been able to play, and that he was so inspired, he’d decided to edge back into guitar playing again.

Great! says I. Ah, not so great, he muttered. You see, the trouble is that whenever he sits down to practise, he is so daunted by the mountain of work ahead of him that he gives up before he even tunes the six-string. “There’s just so much I have to do,” he said quietly. “It’s impossible.”

This is the exact feeling we writers face when writing a novel. It is fun, exhilarating, but man, it is also a long, hard process. If all you see is the mountain of work ahead– the first draft, the second-third-fourth-fifth-ad infinitum drafts, the querying of agents, more revisions, being out on submission, more revisions – it’s only natural to feel like running away, screaming; to think that writing a book worthy of publication is impossible. And when your head gets into this kind of space on a regular basis, scrubbing toilets becomes a much more attractive way to spend your time.

I admit, I’ve done my fair share of toilet scrubbing when I’ve looked at the mountain and thought, “I can’t do this, it’s too much, it’s too hard!” But I’ve come to realize that if I can make myself ignore the mountain, I can conquer that panic. What’s required is a little mind-trickery; discovering ways to mess with your own head and trick yourself into writing, when every cell is screaming out “NO!" And, at the risk of exposing myself to be an even bigger head-case than many of you already suspect, I’ll share a few of the methods of self-trickery I use to con myself into writing, when it all seems too hard.

Break the work into smaller chunks. Some days, the thought of writing makes my head ache. Too tired, too busy, too lacking in inspiration … it’s too hard! But instead of giving in to my instinct to flee from the study, I’ll tell myself, “Come on. Just do something. Go back and edit that last scene, or just type up the notes you scribbled in the middle of the night when inspiration struck, or think of an opening sentence for your next scene. That’s it. Nothing more. Easy-peasy.” So, successfully duped into feeling the pressure is off, I sit down at the keyboard, start to fiddle with the little task I’ve set myself … and nine times out of ten I’m sucked back into my book and before I know it, I’m writing new words and an hour has flown by.

Dangling carrots works well, too. This is when I tell myself that if I write for half an hour, or the morning, or whatever, then I can have a big, fat reward – a cup of tea with that slice of cake I’ve hidden from the kids; the cat-nap on the couch; the rest of the day curled up reading a novel. Whatever treat is sufficient to con me into gluing my butt to my chair.

A truly effective method of mind-trickery is to channel my mother and give myself a bloody good talking-to. I remind myself that I will never, ever, know if I can finish writing a book, let alone polish up something publishable, if I don’t actually sit down and WRITE. And that no matter how daunted I am, I’ll feel so much worse if I don’t give it a go.

And when I’m struck by the inevitable self-doubt, the feeling of what’s the point in trying because I know I just really suck, I force myself to get off my butt and go stand in front of the book shelf for a good long minute. I’ll look at all those hundreds of spines, and remind myself that each and every one of those authors probably started off not knowing whether they could actually write a book. And that the only way they found out was by actually doing it.

Nuts, hey? But I wouldn’t be anywhere near finishing my SFD without deceiving myself at least some of the time.

How about you? What mind-games do you play, when you need to ignore the mountain and motivate yourself to write?


P.S. Don't forget, your comments will put you in the draw to win your choice of my books of the week this Friday. See here for details!


  1. Rachel,

    Wonderful post -- and some really great techniques for getting butt in chair. I've used some of the ones you've mentioned...just work on something little, Jen. You can do it, honest. A couple of lines.

    I've found dangling a treat is good, too. Usually I use a book I REALLY want to read. Say, if I write so many words today, I can read 100 pages of that super-fantastic-book-that-I'm-dying-to-read. Etc.

    One technique I've found SUPER useful is an egg timer. I say to myself...okay, Jen. You're going to set this thing for ten minutes. You CAN write for _ten_ minutes. And I totally can. I refuse to answer the phone, check my email, stare at shiny objects, etc. during that short period. All I can do is write.

    That said, I usually end up setting that thin SEVERAL times...because once I start, it gets easier. When I was really at a high point with my timer, I would work in 30 minute increments, my high word count during one of those periods something like 1200 words!! Egads! I need to work my way back up to that. LOL. But right now I'm trying my best just _to work_, so I won't push it. I'll stick with ten minutes until I get used it all again.

    And YAY for your brother! Tell him I'm rooting for him. :)


  2. Cake hidden from the kids...ROLF! Perish the thought of them ever learning THAT dirty mom secret! :)

    Wonderful tips for fighting that overwhelming feeling. I think I shall use them now!

  3. Rachel,

    I checked out your brother's My Space. I loved his bio and his "Gypsy" song. You both must have inherited quite an intense creative gene.

  4. Hi Rachel,

    I use a bit of everything - "if you do this then you can have some chocolate/read a book/whatever", "just a few sentences", "quit being so d@mn lazy and just write" - whatever trick works on that particular day.

    (As for "baby" brothers - my brother is 27 and 6'2". My mum still calls him her "little" boy *g*)

  5. Great post - it reminds me I need to get back to using mind games. They really are so effective. I'm not sure why I stopped. Maybe I was onto myself!


  6. Great post Rachel! I can't believe how many of those techniques I use and how many I actually need - once that initial creative spurt is over and I need to write all the linking scenes, or just to keep up with the fact that I want to be writing regularly but let work and other hobbies and laziness get in the way... then those techniques are invaluable. Especially getting up early and promising myself a latter - I got a whopping 2000 words in one hour before work last Thursday! Whee!
    I'll add your brother to my own MySpace page (! I only set it up to link to DH's music page (, but then thought I should at least mention my writing on it...

  7. Jen - Ah, the trusty egg timer! That's a good one. And as you said, that technique is really all about fooling yourself into starting something that seems too hard, and then realising it's not as bad as you thought it would be. Go set it now! (g)

    Kristen - Yes, on occasion, I do hide a few little treats from the kids; otherwise I'd be left with nothing but limp lettuce leaves or Vegemite to dangle as motivation to make me write, and somehow, I don't think that'd work! LOL

    Stephanie - My brother cracks me up. His FaceBook photo rotates between him dressed as a nineteenth century explorer (complete with pith helmet and monocle), a photograph of Kim Jong-il (the North Korean leader/dictator) to a Photoshopped, Year Book-style photo of him sporting a Billy Ray Cyrus mullet ...
    I don't know if it's a creativity gene or just plain crazy, but whatever it is, I'll just run with it. (g)

    Helen - Ah, chocolate, the greatest motivator of all (says she who has just ripped the top off a box of Haighs "Berry Chocs" - little raspberry and strawberry centered balls, smothered in a layer of white chocolate, then milk and dark chocolate ... mmm.)

    Heidi ->>> it reminds me I need to get back to using mind games. They really are so effective. I'm not sure why I stopped. Maybe I was onto myself!<<<
    LOL! There is that problem. (g) Hopefully the book that's on its way to you right now will give you a nudge. (bg)

    Deniz - Congrats on the 2000 words! And I forgot all about caffeine, being a tea drinker myself, but it is a good motivator. Oh, and I'll have to check you out on MySpace; after I've finished catching up on blog posts, that is. It'll be my little treat. (g)