Stop Rotating the Cat: My Tricks for Beating Procrastination

Rotating cat

If you keep rotating, that cat will bite you.

Don’t tell the SPCA, but writers have the oddest relationships with their pet cats (even pet cats they don’t have).

When a writer is struggling with a piece of work, she’ll tell you she was vacuuming the cat, or he’ll say he was bathing the cat, or… I prefer to say I’m rotating the cat, because it’s an activity no sane person would find necessary. It doesn’t accomplish anything and it annoys the cat. A perfect image for writerly procrastination

I once read an article by Terry Pratchett lamenting the demise of the typewriter as a tool of the trade, because it took away one of his favorite ways of wasting time before getting down to writing proper. He apparently used to take a Q-tip and alcohol and clean the little metal raised letters to make sure the impression was really sharp.

Being of a different generation I could tell him that we young whippersnappers can find just as many ways to waste our time.

For instance, I’ve been known to remove all the keys from my keyboard and wipe both keys and base with bleach wipes, an activity good for consuming an hour or two and giving you an impression you accomplished something.

What drives this is a fear of the blank screen. Facing that screen is hard, even for —  particularly for — a novel you have outlined, researched, but not started yet.

There is an undefinable sense that once you save that first paragraph, the fate of the novel will be sealed for good or ill. Before that you don’t know if the voice will be tender, poetic, funny, or brisk, but once that first paragraph or page is saved, some of those options will have vanished. You can no longer think of this novel as the best ever to grace the world. Choices will have been made, and you are stuck with them.

This is not exactly true. I usually revise my beginnings after finishing the book. But it does limit some possibilities anyway. If you write your beginning as a comedy, then in the next scene have your character stumble on a serial killer’s lair and describe it seriously and graphically, you’re going to have people run screaming. (And not just because it’s a serial killer.)

So writers will try to find “legitimate activities” to put off the moment of typing in words.

The thing is, most pro writers don’t have to look around for silly activities. When pros – particularly these days – say they’ve been rotating the cat, what they actually mean is that they’ve spent their day with a dozen “little” activities and failed to write.

This is because the writing life is much like herding cats.

Cats going whichever way

If you don’t herd the cats, the cats will herd you.

Any working pro has dozens of big and small jobs waiting to be done. If you’re making a living from writing, you don’t get the luxury of tackling a book at a time.

Right now I’m juggling: A) starting Through Fire – which is under contract with Baen books, B) promoting A Few Good Men, which came out in March from Baen books, C) starting promotion for Noah’s Boy, which comes out in July, and D) trying to revise my old short stories and put one out a week (failing miserably at this). I also have five short stories due at various anthologies. For my sins, I am also cover designer for Naked Reader Press, a venture in indie publishing in which I hold an interest.

I’m also wife, mother, cook, and bottle washer of this household.

I’ve also got rights back to most of my books that weren’t published with Baen. My first priority is to re-release The Musketeer’s Seamstress, then the four other sequels one a month, and then to write the seventh book for which people have been waiting years.

When I’m completely exhausted from doing everything else, I go to bed with The Musketeer’s Seamstress on the Kindle Fire (which is surprisingly good to edit in using Documents To Go).

This week, the schedule got a little crazier, as I was requested to do an interview for my publisher to promote Noah’s Boy, and I got back the page proofs to Noah’s Boy, with a short turn-around time. I also vetted cover copy for Noah’s Boy which took a whole afternoon as I had to search for reviews of the other two books — for cover quotes.

If this looks completely insane – it is. When I take a break from an activity it is by doing another.

However it can get crazier and probably will. I hear from friends who have been in the field longer and who are now publishing indie as well as traditional. Most have added to the insanity by managing paper-book distribution of their titles; arranging for audio versions; and negotiating for the sale of rights/selling rights to movie companies. (This last is something I aspire to, since, crazy though it is, it pays well.)

So most of the time, what is hard for a career writer is not to stop rotating the cat, but to keep juggling all the cats without dropping one.

Juggling Cats

This is your brain on writing.

And yet, Through Fire must be started. Writing a first draft in six weeks is a stretch for me, even after 23 books published. (Yes, I’ve done it much faster, but it’s also very difficult.)

The fear must be faced, the cats expertly juggled. I close the door, forget all the other stuff that needs to be done, and try out beginnings.

There is an art to beginnings, one I didn’t stumble upon until I started writing short stories. If you read primarily novels, particularly if you read older – nineteenth or early twentieth century — novels, you might fail to realize that nowadays most people want to get “hooked” on the book within a few paragraphs.

Of course, there are different types of hooks. One of them is the surprise or juxtaposition hook. My favorite of these remains Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him, I killed him.

Note how it starts with someone following the main character, so even the unfamiliar Kenya Beanstalk capsule is forgotten in our rush to see what’s happening. And that last “I killed him” grabs us good and proper.

In the next paragraph, the character regrets killing the man without thinking (but not exactly killing the man) and disposes of the body very effectively indeed. By that time you’re getting a feeling you’re not in the head of an average person and you are well and truly hooked.

In short stories you have even less time, and I learned to do a startling first paragraph. My favorite remains the opening to the short story Something Worse Hereafter:

Dying is easy. It’s staying alive afterwards that’s difficult.

However, sometimes novels call for something more like getting in the mood. And sometimes the “hook” is specific to something quirky about your character, or simply gaining the reader’s confidence by being very upfront and seeming artless with them. We all know “Call me Ishmael” after all. I suggest getting out your favorite books of the same type you’re writing and noting the first paragraphs.  After a dozen of so, you start getting the idea.

Grinning Cat

Writing can make you go mad, but you must enjoy the journey.

Me? For months know I’ve known the first sentence of Through Fire is “I am a b*tch.” This is not something I particularly wanted, because I don’t like starting with that kind of word. I just have no clue what should follow that. While the woman is, by some definitions, a b*tch — in the sense that she makes plans and expects everything to fall into them — it’s not the idea I have of her in my head.

So it’s taken some struggling, but this is what I have so far.

I am a bitch. When my home planet wouldn’t conform to my expectations, I escaped to Earth, the world my ancestors had left to avoid being killed.

Perhaps it is poetic justice that I was captured, imprisoned, about to be killed?

I looked around my Spartan cell and shrugged. From somewhere came crying for mercy and the sound of a crowd cheering.

I had no intention of dying. My plan of escape was ready.  When the jailers came to get me, they’d be very surprised.

It’s rough. As I said before, I usually rewrite the first paragraph after starting. But it sets the tone and tells me where to begin.

Sometimes the beginning of a book is as hard to fix on as the smile of a Cheshire cat. You have to sort of approach it sideways so it doesn’t escape before you glimpse it.

This is what I have right now, and I’ll have to write at least twenty five thousand words this week. Not impossible but it will take me some concentration.

Wish me luck.