Focusing on the Writing
by Terry Odell
I was supposed to be on a photo tour in Croatia today, but that’s been put on hold, so let’s talk about dealing with writing routines in times of distraction.
I’ve talked to a lot of people about how they’re having trouble focusing on their writing. Distractions abound, and the writing gets set aside. Guilt sets in.
It’s okay to be distracted, to flounder about. Writing less is acceptable. For me, I find the following techniques helpful. I’ve used them when coming back from vacations, when it takes a while to find my writing groove, and they work as well for me in these crazy times.
Get rid of chores that will nag.
If you are going to worry about cleaning house, paying bills, going through email, take the time to get the critical things dealt with. Otherwise you’re not going to be focused on your writing. If you’re a ‘write first’ person, don’t open anything other than your word processing program.
Do critiques for my crit group.
This might seem counterproductive, but freeing your brain from your own plot issues and looking at someone else’s writing can help get your brain into thinking about the craft itself.
Work on other ‘writing’ chores.
For me, it can be blog posts, or forum participation. Just take it easy on social media time.
Deal with critique group feedback.
Normally, I’m many chapters ahead of my subs to my crit group. If I start with their feedback on earlier chapters, I get back into the story, but more critically than if I simply read the chapters. And they might point out plot holes that need to be dealt with. Fixing these issues helps bring me up to speed on where I’ve been. It also gets me back into the heads of my characters.
Read the last chapter/scene you wrote.
Do basic edits, looking for overused words, typos, continuity errors. This is another way to start thinking “writerly” and it’s giving you that running start for picking up where you left off.
Consult any plot notes.
For me, it’s my idea board, since I don’t outline. I jot things down on sticky notes and slap them onto a foam core board. Filling in details in earlier chapters also helps immerse you in the book.
Figure out the plot points for the next scene.
Once you know what has to happen, based on the previous step, you have a starting point.
And don’t worry if things don’t flow immediately. Get something on the page. Fix it later.
What about you? Any tips and tricks you’ve found when outside world distractions keep you from focusing?
And one more thing. On Friday, May 1st, you have a chance to Ask Me Anything. I’ll be on a Draft2Digital Spotlight podcast talking with Mark Leslie Lefevbre. It’ll be broadcast on YouTube and Facebook. You can bookmark the links and you might be able to set up a reminder.
Time: 10 Pacific, 11 Mountain, 12 Central, Noon Eastern. It’ll be my first video appearance. Yikes! The program is 45 minutes long, with the last 15 minutes for Q&A. I hope to meet you there.
Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
great post, Terry. I use a lot of these tricks myself. And when they don’t work, I just start writing something. Anything. I find that usually gets past my initial sticky spot and usually also unlocks something unexpected!
Thanks, Karla. Unlocking the basement door to see what the boys have been coming up with often takes many different keys.
Terry, your column nudged a synapse that brought back something I remember from LaMott’s Bird by Bird. One of her great pieces of advice was, if you’re stuck, just do “a one-inch picture frame’s worth of writing.” (This may not be her exact words–it’s what made it into my notes on the book.) I think she’s saying that if you focus on one small aspect of your project, settle for writing that “one inch picture frame of material,” it can help you get unstuck.
I’m not a big believer in writer’s block. No one “has to write”–well, maybe if someone’s gone and gotten themself locked into a contract and a deadline. But generally, I think one “needs to write” only if one has something to write. I suspect writer’s block tends to mean “I think I should write but I don’t really have anything to write.”
Be that as it may, LaMott’s the advice can help in the kind of distraction-situation you’re talking about.
Regarding the “distraction situation”: I think it’s more than “distraction.” With everything up in the air and chaos at the center, the situation seems to create a form of “individual anomie.” The kinds of routines you suggest here can fill some of the anomic void.
Eric, yes. I don’t think of the current situation as creating writer’s “block” — more like potholes and speedbumps in the road. I like the idea of focusing on one tiny aspect of the work. Measuring success in smaller increments can help boost confidence and get things moving again.
Great suggestions, Terry.
I’ve been doing “literary housekeeping” rather than dusting the house. Cleaning up little tasks that get shoved to the side.
Alfred Hitchcock rejected a short story that I’d forgotten I’d submitted. Ran it through another editorial scrubbing then submitted it to an anthology.
Critique groups are a lifeline right now. Mine has helped me polish blurbs and find a good title for the fourth book in my series to be published this summer.
You mention critiquing others’ stories, which is a great way to focus on craft. I’m beta-reading a couple of manuscripts. Figuring out how to improve them always teaches me lessons on how to improve my own.
I’d been putting off a phone interview with the Native American subject of an article with a May 8 deadline. My reluctance stemmed from not knowing how to start the story (probably Covid 19 distraction). Last night, I finally called him. We had the most delightful conversation that opened floodgates. After we hung up, I drafted 500 words in a half hour.
I also dusted off a short story for an anthology. I’d written it over ten years ago, and had done nothing with it. In re-reading, it –as my daughter would say–“didn’t suck” so I figured I had nothing to lose by submitting it. It brought my writing brain back into play.
So glad you finally made that call. I’m a real coward about picking up the phone, but once I do, it’s amazing how much ‘fun’ it can be. And how helpful people want to be.
Distractions can be bothersome. When I get distracted, I pause and pray.
I’m glad you found your method. Thanks for chiming in.
If dusting, cleaning, and organizing were only my gifts…yeah, no!
I do most of the things you listed, Terry, but if all else fails to immerse my brain in my project…
I take my rather large German Shepherd for a walk through orchard country. It never fails to center me on what’s important…the sun-laden hills across our valley, the bumblebee at my feet, and the sounds of tractors and mowers grooming the trees for another bumper crop. Against the backdrop of the orchard workers calling to each other and yelling good morning to me, this is real life, and it will go on.
I get back to my desk with a fresh cup of coffee and fresh eyes on my MS.
Best life there is, yo?
I agree, and our dog insists we get up and go somewhere every day. Our rural neighborhood with its views of Pikes Peak, the aspens starting to bud, the wildflowers popping up, all add in painting the bigger picture.
When I was in college, my mom had some serious health issues, and I had to learn to compartmentalize my mental/emotional space to be able to continue with my education. It’s a skill that has helped me through the best and worst of times. I kept saying to myself, “No, I’m not thinking about that and worrying right now. I’ll do that later. Right now, I need to focus on this task.” At a certain point, the inner dialog wasn’t needed.
And if anyone is wondering, my mom died almost 50 years later although she suffered back issues for the rest of her life.
Marilynn, my mom’s 94 and lives in another state. My brother’s closer, but still almost 8 hours away by car. I can understand the need to be able to say, “Nothing I can do from here” and accept that her caregivers are doing their jobs. (And that she doesn’t keep trying to ‘fire’ them because she claims she feels fine.)
I remember the revelation I had some years ago (but embarrassingly well into my writing career) when I would be distracted or just plain stuck. Almost every time, I kept telling myself “I just need to get to this point” because after that I knew exactly what had to happen in the book. And if I could just slog through and get there, it would all roll out easily because the scenes from that point were so clear in my mind. And then one day it hit me…why didn’t I just write that crystal clear part now? At least I’d be writing. Almost every time, doing that unlocked it all, because I would realize why I was hung up. I was stalled because something was missing earlier, something that needed to happen so this could happen, hadn’t happened. (And this is why I love English, because that sentence–hopefully–makes sense!)
So my advice to stuck writers is, if you’ve got a scene somewhere ahead in your story that you know has to be there, write that. Chances are decent it will help unlock that door you’re hammering on.
Good advice, and maybe I’ll try it today. I know where I’m going, but the route seems to be barricaded.
We write even when we’re not writing… I do that a lot in bed! Before going to sleep and during these 30 minutes before getting up. I imagine bits of dialogue, scenes at random that take place further down in the story. I revisit the next night and write the stuff down if it sticks. The benefits of telling yourself a story are multiple. It helps you fall asleep in the company of your characters and they stay in your head all through the night – God knows what they do in there! Or, it keeps you awake wondering what happens next and that can be fun too. These days, the biggest benefit is that the story might elbow out the raging anxieties and the news clutter. Apart from that, I decided to take a class online (I can’t travel, so…) and I found this blog. Very cool place!
Welcome, Martine! So glad you found The Kill Zone.
Whenever I finish a chapter, I print it out and take it to bed to read. I also do a lot of “head writing.”
Your process sounds a lot like what James Scott Bell calls “The Boys in the Basement” who work when you’re asleep. Or not around.
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This is a great post as I’m not only dealing with the virus but a major problem with our nonprofit. And that has really knocked my legs out from under me. But this too shall pass and tomorrow I will write. 🙂
Oh, and I think it should be 11 Eastern for your Ask Me Anything. The only reason I noticed is that I have so much trouble figuring out how to go from West Coast to East Coast time wise…
The host gave me the time for where I live, which is 11 Mountain. It better be! I think their program is set to adjust to what ever time zone you live in.
Mine says “live in 5 hours” and it’s 6 am as I write this.
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