How to keep your focus

We are a distracted society. Amid phones in our hip pockets, movie must-sees, and political blather, it’s hard to concentrate on any one thing. No wonder we lose the thread of our novel in progress with the constant interruptions of texts, twitter and TV.

Here are some of my strategies for keeping focused on the novel.

Writing is not a dinner party.

If you mean to be a professional writer, prepare to give up a couple things. You’re going to have to make time somehow, and you were already busy. So what’s going to go? Good Morning America? Political blogs? Two TV nights out of seven?

Up to you. Decide now. With a nod to Mao Zedong, (“Revolution is not a dinner party”) we can’t find our focus if we can’t find the time.

Day management.

The day is yours. Manage it.

  • Keep a schedule. Schedules free you from the insidious time waster of trying to decide what to do next. Start with: Butt in chair by ______ a.m.
  • Don’t answer the phone or look to see who’s calling during work time. I read that it takes 20 minutes to regain your same level of concentration after even a short interruption.
  • Enlist your family in respecting your schedule. A hard one that I finally did was to ask my husband not to speak to me in my den when he comes home for lunch!
  • Spend the last fifteen minutes of your writing time organizing your desk for the next day. Fend off the unsettling threat of chaos by controlling clutter .

Novel management.

Use big-picture tactics to make sure you can see the forest for the trees.

  • Give your MC deep and urgent goals. Make her the sort of person who stays on task, who Must, because of some unchanging aspect of themselves.
  • Plan for a highly dramatic climactic scene. Write to that scene. The whole book is a build-up to this moment. Use it to focus your efforts.
  • Before writing the novel:
    • Write an outline. Rewrite until it’s so good you can’t wait to write the novel. When feeling lost in the novel, read outline to stay clear on where you are in the story.
    • Chart your major scenes in linear fashion. Show story arc with Sections like Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr/Hero. Know the essence of each growth sequence for your MC.
  • While writing the novel:
    • Keep a sequential scene list. Write a 3-4 line summary of what’s in the scene you wrote today. Make notes in pencil on the scene list of things to change.
    • Avoid feedback during your first draft. People’s opinions will contaminate your focus. I know you don’t believe me. You want feedback, crave it. It feels open, fair, reassuring. I assure you, it won’t be.

Read that last bullet point again. The biggest ways we lose focus are to start second-guessing ourselves because of anxiety, confusion, and reader feedback. (If you are an experienced novelist, it’s maybe OKĀ  to share first draft material with a trusted writers’ group. You are hard to confuse and wisely tolerant of irrelevant reactions to your book. You’ve read your own reviews and know what opinions are worth!)

Related blogs:

Writers groups.

Protecting your story.

You can’t give it away.

Management and tracking.

Five tools for novel continuity.

On work schedules.

2 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    Ah, how I wish I had heeded that last bullet point. I’ve heard that advice before, but disregarded it. The result was a spiral of anxiety and worry about my story that prevented me from working on it for months. Even knowing that I should disregard some of the comments didn’t help me stop worrying about them. I hope other readers follow your advice, even if it they don’t feel like they need it.

  2. Kay says:

    I still get tripped up by this one. Sometimes I think I write this blog to remind myself of best practices. Second guessing is poison, but “a little” feedback may be helpful. The evil truth is that it’s hard to control whether you get the bad stuff or the good when you leak your ms. early.

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