I was just talking with a client the other day about the writing life. She’d struggled with getting started on her novel. Then, once she started, she said it was as though she couldn’t keep her backside in the chair. Everything else caught her attention: laundry, dishes, kids, dogs, yard work, and on and on. And when she finally managed to write most of the book, there was that darned ending! She’d written and rewritten and rewritten it again. What’s more, she was about to rewrite one more time!
“Am I the only one who struggles with all this? Does anyone else?”
After I snorted my coffee—and then cleaned up—I told her the bald truth: “Only everyone.”
Okay, maybe not every writer struggles with these things. But more writers do than don’t. It’s SO much easier to do…well, anything…than to stay focused on writing. It’s not that we don’t love what we do. Of course we love it. But it’s just so hard! And getting immersed enough in the story to stay immersed can be a real battle. So what’s a writer to do?
Well, use the different level of focus, for one thing.
I’m firmly ensconced in the camp of writers that has trouble starting, continuing, and ending well. Which is what got me focused on focus to begin with. And here’s what I’ve found. It helps a great deal to start out with mountaintop focus. How? By looking at the whole picture, I can then break it down to bite-sized pieces. And breaking things down into bite-sized pieces engages my love of puzzles and my desire to “fix” things, which gets me fully engaged. I do this as often every week, or as little as once a month, depending on how the writing is going. Any time I realize I’m out of the chair more than I’m in it, I take a day to do an overview—mountaintop focus–of the book. I consider the following:
- Am I staying true to my core message? Has the story gotten sidetracked? Is it going the direction I thought it would? If not, what has changed, and what does that mean for the book as a whole?
- Have I made the world of my story vivid enough, or do I need to go back and layer in details and descriptions?
- Are the characters staying true to their motives, issues, arcs (character, spiritual, relational). Or has something changed for any of them?
- Are my characters multi-dimensional, or have I fallen prey to creating clichés? (I find this can happen most often with the antagonist. It’s so important to be sure our villains ring true.)
- If something has changed, do I need to reconsider that character’s place or role in the story?
- What characters have shown up without my permission? Why did they pop up? Do I need to keep them or should I incorporate them into existing characters?
I also evaluate pacing and plot. Once I’ve done this, I can use my mountaintop-focus points to break what I need to work on into smaller pieces. For example, in the Character category, if my overview has pinpointed issues for a character, I zoom in on that character and consider dialogue, beats, actions, emotions, interactions with other characters, and so on. I work on these aspects to ensure that character lives and breathes on the page. Once I’ve finished, I move on to the next character as needed.
And so it goes.
I’ve found this works well for all stages of writing, be it research, first draft, or rewrites.
So if you are a member of the “Oh, look! Laundry needs to be done!” camp, give the spectrum of focus a try. Whether you’re a plotter or, like I am, a seat-of-the-pantser, it really will help you keep your backside in the chair, and your fingers on the keyboard.
Now, let’s hear from you all! What helps you stay focused on the work?