Productivity

Interview: Jenna Avery on Procrastination and the Writing Habit

Please welcome Jenna Avery, screenwriter and founder of the process-oriented Writer’s Circle. Jenna’s here to share her insights about establishing a daily writing habit, overcoming procrastination, dealing with your inner critic, and more.

Jenna, what is the Writer’s Circle? How does it work?

The Writer’s Circle is an unconventional online site for writers based on simple principles of setting small, attainable goals, taking regular daily actions, dealing with procrastination and resistance, and being in community. We help writers build and stay on track with a regular habit of daily writing and get their writing projects finished.

The way it works is that every day our participants log on to our online site and their small group and answer questions about how many minutes they wrote that day, what went well, and what was challenging. We also have them clear out the crud of negative self-thoughts and reframe them into positive thoughts on a daily basis. In conjunction with every other week live group telephone conference calls, this work teaches writers that they are not alone in their doubts, fears, and concerns, which frees up a tremendous amount of energy that can then be used for writing and creating. Writing together teaches us that we have the support we need to show up and do the work, every single day.

What are the benefits of the Writer’s Circle approach to writing?

So many writers struggle with writing consistently and showing up every day to do the work. We procrastinate, we get afraid, and we invent reasons not to write (toilet scrubbing, anyone?). As Steven Pressfield says, “It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

The Writer’s Circle provides a kind of motivation to show up and do the hard work of sitting down to write, because you know that if you don’t check in at the end of the day on the site, the other writers in your small group and your coach will notice and miss you. You’ll get encouragement from them on the days when it’s hard and they’ll cheer you on when it’s easy. Having that kind of support reduces isolation, which is a huge issue for so many writers, and just seeing all the little green check marks for every day you write is so satisfying too.

We also teach the idea of writing for very small increments of time — with an inverse correlation between how stuck you feel and the number of minutes you spend writing. In other words, the more blocked you feel, the less you’ll want to aim for each day, at least to start.

This pattern of brief writing sessions sets you up to: 1) prevent binge-writing and burn out, 2) feel a daily sense of accomplishment, and 3) build a stronger sense of self-confidence, trust, and belief in yourself that you can and will do the work. All of these help you keep going in the long term.

What inspired you to start this group?

Although I’ve been writing regularly for my life coaching business for over 10 years now, despite my best efforts, I was not doing my heart’s true writing: science fiction. I knew that I needed to make a major change in my thinking about writing and when I saw this system — which was originally designed to help academic writers complete their dissertations — I just had to have it for myself and to share it with other writers who wanted help with their own writing accountability and follow through.

How long have you been running it? Has the program changed at all over time?

I’ve been running the Writer’s Circle since September of 2011 when we ran our first beta test group. Since that time, we’ve seen novels, ebooks, screenplays, poems, songs, memoirs, and non-fiction books completed. It’s been amazing. Over the course of the last year, we’ve added a few bells and whistles to make the program stronger, like twice-weekly group writing sprints, and the option to upgrade and add private coaching support. We’ve also split from one group into two, and we expect to keep adding more groups and coaches as demand increases.

What’s the biggest adjustment writers have to make when they first try this approach to writing?

The biggest adjustment for writers is in their mindset. When we start writing or want to write, we have a lot of limiting beliefs that get in the way of our actually doing the work. For instance, many writers believe they have to have long blocks of time before they can write. Or that they have to have a laptop, the right space to work in, more money, a better job, quieter kids, or a more understanding spouse. Or that they have to be in the right mood to write. None of those things are true. In fact, they are just stories we tell ourselves because we are afraid to write and afraid to fail. The work is learning to show up and write, every day, no matter what.

Along those same lines, our writers also have to persuade themselves to give up binge-writing in mad, rushed, deadline-meeting frenzies and instead set themselves up for the long haul, like a running a marathon — we have to learn to pace ourselves for the long term. The Writer’s Circle provides evidence that helps them make these mindset shifts.

What types of problems can this approach help writers overcome?

Writer’s block, procrastination, resistance, isolation, poor planning, self-doubt, and self-sabotage are the first problems that come to mind. I’m sure there are more. The beauty of this system is that it has far-reaching positive impacts in other areas of life as well. We see our writers also making positive changes in around exercise, organization, and time management, for instance.

How has this approach changed the way you write?

I have shifted my thinking about writing. I no longer believe I have to get it right on the first try. I no longer believe I have to “warm up” before I can start writing. I am fiercely committed to writing at least 6 days a week, no matter what. I’ve been through some difficult personal experiences lately, and I have never been more proud of myself for continuing to write, day in and day out, regardless of my mood or the state of my personal life. The Writer’s Circle has shifted my approach to writing from that of an amateur to that of a pro.

What advice would you give someone who’s trying to establish a writing habit?

The best way to establish a regular writing habit is to start small and to start now. Make it SO easy that you can’t not do it. For instance, on day 1, simply open your document and type in one word or one sentence, then close it again. Be sure to acknowledge and celebrate your action immediately, even if it’s just with the smallest internal shout of, “I did it!” Then on day 2, type 2 sentences, and so on. Keep working up to a point where you know you can comfortably continue the pattern (even if it’s only a few minutes a day). Make sure you design it to be something a regular-you can accomplish, not the super-human version of you. That way you’ll set yourself up for long term sustainability.

Then, keep doing it. Don’t fall for your inner critic’s nagging about how you’ll never get anywhere. I’ve written half a screenplay in 15 minute increments and I’m on track to complete it. You can do it too.

What’s unique or distinct about this group from other writing groups?

One significant — and important — distinction from other writing groups is that we do not do critiques of each other’s work in the Writer’s Circle. We focus on helping writers work out the kinks in their writing habits, and very often those kinks are the result of difficult past critiques that have become creative wounds, which in turn have become blocks. It’s so important to us to keep a safe space where we can break down those blocks, heal those wounds, and get back to the task of regular writing, that we’ve made the decision not to exchange critiques of our work.

That said, we strongly support writers to get useful and constructive feedback from outside sources when their work reaches the appropriate stage. Critiquing is a highly useful and separate tool we all need to make our writing the best it can possibly be.

Thank you so much for this opportunity to share the Writer’s Circle with you. If you’ve got a long term writing project you’d love to see finished, we’d love to have you join us in the Writer’s Circle. I’ll be lurking around the site here today, so if you have questions, thoughts, or comments, be sure to post them and I’ll respond ASAP.


Jenna AveryJenna Avery is a screenwriter who redesigned her life to support her passion for writing. Her most recently completed project is a sci-fi action script called Progeny. She is also a life coach and the founder of the Writer’s Circle — an online “Just Do The Writing” accountability system — designed to help writers get the support, accountability, and inspiration they need to finish all their writing projects and get their work into the world. Jenna blogs about writing, creativity, and life purpose at JennaAvery.com. Follow her on Twitter @JennaAvery.

You can find the Writer’s Circle at JustDoTheWriting.com.

“Start The New Year Off Write” special: save $30 when you sign up for the 12/31 session using the code NEWYEARWRITE at http://JustDoTheWriting.com.

How to Squeeze More Writing Into Your Day: A Method for Both Plotters and Pantsers

You’ve probably heard other writers talk about how they eked out writing time when they were first starting out. The new mom who wrote during her baby’s fifteen minute naps. The engineer who skipped coffee and cigarette breaks for the sake of getting a few more paragraphs written. The nurse who wrote an entire novel while waiting for the bus. Jane Austen is said to have written a sentence or two at a time as she paused between carrying out her other responsibilities.

It sounds like such a great idea, doesn’t it? Find all those little dead spaces in your schedule and use them to get more writing done.

That’s exactly what I thought the first time I heard one of those stories. I immediately booted up my computer, set the microwave timer to fifteen minutes, and…nothing.

I sat there for the entire fifteen minutes without adding a single word to my novel.

It wasn’t that I got distracted and started surfing the web or had a sudden, urgent need to reorganize my desk. Even though I had a plot outline, I simply didn’t know what to write next.

Maybe I’m the kind of writer that needs big blocks of time to write, I concluded. Maybe I need more warm-up time than other writers.

But in spite of that first failure, I still loved the idea of being able to turn all that wasted time into writing time. Again and again I attempted the fifteen minute writing exercise, and each time failed miserably.

Until a clever friend made a suggestion. “You’re a plotter,” she pointed out. “Maybe you need more structure to write in short bursts.”

Eureka! I discovered that I could start writing immediately if I gave myself very specific parameters. I decided I would spend ten minutes writing the part of the scene where the bus explodes.

During the next ten minute session, I wrote my protagonist’s reaction to the bus explosion.

In the next one, I wrote the part where the dazed bus driver tries to stop my protagonist from fleeing before the police arrived.

In other words, I broke the scene into beats (meaningful units of action) and focused on writing one beat at a time.

Writing in bursts throughout the day not only gave me an opportunity to make a bit of progress during my less-than-exciting workday, it also kept me in touch with my character’s world during the day.

In the evenings, when I did have a big block of time to write, I was eager to write more because I’d been thinking about my characters all day, and I didn’t need a half hour to get back into my heroine’s point of view. Once I trained myself to focus on a single beat of action rather than the whole scene, I found I could start writing within a couple minutes of opening my draft.

Another advantage of writing like this is that I no longer waste as much time getting stuck in the middle of a scene. I might not know everything that has to happen in a scene, but I can figure out the key events that have to happen at this point of the story, and I can write those in short bursts. Then later, I can go back and stitch those key events together by adding transitions and filling in the holes.

You don’t need a plot outline to do this, either. (Remember, my plot outline didn’t help me at all when it came to writing like this.) As long as you can figure out what the next beat in the story should be, you can set a timer and just write that beat of action.

I’m not suggesting that you stop setting aside big blocks of time to write. There’s nothing like the high that comes from having written an entire chapter and knowing that you’ve gotten significantly closer to finishing the story. Short bursts of timed writing are a way to boost your productivity outside of your regularly scheduled writing sessions.

Sometimes I use the timer technique even when I do have a big block of time, because it helps me build momentum. I make a list of all the beats in a scene, and then I go down the list, setting a timer for each one. As my momentum builds, the scene will take shape in my mind, and eventually I’ll realize that the timer went off forty minutes ago and I was so engrossed in writing that I didn’t notice. Focusing on one beat at a time can help you get more done during longer writing sessions as well.

Don’t write in beats? Do you think better in layers? No problem. Set your timer for fifteen minutes and write just the dialogue for a scene. Next time you have a fifteen minute block, add in all the physical action. Third fifteen minute block, add interior monologue. Fourth block, add setting descriptions. Fifth block, add body language. Keep layering scene elements in until the scene is fully fleshed out.

Again, take a moment before each writing session to identify specific parameters. Before you write the dialogue layer, ask yourself: “What is the main topic the characters will discuss?”

Before writing the physical action layer, ask yourself: “What will the characters be doing while they have this conversation?”

Before writing the setting layer, ask yourself, “Where are the characters and what objects will they interact with?”

Writing like this probably won’t feel natural to you immediately. It took me about three weeks of training myself to write by focusing on single beats of action, and for most of those three weeks I wondered if I was wasting my time. Like any new writing method, this takes practice to master.

Set aside a fifteen minute block every day, separate from your usual writing time, and if it helps take the pressure off, work on something other than your work-in-progress. Remind yourself that this is merely a new technique that you’re learning. Don’t expect your first attempt to yield 500 words of pure gold—look at this as a training exercise that will increase your productivity over the next few months.

But I don’t want to write in short bursts, you say. I’ll just be getting warmed up when the timer goes off, and when I hear that beep, I’ll feel frustrated.

That will happen. Let me suggest that it isn’t a bad thing.

What’s being frustrated here? Your desire to write. When you feel that little surge of frustration because you want to write more, recognize that what you’re feeling is your creative drive.

Embrace that drive! It’s the source of motivation. You know, that thing that keeps you from procrastinating? A couple fifteen-minute writing sessions during the day can keep your motivation stoked, so that by the time you’re finished with dinner, you’re chomping at the bit to write the scene that you started on your lunch break.

When you feel that frustration, promise yourself that you’re going to sit down and write more that evening (or whenever your next writing session falls), and keep that promise, even if all you can manage is another fifteen minutes before bed.

The more you practice, the easier it gets to write in short bursts. You’ll train your brain to enter the flow state more quickly and easily, so you’ll waste less time getting into the story even when you’ve got lots of time to write. Even better, you’ll start looking forward to those fifteen-minute breaks in your day because the next two or three paragraphs are practically boiling over in your brain and you can’t wait to get them down.

Time Management for Writers: The Kaizen Approach

Have you ever set aside time for writing–maybe even blocked that time off on your calendar in pen–but then skipped it anyway?

How often do you sit down at your desk at the appointed time, intending to start writing as soon as you send a quick email–then realize you’ve spent your allotted writing time surfing the web?

You might think that you need to learn time management skills. But if you already know how to block off time on a calendar and you understand how to prioritize your to-do list, you’ve got time management skills. What you really need are some self-management skills: tricks to help you stay motivated and focused, so that you’ll actually write during your scheduled sessions.

The kaizen approach is perfect for self-management. “Kaizen” is a Japanese word that means “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is the strategy of improving a process by making small, gradual changes that support your desired outcome. You make a single change, and when that new way of doing things has become a habit, you make another change.

Because small changes only require small amounts of willpower, you’re less likely to give up than if you were to make a bigger change. For example, rather than forcing yourself to get up an hour earlier to write before work, you could start by setting your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier and you go to bed 15 minutes earlier. After a week or two, your body adjusts to the new time and you do it again, until you’ve shifted your schedule back an hour and are now used to the new wake-up time.Read more