Last week we talked about ways to get unstuck and finally finish a novel. Today, we’ll shift to maintaining our focus and some common reasons why that novel just isn’t getting written. On Wednesday, we’ll look at dealing with the oh-so-distracting Shiny New Idea (and that will wrap up this three-part series on getting your novel to the finishing line).
Staying focused is harder than being stuck, because there’s little anyone can do to make us write if we don’t feel like it. We have to find the discipline to stick with a project and keep writing, and no one else can do that for us. They can offer advice and suggest things to try, but in the end, it’s up to the individual writer to make it work.
A lack of focus is often due to: not writing enough, losing interest in a project, not actually a focus issue, or being drawn away by shiny a new idea.
You’re Just Not Writing Enough
These writers simply don’t spend enough time writing, and when they do write, they’re not writing with any plan in mind. It’s just scenes and snippets of things in their head and it’s not going anywhere. Such writers could use a hefty dose of focus and discipline to compete their novels.
Is this you? You spend more time talking about writing and your story than you you do working on it. You want to write, but there’s always something else distracting you (and this doesn’t really upset you or make you feel bad). When you do write, you work for a little while but get distracted by the first thing that comes along. You might also write until it gets tough, give up for the day, then start the next day editing what you already have “to get your muse going.”
Getting past it: You guys have the hardest journey here, because the fix is easy and impossible at the same time. You just need to write more, and be more productive when you do write. Figure out how to force yourself to put your butt in the chair and work. If you have common distractions, get rid of them or write where you won’t be bothered by them. Stay at your keyboard when you hit a tough scene and work through it instead of walking away. Use goals and write until you hit them. If it helps, create a punishment and reward system for keeping those goals, such as being able to get or do something you want—but only if you write X number of words.
(Here’s more on setting writing goals)
You’ve Lost Interest in the Project
Some projects sound exciting when we start them, but as we develop the story, characters, or world, we realize there’s not as big an ooo-factor as we thought. It’s not turning out the way we wanted it to, and the idea isn’t going anywhere interesting.
Is this you? You have no trouble sitting down to write or even knowing what you want to write, but every word is a struggle (or the words come easy, but they’re all boring words). Your writing sessions happen as always, but they’re just not that productive. You’re not interested in the words you are writing, and you find your mind wandering to either a new project, or ways to drastically change this one to make it better. If you’ve lost interest far into the project, you might be telling yourself it’s almost finished, so you might as well complete it, even though your heart isn’t in it.
Getting past it: Not every project needs to be competed, and if you’ve really lost interest and are slogging your way through a story you no longer care about, set it aside. Sometimes it’s better to walk away than waste creative energy on a ho-hum project. If you feel the story is salvageable, but you just need a break, take one. Maybe write a short story, or work out a plan for a new book, or not write for a bit to let the creative juices refill. Burnout does happen, and if you’re tired and not feeling it at all, a breather can revitalize your energy and rekindle interest in a project.
(Here’s more on salvaging half-finished manuscripts)
You Really Just Want to Write for Fun
Sometimes we write because we enjoy doing it, but we don’t actually want to publish or be authors. It’s a hobby, something fun for us to do when the mood strikes, but everyone (ourselves included) expect writers to want to publish their books. So we think that too. Everything online—including other writers—say we should put out butts in the chair and finish that novel! But that’s not what we really want.
Is this you? You’re happy just writing scenes and character studies, creating worlds and coming up with cool ideas. Learning new things about writing is fun, and you like to put those new skills into practice and see how it changes your writing. You have no real desire to finish a book, though it might be cool to do so. Publishing feels more like something you ought to want, or it would be a nifty thing if it worked out, but it’s not the point of your writing.
Getting past it: Understand and accept that you’re a hobby writer and embrace it. You don’t have to finish a novel if you don’t want to, and nothing says you need to publish or do anything more than scribble away and have a good time. It’s okay to say, “I just write for fun.” If you played an instrument, or sang, or danced, no one would expect you to go pro, right? It’s something you do because you enjoy doing it. If the only reason you want to finish a novel is because everyone says you should, toss that idea out the window and do what makes you happy.
You Get Distracted By a Shiny New Idea
Shiny new ideas steal us away from what we’re working on and channel all our energy to a new project. We never finish anything because we’re always starting something new. New ideas are wonderful, but unproductive if they yank us away from our novels and keep us from finishing anything. (We’ll go into this more in depth on Wednesday or this article will be twice as long).
(Here's more on the siren song of a new idea)
Luckily, there are things you can try to develop that discipline and keep your focus:
Examine Your Process and Why It’s Not Working
Sometimes the problem lies with how we’re doing something, not what we’re doing. Our process is all wrong for our writing styles and we’re making things harder than we need to. If you’re a natural pantser, forcing yourself to outline might be stealing all your energy, so by the time the outline is done, you feel the novel is done and you no longer want to write it. Or maybe you keep trying to wing it, and you hit a wall at the same place every time because you really need to outline your stories and figure out your plots ahead of time. You might be a morning writer trying to write at night (or vice versa). You might prefer to write with pen and paper. Maybe you need to get out of the house where it’s quiet, or crank up the tunes to create some noise. Look at your process objectively and figure out where and why you’re going off track.
(Here’s more on reevaluating your writing process)
Make Writing a Habit
Professional authors write as their job, so if your dream is to one day write and sell novels, it’s time to develop those professional habits. Writing “when the muse strikes” isn’t going to cut it, but the good old “butt in chair” philosophy will.
Determine your best writing time and create a schedule to write during that time. Train your brain that this is when it needs to focus and churn out those great story ideas you have rolling around in there. (Fun tip: Light a candle with a particular scent to train your brain that that scent equals work time). While I personally don’t feel a writer needs to write every single day, writing every day until it becomes a habit is a good place to start. Once you’re used to the routine, decide how often you prefer to write.
(Here’s more on developing your writing process)
Set Goals and Keep Them
If you want to finish a novel this year (or whatever time frame it is), set smaller goals to get you there and keep them. Give yourself a reward for achieving every step to help motivate you. Create punishments if you miss them. Promise yourself that you’ll make sacrifices to to meet those goals, like skipping a TV show, or getting up early.
(Here’s more on setting realistic goals)
Be Held Accountable
Enlist friends or family members to nag you about hitting your goals and finishing that novel. Writing partners are great for this, as you can swap chapters at regular intervals. Set up fun games, such as word wars (where you write as much as possible in a set period of time), or say whoever wrote less this week buys lunch. Look for ways to make writing a team effort to keep you both at the keyboard.
Change What’s Not Working
If your current process isn’t giving you the results you want, change it. This can be hard, but sometimes it’s a necessary thing. If you examine your process and realize that you lose focus for the same reasons every time, that’s very likely what’s holding you back. Do what you need to do to change that aspect and see how it works.
(Here's more on how small changes in your writing process can lead to big results)
As frustrating as a lack of focus is, it’s something we can all fix if we put our minds to it. We can change our approach to writing, and how we think and feel abut writing. Sure, it might take some effort, but it’s completely in our control.
Have you ever lost focus on a project? How did you deal with it?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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