Saturday, April 11, 2015

Decisions, Decisions . . .

Recently, I had the honor of being a guest on Don Smith’s radio show at my alma mater, Wright State University. Afterward, I accompanied Don to a capstone creative writing course he was taking, and I had the privilege of answering questions from the students and teachers for an hour or so. Unknown to any of them – at least, I hope it was unknown – I had a splitting headache and wouldn’t have minded if one of the students had pulled out a 9mm, pressed the muzzle against my head, pulled the trigger, and put me out of my misery. I managed to soldier on and hopefully make at least a modicum of sense as I answered questions, but for all I know, I might have been speaking in tongues.

One of the students asked me how I managed to write so much, so fast. (There are plenty of days when I don’t feel like a fast writer, and days when I don’t write at all – usually because I’m grading papers for a class – but I did my best to answer the question.)

“I’m good at making decisions,” I said.

I went on to explain that, in a sense, you can view writing as nothing more than a series of decisions. This idea, not that idea. This word, not that word. (At least, I’m good at making writing decisions. When I’m looking at the menu at the Cheesecake Factory, that’s a different story.) Later, after my time with the class was over and I’d swallowed some Extra-Strength Tylenol I’d found at the college bookstore, I started thinking. What if a lot of the difficulties people have with writing are actually problems with decision-making?

A couple months earlier, I’d read an interesting article on about something called decision fatigue. Stated simply, after an individual makes a number of decisions over time – say during the course of a workday – the quality of those decisions deteriorates. Have you heard the story of how Albert Einstein wore the same kind of clothes every day so he wouldn’t have to expend any mental energy deciding what to wear each morning? Albert understood decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue can affect writers in a number of ways. If you’re writing over a long period of time – say four or five hours – you may find yourself having difficulty getting the words to keep coming. Or maybe you keep writing, but you’re making what, in retrospect, are questionable plot and character choices. Or maybe your brain seizes up and refuses to produce any more text at all.

Most writers have a day job. (I’m a college writing professor.) And if you’ve been making decisions at your job all day – many of which might have been mentally or emotionally taxing – it’s difficult to come home, sit down at your computer, and start making more decisions as you write. So difficult, that maybe you can’t write at all. And the next thing you know, you think you have writer’s block.

So here are some tips to help you head off decision fatigue or deal with it when it rears its ugly head.

Write Before You Need to Make Non-Writing Decisions

This might mean writing before you head off for your day job in the morning or before you decide to work on your home-improvement project or head off to the grocery to stock up on supplies. In my case, it could be all of the above, as well as writing before I sit down to grade papers. The fewer decisions you have to make before you write, the better.

Write in Smaller Chunks of Time and Take Breaks

Instead of writing in marathon sessions lasting several hours, write in one or two hour chunks with thirty minute breaks in between. Studies have shown that even short breaks can help combat decision fatigue. Whatever you do during your break, keep it as decision-free as possible. Don’t shift gears and start working on a different project, don’t answer emails, don’t hop on social media (you’ll end up making decisions about what to post in response to some idiot who’s said something stupid to piss you off.) And take your break away from your writing space, so your mind’s not tempted to keep thinking about your story.

Develop Character and Setting Descriptions Before You Write

If you don’t have a clear notion who your characters are or what settings they live in and move though, you’ll have to make decisions about those aspects when you reach them in your story and fabricate details as you write. But if you write character profiles and setting descriptions, you’ll have details like a character’s eye color, the car he or she drives, and what his or her office at work looks like in hand before you sit down to compose text. You’ll have a wealth of decisions pre-made so you won’t have to waste mental energy as you write scenes.

Outlining Before You Write

Even if you’re normally averse to outlining, consider it as a way of avoiding decision fatigue. You can have a full outline that details every story beat or a more general outline that only gives the story’s basic events. Either approach will help reduce the number of decisions you have to make while actively composing text. I use outlines like this all the time, but I also use smaller, simpler outlines that I create before it’s time to compose a particular scene. That way, I am focused on writing the scene without having to stop and try to figure out what happens next.

To Wrap Up

We need to create a writing space for ourselves, and I’m not just talking about physical space. We need mental and emotional space, and we need time, the most precious and hard-to-come by commodity of all. We need our minds to be at their most creative and productive, and learning how to avoid or at least decrease decision fatigue can go a long way toward making that happen.

And it’s not a bad idea to keep some Tylenol on hand, too. Just in case.


My latest novel out is Dream Stalkers, the sequel to Night Terrors, is out from Angry Robot Books. Audra Hawthorne and her psychotic clown partner Mr. Jinx are back battling nightmares made flesh, fighting to save both the waking and dream worlds, and trying not to kill each other in the process.

My first short story collection All Too Surreal is now available for the first time as an ebook from Crossroad Press. My other two collections – in case you’re curious – are Broken Shadows and Bone Whispers, and of course they’re still available, too.

My young adult horror novel Dark Art is still out from Past Curfew Press. A young artist’s anger fuels his drawings, bringing them to dangerous life – and none is more deadly than the being called Shrike.

Dream Stalkers:

Night Terrors:

All Too Surreal:

Dark Art:

1 comment:

  1. Decision fatigue. Thanks for putting a name to this. I've had a chronic case, and I think it started with my divorce. For almost 30 years I shared decisions with someone else. Or let him make certain ones so I didn't have to. But as a single person, it's all on me. Last year I both bought a new house and started a new teaching job just a few weeks later, and it really hit once I got moved in and unpacked just enough to live. My writing suffered the most, I think. I'm slowly dragging myself up out of it, but maybe putting a name to it will help me come up with strategies to cope better. Thanks.

    And congratulations all all those publications.