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 what 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?