For Writers

On Staying Focused

A few years ago, I was asked this question in one of my workshops:

question markSo my question is: I know you make a living by writing. So what are some tricks you’ve learned to help you schedule in the time to write and do you do anything before you start to write that helps you to be able to focus on your story and the characters?

My Answer:

I think that being able to focus on writing is something that will probably haunt me as long as I’m pursuing a career in writing. Maybe it’s that way for all of us. You may struggle for a while to focus, then hit a few years where it’s relatively easy to focus, and then swerve off track again and find yourself struggling.

We all know that many factors can affect our ability to focus – small children, teenage children, adult children, demanding husbands, people who think they need to eat three meals a day, friends with troubles they need to talk about, friends who unwittingly sabotage you, neighbors who don’t understand, neighbors with noisy dogs, aging parents, personal illness, family tragedies, national tragedies, finances….. It’s hard to keep focused, as we all know.

A few years ago, I was tremendously focused. I wrote through major surgery–not the surgery itself, of course, but the recovery–without batting an eye. I just put pillows over my incision and a laptop on top of that, and I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

I wrote through several moves. I wrote in spite of family illnesses, deaths and funerals. I was focused because I knew where I was going, and I knew what I needed to do to get there.

For the past few years, I’ve been struggling through a period of almost equally tremendous lack of focus–and that’s one reason this topic appealed to me so much. Maybe because it’s so important, and maybe just because I’ve been thinking about it so much and trying to figure out how to get my focus back.

I think the main thing that helps with me focus is to clearly identify my goals–goals, not dreams. We all know what our dreams are, but for most of us dreams are things we can’t control. You can’t set a goal of becoming published with a traditional publisher because you can’t accomplish that alone. But you can set a goal of being a writer because you make yourself into a writer, regardless of what anyone does with what you write.

My first clear goal was to finish that first manuscript because I was very successful at beginning stories and a dismal failure at finishing. I decided that I would write to the end of one book, no matter what. No matter if it smelled like rotten fish guts in a hot sun, I was going to finish the stupid thing. And it did, but I remained true to my goal and I finished. I wrote it by hand because I didn’t have a typewriter or a computer, but I finished it, by gum!

And suddenly, just knowing I could do that gave me a whole lot more focus.

Maybe it seems silly to some people, but it took me a LONG time to really know in my heart that wishing I was a writer and talking about being a writer didn’t make me one. Writing made me a writer. Persevering made me a writer. Learning my craft made me a writer.

DoorI also realized that nobody was going to knock on my door, announce that they’d heard I was a writer, and offer to buy books I hadn’t written. Starting and never finishing wasn’t going to get me where I wanted to go.

I also had to learn in my heart (not in my head, that’s the easy part) the difference between dreams and goals, the difference between those who want and those who do, the difference between those who wait for things to happen and those who make things happen. Maybe it’s possible for some people to stay focused without a clear goal in mind, but it isn’t possible for me. I know because I’ve tried — over and over and over again. It just doesn’t work, no matter how much I try to delude myself into believing that it does — and I DO try.

You have to know where you’re going so you can plan how to get there. Specific goals divided into pieces I can accomplish with just a little will-power and discipline is an absolute must for me.

Discipline is a biggie. I was talking to my daughter’s drama teacher at parent-teacher conferences last week, and she talked at length about how she focuses on teaching the discipline because until you know the discipline of your art–whatever that art may be–you can’t be free to express the art.

That struck a real chord with me and I’ve thought about it a lot since then. I’ve known for a long time that discipline is one of the biggest factors that used to keep me so focused back when I was writing three or four 350-page novels every year. It’s true of any art. The discipline comes first; the freedom of expression comes after that.

And let’s face facts. If you can’t find the discipline to write when there’s no pressure except what you create for yourself, you’re going to have a tough time finding it when you’re facing the pressure of writing a book under contract. Until you face that hurdle, you can’t even imagine how much pressure it is.

stonesI froze for months after I sold my first mystery and my first romance and suddenly had to write under contract. Signing those contracts didn’t fill me with the self-confidence I’d expected it to. Instead, I turned to stone. I found myself terrified that everyone would now realize what a fraud I really was.

So discipline. Anyone who wants a career as an author must learn how to write in spite of life because life will never slow down, give you a break, or become easier. Identify what distracts you and then figure out how to eliminate or minimize the distractions. If e-mail (or social media) is a distraction (she said looking guilty) then find a way to reduce the distraction. Don’t allow yourself to log on until after you’ve produced pages.

If the TV is a distraction, find a way to turn it off (there’s this little thing called a remote….) or figure out a place to write where you can’t hear it. If kids are a distraction, bribe them. If the phone is a distraction, turn off the ringtone or set up a signal your children and spouse can give you so you know it’s them calling and train yourself to ignore any ring that isn’t them.

Figure out exactly how important writing is to you. If all these other things (like e-mail and TV shows) continually get in the way, then have a really stern talk with yourself and figure out what you really want. Do you want to be a writer? Really? Are you ready to do everything that means?

Or do you just want to have written a book?

Because if you want to be a writer, then the act of actually writing must become a priority in your life and you must train yourself and the people around you to accept that, even if they don’t understand it.

If, on the other hand, you want to have written a book but the act of actually writing it holds no appeal–well, that’s something you need to know.

Updated Answer:

Since writing that original answer, I’ve encountered more road blocks and more speed bumps, and I’ve had more of a struggle with staying focused than ever before.

Once I thought it was all a case of mind over matter.

Now I know that some things in life are way too big to think your way around. Sometimes you have to let your mind grapple with survival–your own or that of a loved one–and there may be no room for writing or creating when that happens.

Now I know that if you’re battling an illness yourself, your mind may not be able to get around even the simplest matter, like where you put your keys or how to find a mechanic to work on your car, much less creating an entire world out of nothing.

Now I know that sometimes it’s not enough to want something desperately. Sometimes, you need to take a step back and let yourself heal.

If you’re there, you know it. Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Be kind to yourself. Be patient. Be gentle until the crisis has passed.

If your health is good and you haven’t just gone through an internal, emotional earthquake, and you’re still having trouble writing, consider the possibility that you’re approaching your work from the wrong angle. Wrong characters? Wrong plot? Wrong location? Is the motivation strong enough? Is the conflict realistic?

Consider the possibility that you’ve made everybody too nice and you’re boring yourself. It can happen. Trust me. Or maybe you’re making your characters too unrealistically awful, without any redeeming social value.

Consider the possibility that your characters aren’t emotionally invested in the plot you’ve created, even if it seems like a perfectly good plot to you. Remember that absolutely nothing you’ve planned is so wonderful you can’t afford to toss it and replace it with something that works.

Consider the possibility that you’re letting fear get the best of you. In that case, put your head down and get to work.

(See tomorrow’s blog post for more on this subject)


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