Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Staying Focused as a Writer Printout page

*Feel free to copy and paste into a Word document to print out for use in your writers group for discussion purposes. Just please keep my copyright in place. Thank you.*

Staying Focused as a Writer
S.L. Bartlett’s Writers Group Discussion Printout
©2013 S.L. Bartlett

This is the greatest issue with most writers. Not only do you work on your own, but you have no one to answer to but yourself, and that can be a problem because most people, not only writers, do not put themselves on a high priority.

But this particular discipline is not an option; you have to conquer it. It is an essential skill if you’re serious about doing great work. Most writers are like magpies, always chasing the shiny bits that are more interesting than what’s in your own head. But staying focused is the only way to get it done.

The most essential thing is to just sit down and do it. But yes, that is easier said than done. So I’ve come up with a few ideas that may help. Some will work, others will not. The important thing to find what DOES work, and tweaking your requirements so that you can concentrate on what you want to accomplish. Let’s take a look at a few suggestions, and see if we can come up with more through discussion:

Be Accountable to Someone: The problem is, no one is going to take you to task if you don’t get done what you outlined. Only you, and you probably find it easy to discount what you expect from yourself. I know I do. Sure, you’re going to feel vaguely guilty, but we live that emotion every day of our lives, and frankly, it’s easy to live with. So…we procrastinate, we waffle, and in the end, nothing gets done. My advice is to find someone to be accountable to, whether it be a friend, a relative, even the family dog who is good at making you feeling guilty…anyone! Give them a goal you want to reach, and make sure they are willing to remind you, frequently, that you have an obligation to meet. Treat it like a job…you have a boss and co-workers relying on you to get your part of the job done. I am fortunate with my current project, because I now have a co-author and a publisher who have me under contract, so now it’s a career, and if I don’t get my part of the manuscript done, I’m screwing everyone, including me, out of royalties. But previous to this, I didn’t have that obligation, so I had to find other ways, and I wasn’t always successful.


Set a Goal: Humans are goal orientated creatures. If we see the end of a journey, we tend to pick up the pace to get there. The hardest is to start. Every time I start a new book, it’s incredibly daunting to see a blank document staring at you, as if taunting you. I suggest you start with a concrete outline of your story and at least a partial list of your characters. If you don’t have that, there’s a place to start right there. I’m sure you have at least a general idea of both; if you don’t, think one up quick. Most writers have an idea, at least, of what the book is about before they even boot up the computer. As you start your outline, or your (what I like to call) Rogue’s Gallery, which is a character’s sheet, you will find as you get in the zone, that it will expand and practically write itself. But you need to get started with something. If you already have those, then start to write. It may not meet your expectations, it may not even make sense, but you’re writing, and even a simple phrase or partial sentence will spark ideas. It’s very surprising, actually, how it works, but you have to start to have the magic kick in. John Grisham actually writes one page a day, at least. Sometimes it comes easy and he just keeps going, but some days he barely scraped by and later threw out the whole thing. But he wrote…and he reached his daily goal. It doesn’t have to be a page…it can be three paragraphs, or 300 words (surprisingly short), or even 100 words. Anything to start. Hopefully, and gradually, you can increase your daily goals as time goes by and you get into a habit, but at least it’s a start. As Stephen King says, “Amateurs wait for inspiration; Professionals just sit and get it done.”


Designate a Time for Writing: Carefully go over your day, and write down the times that you are relaxing or doing nothing. Is there a time you would be willing to give up going for a coffee everyday outside the house. Is there any time of the day that you can sacrifice part of your routine and fill that time slot with writing? If not, then maybe you just need to get up an hour early, or go to bed an hour later. It’s up to you, but if everything in your life is taking precedence over your writing, maybe you need to rethink this career…because believe it or not, this is a career if you want to take it more serious. And when you finally pick your time, stick to the schedule, without fail, every day. It will become an easy habit to keep if you have the same time everyday, and soon it will be so automatic that you won’t even feel the sacrifice. Besides, if you love writing, it’s barely a sacrifice or a chore, is it? For most writers, it’s a compulsion we can’t ignore, and the sacrifices are nothing compared to what we love the most. I have given up trips to the city to see my son or my Mom for the weekends only (unless it’s an emergency, needless to say), and coffee with friends, and I cut down on my volunteer duties, only having one or two obligations now. Learn to say “No”. It’s a powerful word…be prepared for some people, who aren’t used to you not being available, not taking that “No” seriously. You may have to repeat it frequently, even if it’s kids in the house. Just tell them, “Give Mommy one hour to myself while you do your homework, or while you watch TV”, etc. Or, if desperate, you may have to write while they are sleeping or grabbing 15 minutes while they’re out of the house, but you have to make the time, or it just won’t work.


To Have Music, or Not? Most writers find certain music an inspiration, and have it playing in the background the whole time they’re writing as white noise. Now, I can’t do that; I end up bopping out to the music and lose all concentration on what I’m doing as I enjoy the distraction. Instead, I put on headphones and listen to the natural sounds of wildlife as I tune into the Africam live feeds, or Pete’s Pond live streaming feed, or any of these from African watering holes…I find the bird song and crickets and distant calls from hyenas not only soothing, but actually helps with concentration. Must be my country roots. Most writers need white noise in the background, but then some need absolute quiet. Whatever works, do it. Anything that helps is good.


Find a Designated Space: Have a consistent location you do your writing. If you do, you will find after a surprisingly short time that when you sit there, your thoughts will instantly focus on the task at hand. It’s like Pavlov’s Response…ring a bell, and you drool in anticipation. It’s also a signal to anyone who knows you, “Oh, she’s gone there; time to leave her alone.” They can also be trained.


Avoid Distractions: Good one! We all have them. What’s yours? List them, then avoid them…methodically and mercilessly assassinate them.


Prioritize: Make a list of what’s most important to you, and get them done. If your writing is not in the top five on your list, again, rethink your priorities. Writing is a hard taskmaster; it demands attention, and if you love it, you won’t begrudge its need for it. If bills are due or mortgage needs paid, then get it done right away. Then worry is not distracting you. Of course family is tops, that goes without saying. However, there is a time even for them…if you make time for them, they can return the favour and make time for you too, and that means leaving you alone to write.


Reward Yourself: This is important. If you reach a goal, have a cookie! Now, of course I’m joking…kind of. What I mean is, when you meet or exceed your goals or expectations, it’s important you reward yourself, since writing is a greedy creature, always niggling you and poking you. Take a break, watch a favorite special on TV or a favorite program you have sacrificed to make time. Order a pizza, or go out and take an extra long walk. Heck, even take out your significant other, because they probably had a part in your daily success. They left you alone, or took over a chore than would normally fall to you to allow you that extra time. If you constantly work and never celebrate these little successes, you will soon resent the very thing you love….writing!


Keep a Close Eye on Results: When you see results, when you see a finish line, you will feel so great! You finally got that short story done and edited. You got your book halfway done. You queried and got a reply requesting your article or the first three chapters of your novel…anything can be regarded as a result. All your hard work was worth it. Yes, keep an eye on all your results, because it will spur you to greater and greater things.


©2013 S.L. Bartlett


The Desert Rocks said...

Wonderful post and all things that I wish I could stick to on a regular basis.

Dellani Oakes said...

This is wonderful! May I share it with the writing group I started?

S.L. Bartlett said...

Dellani, of course! You're more than welcome to print it out and use it. It was very successful at my own writer's group tonight. The members found it useful, which was gratifying for me.
I'm so thrilled you visited, thank you.

S.L. Bartlett said...

Desert Rocks, we had that same discussion tonight at our writing group. In the end, it's all a matter of determination, and a smidgen of organization. It was so nice of you to visit. Thank you.

Carley Bauer said...

Excellent advice/print out.
Music. When someone posts a line about putting on music to write, I cringe. Music would completely infiltrate my brain, pushing out any ability to write. TV can be on or off, I could care less, and it's no distraction whatsoever. People noise (though I have very little of that these days)doesn't bother me at all. That I can completely block out people noise is actually frightening. Stranger still, is that music is the only noise I can't block out.

I've also found that physical activity helps move the creative juices. Sometimes it's morning exercise to get the blood pumping, though as often as not, it's getting up and moving about when I'm 'stuck'. Writers, by the very nature of sitting/typing, live a more sedentary life. A walk around the block can do wonders to get us out of a funk and be more productive.

Great ideas. Thanks for sharing!

Diane Carlisle said...

I had thought about the "being accountable" to someone. I was going to ask my husband to be that person, but I changed my mind. He'd get too much pleasure from bossing me around.

I need to find another source. My inner critic isn't working anymore. I'm writing chapter nine this afternoon and I'm going to try music.

All great talking points!