Once your work on your novel is under way, one of the toughest foes you’ll face in your quest for ultimate success—outside of your lack of talent or limited access to famous or powerful people—is the devilish problem of procrastination. Writing, like heavy construction or slaughterhouse labor, is difficult and messy work, and it’s no wonder that often, when it comes time to get to the task, our minds and bodies turn to other things. Even if you’re working steadily, a book can take years to complete, and with procrastination factored into the mix, you’ll be looking at a Salinger-like silence before you’ve published anything: that one game of Tetris turns into an obsession to land the best score ever; thanks to procrastination, a quick straightening up around the house before hunkering down to write will have you steam-cleaning the curtains because it really needed doing, twice.
Most writing-advice experts suggest that you set a quota for time in the chair or words on the page each day. The longest journey begins with a single step, and all that other garbage. They ask you to envision the entirety of the novel. How many words is it going to take? (The pace and planning will be different for a three-volume epic than for a children’s picture book.) How soon do you want to have it done? Do you need that fat advance check this spring, or will fall do? They advise you to estimate the total word count and set daily and weekly checkpoints that will allow you to gauge your progress.
This is good advice, as far as it goes—but it doesn’t go far enough. Word and time quotas are for the disciplined and focused, the kind of people who pay their bills on time and never get caught without change at the tollbooth. The kind of people who throw out the Christmas tree before it becomes the St. Patrick’s Day fire hazard. Setting goals isn’t enough. A goal is merely a pledge; you need a plan. Saying you’re going to do something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen—just ask President Bush about that whole liberating the Middle East thing. Research shows it’s even easier to break promises we make to ourselves than those we make to others, particularly when there are no immediate consequences to our promise-breaking. Therefore, an effective plan involves an elaborate system combining reward and punishment.
For example, if you’ve hit your word-count goal for the week, give yourself a treat—like that decadent cupcake you always spy in the display case at the bakery but resist in the name of your waistline. If you reach a monthly goal, step up higher on the pleasure ladder and take a day of beauty at the local spa.
Been good for a series of months? Give in to your wildest unfulfilled fantasies and pay an eccentric billionaire for a week on his remote island, where you will hunt the ultimate prey—another human being.
Motivate yourself by keeping reminders of your potential reward nearby in your writing space, and give yourself a few moments each day to envision the pleasure of receiving your reward: biting into the moist chocolate goo of the cupcake, relaxing under the touch of an expert masseuse, or sighting a terrified homeless person in the crosshairs of your finely tuned sniper rifle as he flees through the jungle underbrush.
If you work diligently toward your goal, these things can be yours.
On the flip side, you can establish a series of punishments for failing to meet your writing goals. As with the rewards, make the punishment commensurate to the transgression.
If you fall a few words short of the daily goal, a slap on the wrist will do—perhaps something like the forcible removal of a pinkie nail using needle-nose pliers. Failed to produce at a satisfactory pace for a week straight? Hire a local tough to deliver a good kneecapping. (Make sure it’s scheduled during nonwriting hours, and that the blow isn’t so severe as to require extended hospitalization, which would take away from writing time.)
And if, for example, you’re under contract to complete a writing-advice book and you still have a third of it to go with only three weeks until the deadline, chain yourself (literally) to the chair with your feet immersed in a bucket of acid (not too caustic, just strong enough for a tingling burn). Believe me, you’ll have never typed faster in your life.
I just hope it’s fast enough.