The secret to fighting project inertia

Recently I was invited to be a guest author at the Sutherland Shire Fellowship of Australian Writers, who are an absolutely lovely bunch of people.

You don’t need to take my word for it. Just look at the How to Be Australian themed afternoon tea they put on.

If you’re wondering, I didn’t have an iced vovo. I was busy digging into the salted caramel slices, which were perfectly chewy and had no dessicated coconut in the base! A++

And in honour of the event, I wore my caramel slice earrings. I’m very on brand.

As the guest author, I decided to share some of the advice I’ve learned over the ten years I’ve been steadily developing my writing process and industry expertise.

I talked about trusting the processing, about learning to be your own editor, and about the importance of regular feedback from informed readers (ie other writers).

I also talked about project inertia.

This is what I’ve come to call the feeling when a project stalls, when I’m not working on (for whatever reason, some more excusable than others) and then can’t bring myself to get back into it.

authors-ashley-kalagian-blunt-and-dinuka-mckenzie
With author Dinuka McKenzie, winner of the 2020 Banjo Prize

I began my current manuscript in July 2019 and it’s been through a few serious bouts of project inertia. I had to spend several months editing How to Be Australian. Then I had a two-month stretch of terrible fatigue in early 2020. (That happened right before covid hit, so I spent two months cancelling plans and staying home, and then as soon as I started to feel better, we were suddenly in lockdown.) Then I spent a couple of months doing book publicity, and then I had another 10-week stretch of fatigue.

After each of these long breaks, I really struggled to get back into my new manuscript. I felt distant from the project, and a bit overwhelmed, and there was always something else to keep me busy.

A standard creative writing tip is to write every day. For a long time, I disagreed with this. In fact, I was asked in a Q&A from the Wheeler Centre, “What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?” I said:

One common piece of advice is to write every day. This is nonsense. I’ve been writing seriously for the past ten years, and I’ve never managed to write every day. I have, however, interviewed more than 140 people, completed two Masters theses, written four manuscripts and published two of them. Most of that time I also had a day job, and for almost four years I’ve had a debilitating illness. Better advice: write when you can, write what excites you, keep going.

But.

In October last year, when I was really struggling to get into my manuscript draft for the fourth time, I was lucky enough to interview author Kate Mildenhall.

Kate talked about her writing process and the process journal she keeps, documenting all her thoughts around the project and its development as she goes. We also talked about writing practice, and writers who write every day.

So I decided to try it. Both the process journal and this crazy writing every day thing. I committed to working on the manuscript for at least 15 minutes every day for a month.

And seven months later, I’m still doing it, for one amazing reason: no more project inertia.

I still greatly prefer to sit down and work on my writing for at least an hour at a time, ideally two or three. I can’t get much done in 15 minutes.

But it is exceptionally helpful to create a habit of sitting down and the computer, opening the file, and getting my head into the manuscript. This means when I am able to sit down for a longer stretch, I can get straight into it.

I still miss one or two days a month, almost always because of the fatigue. But otherwise, I keep myself accountable in my process journal.

And I’ve made huge progress since that October commitment. Then I only had 45,000 words of a first draft. Now I’ve completed that draft, used it to develop a 15,000-word scene-by-scene outline, and am already 25,000 words into a new draft.

How to Be Australian Kalagian Blunt

So now I’ve started suggesting writing daily. Fifteen minutes a day can lead to a surprising amount of of progress, and spare a lot of the torture of project inertia.

I wish someone had told me that ten years ago!