A Trick That Will Tame Your Crazy Writing Stress

by James Scott Bell

Some time ago the astute Kristine Kathryn Rusch posted about what she calls The Popcorn Kitten Problem. It’s based on the video below. Take a look at a bit of it:

Now that is what an indie writer’s mind can often feel like. So much freedom! So many things to write! And yet so many marketing hats to put on, and a ton of petty tasks that seem to repeat, over and over again.

Lest ye think this is just an indie conundrum, it’s also increasingly a picture of a tradpub author’s brain, because so much of the marketing onus now falls upon the writer. Publishers are insisting upon “platform” before they offer contracts. When a book is released the harried in-house publicity person (if there is one) has little time for any single author. So you better be out there doing a hundred different things…every day!

If you don’t watch out the resulting stress might grab your good endorphins like an amped-up Conor McGregor and slam them to mat.


Enough of that and you could end up tired or with a chronic case of the blues.

Here’s how a typical popcorn kitten scenario might play out:

You’re writing your WIP, an essential scene where your protagonist has to apply for a new job. In your pre-planning you decided that job would be as a hairdresser. Or, since you are a notorious pantser, you came up with that on the spot.

You don’t know all that much about the hairdressing business. If you are a wise writer, you put a mark in your manuscript that will tell you to do the research later. Then you’ll write as much of the scene as you can, based on what you know about human nature and job interviews—and if you don’t know about either of these, you should quit writing and join the Navy. Then get out and write a novel about the Navy.

Instead, you decide to leave your WIP and jump on the internet for some “quick” research. As you look at search results, you see a book called What Every Writer Needs To Know About Writing Hairdresser Interview Scenes, and you click over to Amazon to check it out. Seems reasonable at $2.99, but just to make sure you don’t spend your discretionary Starbucks money like a fool, you download the free sample.

But while you are on Amazon you see a recommendation for a mystery series about hairdressers. You know the author. She’s someone you met at Bouchercon. You hop over to the book page and see 125 five-star reviews and a rank of 1,286 in the paid Kindle store. At a price of $4.99. What? Your self-published stand-alone mystery is only $2.99 and it’s ranked 423,679.

You wonder what this other author has that you don’t. So you look at her Amazon author page and check out her covers. Wow. Great! Your cover was done by your cousin Axel, a budding commercial artist who lives with his poet girlfriend, Moonglow. Well, you admit, you got what you paid for.

You do a little more research and find out who did this author’s covers. You check out the artist’s portfolio online and what he charges. Whoa! That’s a healthy chunk!

So you do a little research on how to judge the worth of a book cover. There are many blog posts on this, and you read a few of them. Something else catches your eye on the last one. It’s about the importance of book description copy in selling a book. You recall that when you did yours you had a nagging suspicion it was rather plain vanilla, but you were anxious to get the book out because everyone in your critique group was making money self-publishing and you didn’t want to be the chump standing on the dock as the ship took off for the Bahamas with all your friends.

You go back to Amazon and find a book called Book Description Copy for Former Chumps Like Yourself, and you download that sample. You read that sample, and from the Table of Contents figure out some of what your own description was missing, so you open up a new doc and start writing afresh.

Ten minutes into that a thought pops into your head. You don’t want to have your protagonist apply for a hairdresser job. No! She should be an insurance investigator!

So you hop back on Google looking for “How to become an insurance investigator.” Lo and behold, there’s a book called Insurance Investigation for Former Chumps Like Yourself. The author has a website. You go to the website and see he has a blog. Gold!

Which reminds you, you were going to try to do some guest posts for various blogs when your book came out. That’s publicity! Where was that list again? You search for it … you need to send out some emails!

You look at the clock. Uh-oh, it’s almost time to pick up Lydia from school, and what have you done on your WIP? Fifty-seven words! The last word you typed was hairdresser

I’m sure you can relate. Just as a Molinist theologian can contemplate an infinite number of contingent realities, so you, the writer, have an infinite number of ways you can get distracted, going off in different directions based upon a single pop of a cerebral synapse, one little soft-pawed frolic of a popcorn kitten.

So what’s the cure?

Here is a simple trick that can change your life. All it requires is some paper and a little mental discipline.

I call it Nab, Stab and Tab.

First step is to nab that thought. Recognize it for what it is—a siren’s song to leave whatTenniel-Cards you’re focused on and slide into Alice’s rabbit hole. You might even say it out loud. “My crazy mind wants me to go on Google right now!”

Next step, stab. You want to nail the thought to your desk so it doesn’t hop around in your head. You do this by writing it down. That’s all. I have scratch paper nearby for just this purpose. So in the scenario above, if I suddenly remembered I want to explore guest blogging, I’d write guest blogging on the paper.

Then I immediately forget about it and get back on task! This is the key moment, the forgetting. Get back to work on your WIP!

Finally, when I come up for air and have some time, I’ll give each thought a tab—I assign it a level of importance, using the A, B, C method (which I detail in my monograph, How to Manage the Time of Your Life).

A is for highly important, must-do.

B is for what I’d like to do.

C is for items that can wait.

If there is more than one A item, I prioritize these with A1, A2. Same with any Bs and Cs.

Next, I estimate how much time each task will take. I use quarter hour increments. So a task might take me .25 hour or .5 or a full 1 or 2. Whatever.

Finally, I put the A tasks into my weekly schedule in priority order. If there’s enough time, I’ll put in the Bs. The Cs I usually put off.

This may sound complicated, but it takes only a few seconds to nab and stab. And only a few minutes to tab and schedule.

Yet the benefits are profound. Less stress, more focus on you primary work.

The kittens will start to purr, and then they’ll go to sleep.

And you’ll sleep better, too.

So can you relate to kittens bouncing around in your mind? How do you usually handle it?

41 thoughts on “A Trick That Will Tame Your Crazy Writing Stress

  1. Oh, absolutely. I’ve wasted more time with one idea after another, or by researching one topic that leads to more and more ideas and more and more research. Though admittedly, research is one of my favorite parts. But unless I do all my research while planning my story, it’s a never-ending time suck. I often write comments in the margins of Word. Things like: check this fact, or add forensic procedure. This way I’ll know come editing time that I need to delve deeper.

    • I get distracted by research too–but that in itself creates a big mental argument for me because then I get to thinking, what if I don’t do the research now and what I find later drastically changes some aspect of the story? ARGH!!!!

      I have a first draft of a novel that I did sit down and write without taking time to research because I simply didn’t have the time it required and that draft came out very weak. However, this should not be a winning argument for me to do popcorn kitties, because reality is I have to do several drafts of a story anyhow.

      But oh how the mind can argue.

  2. Thanks for mentioning the comments feature in Word, Sue. That’s a great way to make notes and keep on writing. I use Scrivener and it has a “document notes” feature that attaches to a particular scene, as well as “general notes” for the whole book. When I do get around to some research on the net, I’m glad I can highlight text and send it back to Scrivener, where it’s safely logged in a research folder.

  3. So thankful for your advice and the verification that my “writer brain” is not the only one that functions this way! Note: I’m disciplining myself not to check out all the other adorable Popcorn Kittens videos that YouTube is tempting me with.

  4. You’ve pretty much described many of my writing moments. I’ve always been a pantser, which probably opens me up to far more of these temptations than a plotter might have. With that in mind, I’m committed to switching it up with my current WIP and doing considerably more plotting and research prior to actually writing.

    Oh, and popcorn kittens? Is that like popcorn chicken? 🙂

    • And Tom, let me mention Scrivener again. For the pantsing brain, it’s a great way to capture ideas and “set them aside” for later organization.

      Re: your last comment, I am forwarding it to PETA.

      • Thanks, James.

        I do use Scrivener, but haven’t trained myself to set aside those “ooohhh, what if…” thoughts yet. In fact, I tend to jump on the Internet and import a bunch of web pages into Scrivener to “research later.” Uh-huh. I don’t think I’ll ever be a plotter, but I’m hoping I can at least get the big ideas settled before diving in.

        All the best to PETA.

        • Speaking for myself, Tom, and observing my own mind over the years, whenever I’m tempted to go do research during my writing time, it’s almost always because I’m looking to put off something challenging in the writing. Thus, I fool myself with the idea that I’m really “working” on my WIP, honest!, as I play on the net.

  5. Great information. I nearly always give in and do the research right in the middle of writing. I’m using Scrivener for the WIP, but haven’t used the notes function. Something new. Scheduling time would also be something new. Have to try that. Thank you.

    • Lance, I am looking at my scratch paper from yesterday. I wrote down four items. Two Bs, one A, and one C, along with their time estimates. Just that much was nice and relaxing…I only have one A task to schedule. That’ll get done, and the Bs as well. The C I don’t need to worry about.

  6. Kitten dreams hit when I’m overwhelmed. Then I know I have to focus and get something off my desk. Nab, Stab, and Tab, I like it. I also like sprinting. I can do anything for an hour. 🙂

    • Lynn, those hour-long sprints are great. Have you heard of the Pomodoro method? Sprint and break, sprint and break — usually 25-30 minute sprints. There’s something to that.

  7. You’ve been spying on me! 😎 That describes it exactly.

    It’s jumping around to different tasks–research, articles/books on writing, but also different writing projects. I’m currently spinning my wheels because I have one book series that it makes the most sense for me to be working on because it is the furthest along, yet I keep getting drawn back to another book series that I really, really want to work on. The result is no forward progress on EITHER one. It is maddening.

    Throw in a whole lot of other stressors and it seems like the Goliath I can’t defeat. But I must if I’m ever going to see results. And oh boy, the mental resistance when I read things about prioritization and using descending order of priority tricks. It’s like needing to give yourself a mental kick in the head.

    • BK, I hear you on the series problem. I have it right now. I’m editing one series and have started another book, but a great new series character popped up a few weeks ago and won’t let go. What I did with this latter idea is put it into “development,” the way a movie company does it. Will I “green light” the project? If I do, it won’t be on a whim, but because I’ve done this initial work.

      Just start with Nab and Stab….write those things down on paper, then push the paper aside and write, damn you! That much will help.

  8. Jim, great post.

    Attention Deficit Disorder for writers – Hyperactivity (the rabbit holes) leads to Inactivity (not getting anything done).

    I use Scrivener and the document notes to remind me that I want to change, add, or research something.

    And as for the priority notes, I use a “floating” system. I use scrap paper and add anything that I need to do later. Then I constantly rewrite (prioritize) the list. What ever floats to the top will get done. Much of what sinks to the bottom will never get done. Life is just too busy.

    I love the “Nab, Stab, and Tab.” You said the key moment was the forgetting about it once you have the task nabbed and stabbed. Could the forgetting step be called “dab” – wiping the thought from the present consciousness? Then you would have NAB, STAB, DAB, AND TAB.

    Thanks for your great ideas on efficiency.

    • LOL, Steve. As someone who studied comedy writing, I usually adhere to the Rule of Threes. Feel free to use Dab, but that word puts me in mind of when they gave electroshock to McMurphy Cuckoo’s Nest, as they spread conductor gel on his temples. “A little dab’ll do ya,” he says. Eek.

  9. I don’t have popcorn kittens, I AM a popcorn kitten! Even in conversation I’m usually spewing out an intensely energetic torrent of words and loosely connected ideas, pausing only when my brain can’t retrieve the best, most clever descriptor to engage my listener, who is usually looking at me with a slightly stunned expression after a few minutes. “Wow, you know…a lot,” someone said to me yesterday, when I paused for breath. That’s when I knew I needed to reign in my inner kitten. I focused on my listener long enough to pick out another thread of conversation wool, and Then I’m off again, going popcorn on THAT topic.

    Fun post today, Jim! You had me at the kitten video.

  10. JIm, once again, I appreciate the practicality of your writing wisdom. It’s so easy to get distracted, especially when writing a difficult scene or challenging twist in the story.
    Scrivener is a great tool in compiling and orgainzing those research items pulled outside of my writing time. For someone who started as a pantser, I find it invaluable and using it is a great discipline in keeping me focused.
    For those of us who have to squeeze time after work, your NAB, STAB and TAB is a great way to manage the minutes in the evening. Now if I could only find a way to keep that song from bouncing around in my head when I get still . . .

    Great post!

  11. Love this post, Jim, and it’s true for all writers, indie or trad. As a former reporter, I have a bias toward actually talking to real people rather than getting the info third-hand in a book, filtered through another writer. Talk to a hair dresser. Spend a day at the salon. Experience the sights, smells and voices. It makes for a better book.
    PS: I’m a sucker for cat videos.

  12. Great post, Jim! Nab, stab, and tab sounds like just the ticket to deal with those pesky popcorn kittens. My own approach for this year is to list the deadlines for each project, by each step–outline book 1 by X date, draft by Y date, revise and submit to editor by z date, etc. I put together a spreadsheet in December with all those deadlines, printed it out and put it up on the wall in my writing room.

    So far, so good!

    • That’s a great way to do it, Dale. I always used to put my printed deadline calendar on my office door. I do it on computer now, but I’m thinking of going back to the paper and tape method. There is something about seeing it there all the time that is motivating.

  13. I’m not off-topic, Jim. I’m right at the cusp of being on the edge of being-off topic. Well, I may be off-topic.

    I have wanted to get into Scriviner. But ever since I financed Santa’s entire trip the other day, I’m . . . Well, you know.

    But I keep having friends and correspondents talk about Google Docs. I tried them. I even sent them to a friend to see what she thinks of them, and I asked her advice because I can’t yet get the hang of how to do the indent. Oh, I get indents. But I have to tab first to the margin. Then the indents comes out perfect. To quote The Bobcat: “I’m soooooo confused.”

    But the simplicity of forwarding the document to others via my GMail is really great. That opens up a lot of easy short story logistics, I think.

    Any opinion about Google Docs? (And, by the way, you’re one up on me if you first thought about it has nothing to do with the practice of medicine.)

    And so to church.

    • Jim, they serve different functions. Scrivener is for creating, drafting, organizing, compiling. Google Docs is for sharing, which helps if you’re collaborating. You can easily compile a Word doc via Scrivener and then upload.

  14. Ha-ha, you nailed it, Jim. I easily succumb to distraction and love to work on ten things at once, so my salvation is in notes and lists.

    As you suggest, I just jot down reminders on a piece of paper on my desk. Later I’ll prioritize all the bits and put ideas where they need to go. I keep numerous Manila folders at hand to stuff notes into. It works great. When I’m ready to tackle that project or blog post or marketing task, I open my folder and dig in.

    Thanks for the fun ride through the modern writer’s brain!

  15. Can I be a slightly dissenting voice? I am a popcorn kitten…it takes so little to distract me. And like your system (gonna steal that!), I’ve come up with tricks to discipline myself. (Post-Its! New Year’s Resolution to write everyday! Going to cafes with no wifi!) I also have a co-author who sends me emails that lovingly remind me to GET OFF THE FRIGGIN INTERNET AND FINISH YOUR CHAPTER!

    But I find that sometimes, popcorning around has led me to some of my best ideas. I would not have found my dual protag if I hadn’t been doing some desultory research one day and found a great site on the secret lives of skip tracers. I wouldn’t have found the key to my victim in my WIP if I hadn’t gotten distracted one day and started Street Viewing around Grand Rapids Michigan where I found the very lakeside cottage where the dead pastor lived, and which, once I saw it (dwarfed by its McMansion neighbors), told me how this man died spiritually before he was murdered.

    Lord knows you can’t let the road-not-planned lure you off into the woods, but sometimes it can lead to some really good vistas. You just have to, as you say Jim, eventually get back to the real road that actually leads to a destination. I malinger too long in the pretty woods at times…

    • I hear you, Kris. In fact, I encourage a weekly creativity time, where you let the kittens out to play. My main concern here is when mostly non-writing related issues coming up while you’re doing some productive work.

      The most embarrassing kitten issue is when you’re out to dinner with a friend or loved one, and your mind starts playing the what if game with the server or bartender. Some conversationalist you are!

  16. Scott, you’ve introduced my nab stab problem: under which tab. A, B, or C do I put. “Lose 6 or so hours trying to figure out Scrivener.” Even downloading the free trial to my Mac took hours.

    • Tab that with an A for “Aw, man!”

      But do schedule some time to look at tutorials and incrementally increase your knowledge of Scrivener. Don’t try to learn everything at once … do a few things, as I’ve mentioned, and let the rest flow as needed.

  17. Dear James,
    I see myself in your blog. lol

    I am working on my WIP which has quite a bit of technology in it. And I found that I got stuck when I didn’t know enough about the technology and wham-o – writer’s block. So, then I felt like I had to stop and do some more research, but then yes, you are right, it totally took me off my work, but for me, weeks. And this starts a bad cycle.

    I thought, what is going on? I have the story in my mind, why would this block me, but it did.
    I read several authors on how not doing enough research up front can create writer’s block.

    So, I love the nab, stab and Tab, but how do you balance that with research?

    Or are you saying you just tab it, and do all your research afterward?

    Thank you.

    • That’s a great question, Janet. And I think the answer is (putting on my lawyer hat) it depends.

      If some unknown subject is going play a major role in the novel, then up front research seems the best course, in no small part because it can provide lots of plot ideas.

      But if it’s research needed to render a scene authentic, and it’s something that comes up AS WE WRITE, then I advise making a mark there and doing the best you can. Guess. Make stuff up. Sometimes you can keep the made up stuff because it just sounds good.

      The point is, don’t let that little distraction tear you away from the writing. Later you can devote some real time to the research. By writing the scene, you’ll know what to look for, and what questions to ask.

      Hope that helps!

  18. Good stuff. Genius to tie to a cat video, they never miss the mark.

    Among this smorgasbord of good ideas, one of them hit me and worthy of a repeat here: always keep some scratch paper handy. Over the course of a year you’ll end up tossing most of them, but among the survivors might just be the key to a future scene, an entire change of course for your story, or the seed of an idea that could just become your next or next-to-next project.

    Those cats have it right. Stuff is always jumping around in our heads (as you say, if they aren’t then the Navy has a deck for you to swab), so the trick is managing them before they take over, well, everything. When the cats are steering the ship, even the Navy can’t help you.

  19. I kind of always feel that if I’m that easily distracted (which happens regularly) then I’m possibly on the wrong track with what I’m writing. I mean, why is my character interviewing at all? She’s a much better candidate for having her own company and that would lend itself much better to my story line anyway. It might take a while to realize this. Zentangle helps. Reading helps. Not thinking about my WIP helps. Writing prompts help.

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