Procrastinate Later

Those who know me know that I travel far and wide teaching and training writers – 29 countries on 5 continents at current count. Those who know me well know that I treat every teaching opportunity as a new adventure, a new opportunity to visit distant lands and exchange information for experience and money. Those who know me intimately (and now you) know that I maintain a wide-eyed wonder about this enterprise; it’s a great gig and I know it.

I’m knowing it right now, for example, as I sit in an airplane gliding high above, I think, Greenland, on a flight from my Los Angeles home to Paris. From Paris I’ll be going on to Prague, and in both places I’ll be unraveling the mysteries of creativity for some people who have paid a premium to hear what their expert consultant has to say. Of course, to me an expert consultant is just a guy from out of town with a briefcase, but never tell my clients that. I don’t even have a briefcase.

If I do have something special to offer, it’s really only this: my particular gift for reducing complex concepts to trivial one-liners. In both Paris and Prague, I’ll be talking about theme as a call to action, and reinforcing the point that a story needs a driving theme – a strong and clear call to action – in order to have energy and momentum. It’s self-evident if you know it, but quite a revelation if you’ve never heard it before. Similarly, I will be sharing and re-sharing (as I share with you here) my understanding of the “secret” of storytelling: Just never have anything go as planned. And if you take these two ideas – have a strong call to action; never have anything go as planned – you pretty much have story sorted.

Would you pay me to fly halfway around the world to tell you that? Some would, and thank goodness for that; otherwise I’d have to stay home and be sad.

One thing that gives me credibility as a teacher of writers is my own active practice of writing – a practice so active that even as I’m outbound to Paris and Prague to do the teaching thing I love so much, I’m also on very short deadline on my next novel, The Texas Twist, which is due in my publishers’ hands in just two weeks. By the time you read these words, I will either have delivered the manuscript or I will have missed my deadline. Don’t bet on me missing my deadline, because I long ago discovered the secret of delivering on time. Want to hear it? It’s another one of these complex concepts reduced to a trivial one-liner, and here it is: Procrastinate later.

That’s all. Just procrastinate later. Put off putting things off until after the work is done.

Okay, that’s a fine idea and a great goal, but how do we achieve it? First, let’s recognize that most writers who miss deadlines don’t do so out of laziness or lack of will. If we miss deadlines, we do it out of fear. We (well, some of us) are so afraid of delivering crap that we’d rather deliver nothing at all. If you are vexed by this feeling, I don’t have to tell you that fear can not only cramp your deadlines, it can cripple every part of your writing process.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!

If you’re telling a story, tell a story. Don’t worry if it’s the best story you could theoretically tell, for that “best story” is a theoretical ideal, never to be achieved. Instead, do what your expert consultant recommends: Have a point of view, a strong theme; make things not go as planned; see what happens next; trust that the journey will take your reader someplace interesting. That’s a writer’s job: to explore, not to judge. We go wrong when we judge. When we judge, we miss deadlines.

So when I travel halfway around the world to tell people, “Procrastinate later,” at first it hits them with the force of revelation. They suddenly understand that they can choose to work now and play later, free from the pressure of the work undone. That’s exciting and uplifting, but it’s incomplete, because they can’t do the work if they’re burdened with expectation. They need to let go. They need to be okay with any outcome. We all do. And that’s a hard thing to achieve.

You know one thing that helps? Age. Just age. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized two things about myself: I know a lot more, and I care a lot less. This doesn’t mean that I’ve become cynical or cavalier. It just means that I’ve learned perspective. Outcomes matter, sure, but they don’t matter as much as I once thought they did. This novel I’m delivering – this deadline I’m meeting – trust me, I know it’s not, in an absolute sense, the best manuscript I could deliver. Why? Because that work, in an absolute sense, simply doesn’t exist. But it is the best manuscript I can deliver right now, and I’m absolutely okay with that.

Are you absolutely okay with your outcomes? If not, what steps can you take to get there? Here are a couple I can think of. First, treat all of your work as part of your growth. Whether it advances your career or not, it always advances your craft. Second, recognize that the picture in your mind is in your mind only. Readers, audiences, they don’t care whether the story you tell is the story you intended to tell. They only want a satisfying experience. If you give them that – just that – nothing else matters at all.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Writing isn’t easy, but it really isn’t that hard. All you need to do is put words on the page, keep putting words on the page, and trust that the more you do this one thing, the better you’ll get. By the way, it helps to teach what you know. You don’t have to go halfway around the world to do that. There’s probably somebody in the next room who’d be interested in what you have to share about the creative process and your experience of it. This is good for them, but it’s profoundly good for you because cements an understanding of your own process in your own mind.

Sometimes it gets you on airplanes but that’s only a bonus. Teach. It helps your writing. Write. It helps your teaching. Can anyone see anything wrong with that?

 

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About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!

Comments

  1. says

    A lot of great advice to process. I attended a workshop recently that helped us develop and dissect the “heart” of our story– or as you called it, the driving theme. It was very helpful to breakdown and understand, making sure it was a consistent thread in the tapestry of the story. Thanks for taking the time, as you soar above continents, to share your hard-learned advice.

    As for aging, yes, it has great benefits.

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  2. says

    ‘I know alot more and care alot less’. So true (says the 74 year old novice). Your ‘procrastinate later’ message is liberating. Simple truths have weight. Well delivered, Sire.

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  3. says

    Thanks for an encouraging post and straight-forward advice. I myself am easily swayed by the temptation to procrastinate, to run and hide from my work-in-progress (whatever that may be). I need to keep the phrase “it helps my craft” as a mantra from now on, to look on that mental picture of the story as a starting point, but never the final destination. Otherwise, it’s like chasing a mirage!

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  4. Samara Sonmor says

    John,

    I had some great comments after reading this article, but I’ll have to post them later.

    :) (Thanks!)

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  5. says

    “…treat all of your work as part of your growth. Whether it advances your career or not, it always advances your craft.” Now THAT’s liberating. Not everything has to be for public consumption. “Failure” is allowed, because it doesn’t really exist. Thanks for this! Teach on!

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  6. Linda Pennell says

    Excellent post, John. Writers often find more of the “don’t do this” than the “how to” pieces of advice in the limited space of blog articles. And while knowing what to avoid is important, research indicates that whatever we focus on is what we will remember. For every negative, there should be no fewer than four positives; otherwise, the negatives are what become imprinted. Thank you for helping us focus on the positives of call to action, unexpected turns, and the importance of simply getting the words on the page. Writing, like so many activities in life, improves only with lots of practice, but it is sooo important to know what that practice should include. Your article cuts through all the verbiage to the heart of what is truly important.

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  7. says

    That’s it. I’m printing this out, highlighting it, underlining it, attaching little post it’s saying “SARAH REMEMBER THIS WHEN WRITING!!!!!!!” with little arrows and stars and what not, and posting it on my wall. My spouse probably won’t appreciate the decorations, but hey! he’ll appreciate the motivation it gave me when I hand him my printed, beautiful, best-I-can-do-right-now novel. :)

    Thank you a million and one times. :)

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  8. says

    Reading this post made me smile–I am a procrastinator, for sure; not when it comes to my creative work, but for the work that seems less than fun to me. I’ve discovered that I spend way more time stressing about the fact that I’m running behind schedule than I would if I’d actually sat down to do the work in the first place! Plus, inevitably the project I’m putting off isn’t nearly as challenging/intimidating/frustrating as I’d imagined it to be.

    As for freezing up in the face of perfection–if I allowed myself to be daunted by that, I’d never write at all! When I start a project, I have, in my head, what I like to think of as Ideal Book. Ideal Book is witty, exquisitely crafted, with a driving plot and characters that make you experience the full spectrum of human emotions. It is, in a word, perfect–and I know full well that my finished product will be far from perfection! Still, I keep Ideal Book in my head as I work–it’s something to aspire to, even if I know that I will ultimately fall short.

    I agree with you–even if writing isn’t easy, if you keep putting words on paper, you will come up with *something* in the end-even if that *something* isn’t Ideal Book, or Best Story (as you put it) or even the story you’d started out to tell. And sometimes the unexpected twists and turns your story takes turn out to be the most satisfying parts. Thanks for an encouraging post!

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  9. says

    Love this: Have a point of view, a strong theme; make things not go as planned; see what happens next; trust that the journey will take your reader someplace interesting. That’s a writer’s job: to explore, not to judge. We go wrong when we judge. When we judge, we miss deadlines.

    Thanks so much for sharing it!

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  10. Ray Pace says

    Loved your advice. Just downloaded The California Roll. Now I have to get back to nanowrimo. Like you said -procrastinate later!

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  11. says

    This is a post full of really really good, sound, common sense-icle advice. My mother always said that when you hear the truth you recognize it for what it is. She’s right. What you say here is the truth! I especially like the freedom your admonition to see all our writing as part of our growth. It sort of puts perspective upon it all. Thanks!

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  12. says

    Thanks for reminding us that everything we write contributes to our growth as writers, even if it doesn’t advance our careers. As a writer, I know this is true, but it’s so easy to forget in the all-consuming battle to publish.

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  13. says

    Brilliant, no wonder they fly you over Greenland.

    Trivial one-liners? Jesus’s best stuff was pithy too. I wonder if that’s the secret to being inspirational: make it simple. Bird by bird. Write what you know. Tension on every page.

    > Theme is a call to action; make things not go as planned; see what happens next; trust that the journey will take your reader someplace interesting.

    Simple. Yes. Printing this out.

    > That’s a writer’s job: to explore, not to judge.

    That’s the only statement of yours I’m not sure about. All fiction is moral. All fiction is political. Even when it tries to be neutral (as in post-modern fiction) it isn’t. Indeed, isn’t fiction strongest when the author’s passion (point of view, purpose, sense of injustice) comes through? Is it possible to have theme without an underlying judgment?

    I’m all for moral complexity. I teach the creation of multi-dimensional characters. I push writers to create unsettling story events. Is that what you mean by not judging? Allowing our stories to be as complicated as our lives and our world?

    One more question: Like my pal Christopher Vogler, you get a lot of overseas gigs. Man, how to you do that? I travel a ton to teach but Paris and Prague haven’t yet invited me. Not that I’m envious or anything. Come to think of it, that would be a kind of judgment.

    Seriously, excellent post. A keeper. Thanks.

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  14. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Thanks for the kick in the procrastinating butt. Just wish this had arrived AFTER the big time-sucking in-law invasion. But now that you’ve put motivation into words that actually got through to my brain, maybe I can sneak away to get something done, even on holiday.

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  15. says

    Thanks, John! Seems I can hear these ideas (and write similarly on my blog!) but still need to be reminded. The thing I seem to struggle with–trust the journey will take readers someplace interesting.
    Just what I needed today! Which proves procratination (to read WU) not always a bad thing.

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  16. says

    Hi Donald,

    Thanks for raising the issue of judgment versus exploration. I think I was not entirely clear (yikes! writer-man be not clear!) When I speak of judgment, I’m speaking of the writer’s (usually self-critical) inner judgment, not his/her judgment of society and human relationships. I passionately believe that a writer must take a stand. That’s where both our power and our responsibility lie. It’s only when we start applying inner value judgments (“This sucks, I suck”) that we start to go astray. But judging the way the world works — dude, I’m all for that! And you’re absolutely right that only by having an underlying judgment can we have powerful, story-driving themes.

    As to why and how I teach so much overseas, some of it was luck. I wrote THE COMIC TOOLBOX at a time when a lot of TV and film industries were emerging overseas, which got me my first international exposure. From there I built a reputation as someone who could solve creative problems without imposing my own cultural assumptions. That’s the big thing. As a “citizen of the world,” I teach utility, not cultural norms and certainly not American cultural norms. Now I get a lot of that work via word of mouth. It doesn’t hurt that I’m willing to toil through Moscow winters and Managua summers with equal enthusiasm. Now if only I can get to Africa. Then I’ll have all the continents except Antarctica. :)

    Everyone: thanks for your wonderful positive feedback. It especially tickles me to think that I’m “post-it worthy” to many of you. So here’s a bonus post-it idea: WRITING IS CHOICE. You make a choice, and then write it. I deeply believe that if you’re making ANY choice (as opposed to NO choice) then there’s no way you’re making the WRONG choice.

    Keep writing, -jv

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    • says

      John-

      Ah, gotcha. Thanks for the answer…and for the insight into how you’ve built your consulting biz.

      Africa…you’re aware of “Nollywood”, the film industry in Nigeria? We saw some of their films on TV when we were in Ethiopia a few years ago. Low budget but effective stuff, including comedies.

      Hope you get there, it’s a fascinating continent.

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  17. Denise Willson says

    Man, you guys (John & Donald) really give a girl a lot to think about. My head is spinning.

    Months ago I started a literary wish list. This list, in its pointed glory, notes all the things I wish to accomplish with my current WIP. I’ve stolen each and every point from writer’s blogs and books (sorry, Don), points that speak to me, points I can get my head around. I read this list on a regular basis, reminding myself of the ‘bigger picture’.

    Now, I can’t promise I’ll accomplish each and every point of literary genius, but I’m sure as hell trying. Thank you, both of you, for your pithy advice.

    And notify your legal department…your words are on my list. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  18. says

    That fear is something I know well. I try to write one short story per week, and I’m compelled to give up, week after week. It’s not because I’m not writing, it’s because I’m scared that people won’t like what I give them. You’re right though, you have to be okay with any outcome. I’ve got to write 100 stories in 100 weeks, if people don’t like a few of them, it’s no big deal. :)

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  19. says

    I think you are also the Comic Toolbox guy. One of my fave craft books. I use the technique ‘then throw a monkey wrench in’ all the time. It’s just a fun way to picture the ‘things don’t go as planned’ part of plotting, which is my favorite part. Great post. Bon Voyage a Paris!

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