The Novel I’m Not Writing

The novel I'm not writing...

by Rasmus Rasmussen on August 9, 2011

I procrastinate. All the time. Too often I avoid the inconvenient or challenging by “wasting time” on unimportant stuff. So it has been for as long as I can remember. But I am not sure procrastination is all bad. It depends on what you do with the time you’re supposedly squandering. The question is not how to quit procrastinating altogether, but how to quit wasting your time while doing it. I have been trying an idea out for a couple of months, and I’d like to share it with you.

I was reading about cat behavior while putting off work and feeling guilty about it. The site I was reading said if your cat is doing something it’s not supposed to, show it an alternative that can replace the unwanted action. As in: if you don’t want kitty to scratch your couch, put in a scratching post and show kitty that sharpening your claws here will get him praise, where the couch will get him in trouble.

It made me wonder. Could this principle of replacement be applied towards procrastination?

Instead of looking at the task I was trying to avoid, I started looking at what I was actually doing when procrastinating. The thought was, if I could identify the craving fulfilled by useless procrastination, perhaps it could be turned into something productive. I found that many of my replacement actions were creative in nature. I might spend the time doodling, reading, jotting down ideas or playing with my iPhone camera. So I created a non-project.

A non-project is a project that officially doesn’t exist. There are no obligations or expectations tied to it. You are free to walk away at any time and consider the whole thing an exercise. In my case it’s a novel I’m not writing.

It started out as a couple of lines of text; half an idea for a character that might be a good lead in a book. I knew there was no way I would have time to write a novel, but I liked the idea enough to write it down anyway. In the past, I have written and saved documents like this en masse and just as often closed them without saving, fully aware that I would never get around to taking a second look.

But this time, I left the document open.

The next day, I found myself putting off writing some e-mail. I remembered my open document and went back to it. The text on the page gave me another half idea, a plot that might fit with the character. I jotted it down in the same document, this time ending up with a few paragraphs as I tried to tie my two half ideas into one. When it started to feel like work, I saved and left it alone. Still without closing the document.

A week later I had a few pages of text and the outline of an actual novel was taking shape. I considered whether I should “upgrade” it to a real project but decided against it. I wanted to keep the experiment running. Some days I don’t touch it, some days I add just a single line – maybe an idea for a scene – and some days I get into it and add a few hundred words. There is no pressure, no deadline, just this thing that is slowly growing.

Right now, I’m 8,500 words into the first draft of this novel I’m not writing.

You might say this is not really procrastinating at all, just some side project to pick up and work on whenever I need a break from less appealing work. And you would be right. It’s all about how you think about it, whether you are conscious of how you spend your time even when you’re wasting it.

If I never finish this novel, it still wasn’t a total waste of time. Every new page hones my writing skill a little, every new character is a little more nuanced than the last and every storyline a little more polished. If I do finish a full draft, I will read it and decide if it is good enough to get edited a bunch of times and finally published, but that would be considered added bonus.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rock Langston August 20, 2011 at 8:10 pm

This makes perfect sense to me. Removing expectations, the concept of it being “work”, and just a place to waste some time, but creatively, and without a goal, deadline, or expectations, is a swell idea. Thanks!

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