Procrastination challenge

Posted: March 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

Dear Mslexia,

I turned eagerly to the article from life coach Bekki Hill about procrastination. I was sorely disappointed. As a chronic procrastinator, I was looking for the ‘cures for procrastination’ promised on the cover. I am sure most of your readers – self-defined ‘women who write’ – would have expected tips on how to overcome their own procrastinating tendencies. They certainly wouldn’t have been satisfied with a punch-line that says: she never really wanted to write in the first place and she needs therapy for deep-seated psychological issues! I am sure there are cases which are inappropriate to be dealt with by a life coach, and that some would-be writers don’t want to write at all, but I question the value of such a case study in a magazine for women who do write.

My initial reaction was to throw the magazine aside, snorting “I could do better than that. I’ve read every book there is on the subject of procrastination, will-power and self-discipline.” So this is my challenge both to you and myself: let me write the article I (and thousands of other procrastinating writers) would like to have read. I am aware that ‘waiting for a reply to my query’ is among the top ten procrastinating strategies, I will commit in public, on my blog The Ticking Clock to undertake my own procrastination/ will-power challenge – over the course of 10 weeks I will test out prescriptions for overcoming procrastination, resisting distraction and other temptations.


This is a report I wrote after the Northern Film and Media Pitching Your Project workshop, which may be of interest to those attending the SSWAG Pitching Your Book workshop tomorrow:

There were 9 participants with 9 projects. We were given 9 minutes to read all 9 one-page proposals. We were to notice what struck us going through them all, and if any one stood out.

tell me less

This, for me, was the most eye-opening moment of the day. I looked at the 9 proposals before me. More than 9 pages: some people hadn’t kept to the limit. My overwhelming feeling was: tell me less.

I wanted some way to sift through the information coming at me. Christina’s words: give them what they need to know up front, I heartily endorse. Be clear. Suddenly the truth of that was borne in on me quite physically. I couldn’t see what I was looking at. Where’s the white space?

what I noticed

The difference between the verbal and the written pitches. The two that stood out on the verbal pitching would, if I’m honest, have gone in the bin on the strength of the written effort. One, for the spelling and grammar; the other, because it looked utterly boring – solid blocks of uninterrupted text.


Play to your strengths. If you’re a bubbly attractive presenter, but not so hot on your written pitch, get help on your weaker area. Spell-check and double check; run it past a writer friend; as with the verbals: practice, practice, practice.

Clarity and concision

My written pitch was commented on by half the participants as a model of clarity and concision. You can see it here. Don’t, though, copy it. It has its faults. And your pitch must represent your vision, your strengths.

I could claim credit for it, but really it’s the flip side of my lack of preparation. I was given a last-minute place on the workshop after someone dropped out. I had a few hours’ notice to create my one-page proposal. Less is more. The time limit concentrated my mind. I also emailed to find out what it should include and the preferred format.


Give them what they ask for, not more. If they say one-page, give them one page. If you don’t know what they want, ask – or look at their website. You can always point them to where they can look for more. Which brings me to:


None of us put our details on our proposal. Always, always do this. (Unless it’s for a competition, in which case follow the Rules.) You’re not a secret agent. Every piece of paper or media that emanates from you should point straight back at you. You want them to know how to contact you, to see more, to arrange a meeting. On multi-page documents, put page numbers, title and some identifier in the footer.

Lay-out tips

  • no tiny fonts. 11 or 12 point for preference
  • don’t use Times Roman, sans serif fonts are easier to read, and more web-compliant
  • bold titles but don’t waste space with huge fonts in the title
  • use sub-heads for things you want to draw attention to
  • use bullet points or numbered lists
  • allow some white space
  • see below for the special rules for feature film scripts

Content tips

  • be concise: leave them wanting to know more
  • use hook-lines and images
  • have a clear premise
  • have an easy-to-read summary or synopsis
  • strong characters, vividly presented
  • read your summary for pace
  • if you have a ‘name’ on board, that will act as a hook
  • a clear lay-out should reflect a clear concept

Striking graphics

  • use colour, but test on a monochrome printer – your proposal may be photocopied and you still want it to be legible
  • for factual or entertainment programmes, use pictures, sketches and other graphics
  • for drama scripts, your words should paint the pictures
  • use your company logo or brand. Every proposal is a marketing opportunity

shortlist of thousands

Yes, you read that right. Channel 4 considered a shortlist of over a thousand for 46 programme slots. Commissioners receive thousands of submissions a year. This is what we’re up against. A minute to scan a proposal is probably quite generous.

what is it?

They are looking for this basic information: genre, length and format, number of episodes, channel, strand, slot on the schedule, audience.

who are you?

All contact details. If you are a company, who is the named contact person for the project?

Why are you the person/ people to do it? Can you deliver? What is your track record? For drama, the most important person is the writer. If you have a ‘name’ on board, use it.

can we afford it?

Always include a budget or at least a ball-park figure. They need to know what it will cost, and what sort of production values. If your budget is substantially over the norm, you need to justify it. If it is cheaper, then you can use it as a selling point (provided you can deliver on budget). Everyone loves a bargain.

always prepare for the best case

Dating books recommend you wear underwear that you wouldn’t mind being seen in by George Clooney. (I had to type that sentence very carefully: with George Clooney, in George Clooney, in with George Clooney, within George Clooney.)

Buyers are looking for something to fall in love with. Your project may be it.

FEATURE FILMS: special rules

Feature film scripts follow a rigid (and boring) format. If you deviate from it, you mark yourself out as an amateur. You can find out about film script formats in any screenwriting book.

Drama scripts also follow industry-standard formats. You can download a template from the BBC Writers Room.

Someone sent me a link to BBC Radio 4 – On the Ropes: Max Moseley. Since sadomasochism is one of the threads in my new novel, I thought I’d share these thoughts.
Overall, Moseley came over as thoughtful, articulate and rational. The interviewer, John Humphreys, came over as a moralistic twat. Amazing how sexual moralism can make a wealthy Tory son of fascists seem progressive compared to Humpreys’ reactionary spouting. Moseley pointed out that what consenting adults do in private is nobody’s business but their own. How can it be ‘in the public interest’ what people do in private, if nobody is being harmed? Public figures are surely allowed a private life. Isn’t that a universal human right?
The interviewer made great play of the fact that the women involved in the orgy were being paid. Moseley pointed out that these women, in their private lives, with their chosen partners, did the same things unpaid. Humphreys snorted derisively: they would say that. I know a few pro dommes and all of them do it because they like it. Of course they like getting paid too! But getting paid for something doesn’t in itself make that activity disreputable. I like writing and would do it whether I was paid or not, but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to get paid for it. Indeed, I’m sure Mr Humpreys, in private, likes to pronounce moralistically. I’m sure he’d be the first to argue that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be paid. The reason for calling these women prostitutes and making much of their being paid is to make a connection in the listener’s mind between their activity and the image of street prostitutes, trafficked women and vulnerable teenagers forced into selling themselves. But it’s an illegitimate connection. Those women are coerced not consenting. It is the absence of consent that is key, not payment.
Moseley was interesting, too, in that he’d kept this side of his sexuality secret from his wife of fifty years. As a novelist, what a stunning idea! Secrets are always powerful in any drama. They create motive and mystery and suspense. When you have trouble plotting, it’s always good to give your character a secret. My heroine comes from the other end of the political spectrum. She’s an anarcho-eco- erstwhile feminist, and her reasons for keeping her secret are to do with the repressive moralism espoused by some ‘progressive’ people – especially a certain type of feminist. One could contrast Moseley’s “It’s nobody’s business but my own” attitude with that of Tommy Sheridan, who also took on the News of the World.

Months are rooms and the first of the month the doorway. I always like to make a new start at the beginning of the month. But where to start?
The answer is, of course, wherever. But that’s no help at all.
I had some homework from Kath Kenny: threshold. So how about start with that feeling of standing on the brink of something, reluctant to commit. Like starting a new novel, or restarting an old one. The blank page always feels perilous, but there’s nothing to do but do it.
I’d started a kind of poetic word association string – I was inspired by the poems I’d written at the weekend – and that threw up ‘threesome’ and then I was off…
which resulted in this piece:

It’s half an hour off noon and I’m only just picking up my pen. I wish I could say it was a great night and I don’t regret it. But i had a quiet night in and I didn’t drink too much, and I still have nothing to show for this morning.

Yesterday I started earlier, 9am, and at least got some pages, scrappy and incoherent though they be. Wednesday morning I read a philosophy paper and formulated a couple of questions. Tuesday I went through some notebooks from 2003 with an idea for a memoir. Monday i went to a class, and didn’t, though I intended to, get back to work.

I desperately admire writers who claim to keep regular office hours. (I was just reading about one such in the toilet, Saturday Guardian Review.) That is my aim too, but it doesn’t seem to materialise. They say those who fail to plan, plan to fail, but planning for me is just another form of procrastination.

If I look from the beginning of the month: one week spent preparing a book for a competition; one week sorting out my paperwork – and I’m only halfway through; and this week, detailed above. The wek of editing and formatting was probably time well spent and, though tedious, moved me forward to my goal. The week of sorting paper was arguably necessary, but how can it take a week to half sort out the paper mountain?

The danger, of course, is that half-sorted is the worst of both worlds. If I don’t finish the sorting, I will just slide back into chaos, with my new systematic piles toppling onto the archaeological layers of the old mess, resulting in serendipitous layers of organisation uncovered like exotic sandwich filling in the next big sort-out.

So how do other writers do it? When you get rich, I suppose you can have secretaries, PAs, and cleaners to move your mess for you. But most writers aren’t rich and have to rely on their own resources.

My aim, in reanimating this blog is to publicly shame myself into getting something done. I will report on my efforts here, even if only to say: wasted day. If i clock up enough wasted days perhaps I’ll start to shape up. Watch this space.

Trying to get back into it

Posted: March 2, 2010 in Uncategorized

Last week i caught up with some writers i hadn’t seen for ages. One had moved house and was settling into a new writing regime to fit in with her young family. She had, after a break, managed to get some dedicated writing time. She felt that, in the interim, she’d lost her ability to put sentences together. She’d forgotten how to write, and felt like a novice starting out painfully to learn the basics.

I said: that’s how it is after a break. The anxiety gets to you. Once you break the flow, everything becomes an effort.

And here I am, at that very same place. I decided to start March with a project I’d put down for several months. I told myself I could get into a regime of writing 1666 words a day as I had for Nanowrimo. In my head, it seemed so simple. In reality, yesterday I managed perhaps 100 words. My doubts about where it was going ate away my confidence. The idea was that I could get together 5,000 words and a synopsis for a Time to Write award.

Maybe that’s too much pressure. I can’t see anything. Where am I in this story? Where is it going? How will I know when I’ve got there?

I try to remind myself that this is what it is like. Sometimes you’re just lost. You can’t pull a shape out of the air, to order. Or at least, you can but just don’t believe it will resemble the final shape, what the story will look like when it’s finished. So much writing about writing is misleadingly elegant. It suggests, leads you believe that writing is an elevated, sleek, glamorous process, glidiong down the catwalk, twirling and dazzling. It’s not. It’s a mess. It’s a stutter of anxiety and a sprawl of ‘Oh fuck it, just get anything down. However awful. However fucking crap’.

Late Bloomers

Posted: March 2, 2010 in Uncategorized

I’ve just been reading ‘Late Bloomers’ in Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw (Allen Lane). It’s heartening. He contrasts Picasso – precocious, ferociously naturally talented – with Cezanne, who had to painfully slog at learning to draw, to enable his vision to take shape. Cezanne would not have survived as an artist without support.

I find this doubly reassuring. I hold in mind the model of Penelope Fitzgerald, who never started earning in the higher tax bracket until well into her seventies. Age is not a barrier.

The other thing Gladwell talks about is the unconditional support of Cezanne’s father, and, another example, Ben fountain’s wife – paying the bills and keeping the household afloat not just for a year but for decades. It makes me think of Julia Cameron’s remark, what wouldn’t we do to support those we love – why can’t we extend the same to support to ourselves?

Which brings me back to the Writers’ Award. It’s hard to convince anybody if you don’t believe in yourself. And sometimes I think the real purpose for me of these applications is to convince myself that I am worth it. I wonder if the source of my frustration with myself is not my distractibility or disorganisation, poor time management or any other surface symptom, but a simple desperate lack of faith. I have a horror of being like those X Factor contestants who can’t sing and don’t know it. I fear I am too insanely deluded.

It cheers me to think of Cezanne learning to draw. I did an art foundation course and I can remember literally crying at my easel, trying to grasp perspective and 3-D. It’s just hard, and it really does help to know that other people find it hard too.


Posted: January 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

I found this article by Seth Godin which seems very pertinent to achieving your goals quieting the lizard brain

Effective Villains

Posted: January 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

Some exercises for when you have trouble with your villains

  1. Write from their point of view. Really get inside their head. People generally don’t see themselves as villains. They will have a way of explaining or justifying their actions. They may for example see themselves as the victim or the instrument of divine (or not so divine) justice. Look at the exercise Deadly Emotions: In their Shoes.
  2. Write the Dear Author letter
  3. If you are having trouble sympathising with them, let them share something with you. Let them love the same thing as you. Admire the same author/ thinker/ composer. Gift them some incident from your own life. Have them come from the same background as you.
  4. Give them a high or humane motive. Andre Jute describes how he humanises a duplicitous spy by making him go back and rescue his cat.
  5. Make them witty or charming. Think Hannibal Lecter.

The story so far:
I have written the first draft of a crime novel, provisionally titled Dolly Maltravers Investigates: the Nigerian Web. As I came to the end, I felt increasingly bothered by three linked issues (which I will keep vague so as not to spoil the story for later readers):

  1. I think the villain is too obvious. Cui bono? It’s not much of a mystery for the experienced reader;
  2. their alibi is rather thin: why should the police buy it?
  3. their character is too antipathetic. They are rather dull, conventional, lacking passion – the classic shadowy perpetrator. It’s clear the author doesn’t like them very much.

Although this is only a first draft and it can be solved in the rewrite, these issues sap my morale and motivation to get through the grunt work. I write long-hand and have to transcribe from my notebooks, so there’s typing up, formatting, and maintaining consistency in both voice and plot). Basically, I’m a bit out of love with the whole thing because I see these gaping flaws.
Coupled with this we’re in the midst of the bleakest bleak midwinter. I suffer from SAD and find it increasingly difficult to motivate myself to do anything at all,
So I have set myself some very limited targets:

  • type up 1.6k words per day (4 pages of long-hand;
  • write 1.6k words a day of new material, which can be exercises from writing books or my own exercises;
  • blog the process here.

I have been working my way through Writing and Selling your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron (Writers Digest Books). I came to the chapter on the Villain, and I really didn’t feel like doing it. I had brainstormed what I could do to tackle the issues listed above, but I really didn’t know how I was going to get the energy to do it…
I remembered an exercise I’d been given in a writing class: Dear Author