Defeating Distraction, Finding Focus

You’re writing at a good pace, but then get distracted, torn away from your story. You hate when that happens, but sometimes the diversion is irresistible. What causes that, and how can you prevent it?

We live in a distraction-rich environment. Even before the Internet, there were rooms to clean, library books to return, lawns to mow, desk items to straighten, and windows to gaze through. Today, there are Facebook posts to like, tweets to retweet, texts to answer, online stores to shop in, blog posts to read, and new sites to explore.

Still, this tendency to get distracted doesn’t make sense, does it? You sat down fully intending to write your story. Then things went awry; that best-laid plan went askew, you diverted to a tangent. Why does that happen?

Let’s separate two types of distraction—external and internal—and tackle each separately.

External Distractions

These attack you from outside and appeal to one or more senses. A funny show comes on TV, a favorite song blares from the radio, the cat snuggles against you, a pleasant aroma wafts from the kitchen.

The cure for these might seem simple; just eliminate external sources of distraction. Write in a bare, soundproof room with the door shut, on a computer disconnected from the net.

That might work for some, but for many of us it’s not practical. It’s better to start by eliminating your most common, most alluring distractions if you can. As for the others, learn to become aware when a distractor is pulling you away. At the onset of each distraction, make a conscious decision to allow it or not.

Consider setting up a “focus object,” an inspirational something to redirect you toward your story, akin to the busts of Beethoven atop pianos. I made a framed picture of Jules Verne with the caption “Keep writing, Steve,” and mounted it above my desk. Pick a focus object specific to you and glance at it when you feel the tug of some external interruption.

Internal Distractions

The internal ones are worse, since your own mind assails you and there’s no one else to blame. Your mind wanders away from your story and suddenly there’s something else needing your attention. You have a bill due today; this story idea needs additional research; you’re wondering what that old high school friend is up to.

These generally occur when you’re stuck and need to solve an unexpected story problem. You feel you have to pause and think before writing further. That’s the moment when your brain takes a meandering walk.

As with external distractions, part of the cure is learning to recognize the distraction at the moment it occurs. If you were truly stuck just before that instant, maybe a short break is just the thing you need. Your subconscious can work on the problem while you’re engaged in the distracting activity.

If you were making progress right before that moment, ask yourself this question: “Is this the best use of my time right now?” On occasion, the distraction will be the best answer. Most times, you’ll realize you should return to your story.

Final Thoughts

Visualization is another technique for dealing with distractions. Keep a vision of you finishing your story, admiring it, and submitting it for publication. Think of how good that will feel. Use that vision to get you focused back on writing.

Recognize, too, that you can’t stay focused forever. You need to give your brain a rest. The Pomodoro Technique can be a way to promote both proper focusing and reasonable breaks.

You’ll find more great advice on dealing with distractions at this post by Leo Babauta and this one by Margarita Tartakovsky.

I hope you enjoyed… Sorry, I’ve got to go. Something else has attracted the attention of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Cure: Writer’s Block

Earlier I blogged about writer’s block, but focused on symptoms and causes.  Today, let’s talk about getting over it.

Writers blockAs before, I’ll limit the discussion to minor writer’s block (minWB), the short-term state of being stuck while in the middle of a writing project.  I’ll blog about Major Writer’s Block (MajWB) another time.

My many fans—both of them, actually, including my Dad—will recall that I stated there are several types of minWB, which I divided as follows:

  • Story-related problems
  • Writing-related problems, but not about the story
  • Personal, but non-writing, problems

I also stated that if you pinpoint which problem you have, that suggests a cure. For story-related problems such as plot, character, setting, or others, here are a few things you can try:  (1) set the story aside awhile and let your subconscious (your muse) work on the problem, (2) try sketching a mind-map of the problem and creatively come up with multiple solutions, then select the best, or (3) ask your critique group or beta reader for help.

The craft-related problems all boil down to matters of attitude leading to negative mental associations, leading to stress.  Since one type of craft-related problem is the pressure of the audience seeming too close, I have to point out what some might consider a contradiction in the advice I, Poseidon’s Scribe, have given out.  In this blog entry I suggested, if you’re feeling the ‘presence’ of the reader too intensely, just forget about that audience and write freely for yourself.

However, just two weeks ago I urged you to keep the reader in mind, always.

Which advice is right—ignore the reader or be ever mindful of the reader?

(Aside:  witness the clever way I get out of this paradox.)

I was right both times.  In general, it is always wise to acknowledge that you’re writing to be read by others.  Therefore, you should write with precision, avoiding ambiguity, so as to be understood.  But if the fear of being criticized or disliked is paralyzing you into inaction, if the anticipation of bad reviews leaves you trembling before your keyboard, then forget about those readers for a while.  Ignore them during your early drafts and focus on getting your story done.

Then in the later drafts, I suggest you visualize yourself as a sort of super-editor, far more critical of your own work than any reader could be, and yet able to fix every problem you find.  In this way, you minimize your fear of the reader and substitute confidence in yourself.

That ‘visualization’ method may work for many of the minWB craft-related problems, by imagining a near-future version of yourself having already overcome the problem and working steadily on the story.  Visualize yourself being in the flow, and once again gripped by the same enthusiasm you had when you first conceived the story idea.  In this way you can change the mental linkages you’ve developed and re-associate writing with fun, success, and confidence rather than stress, fatigue, and inadequacy.

As to the last category of minWB, that of personal problems such as illness, depression, relationship difficulties, or financial woes, you need to confront those problems head-on first.  Until you have a plan for solving them, and start to execute that plan, it will be tough to concentrate on writing.

Do these suggested cures work for you?  Do you know of others I should have recommended?  Unblock yourself and leave a comment for—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

September 21, 2013Permalink

Leave Yourself Wanting More

You’ve heard the show business adage, “Always leave them wanting more,” meaning an entertainer should exit the stage before the audience gets bored.   Helen DunmoreBy the same principle, novelist and poet Helen Dunmore said you should “finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.”

 

Why is that?  There seems to be some important facet of human nature at work here.  To cite another example of this phenomenon, I used to read to my children when they were quite young, but I tried to observe them as I read to look for the early signs of boredom.  In time I found I could stop reading, even in the middle of a book, and tell them that was it for the night.  They’d beg me to go on, but I wouldn’t, because I knew I’d timed it right.

The human brain seems unusually good at pattern recognition and associating things together.  If your brain associates a given entertainer with a feeling of boredom, you’ll be less likely to pay for a ticket next time.  Similarly, if a child associates books with a feeling of interest and yearning for more, the child will likely develop a love of reading.

Let’s say it’s late at night and you’ve been writing for a while.  You are at the point when you usually go to bed.  You know you should call it quits, but you’re so near the end of a section, or chapter, or the whole book.  Moreover, you’re in the flow, and the words are coming out well, better than usual.  If you can just push it a little longer, you’ll achieve the satisfaction of completing something good.

This is the moment of decision, and you’re tempted to push on.  If you do, and your fatigue causes you to get stuck for words, your brain can start associating writing with being stuck and tired.  That leads to writer’s block.

However, if you save your work and turn off the computer now, your brain will associate writing with being in the flow, with feelings of interest and enthusiasm.  Moreover, you’ll get the sleep you need.

It’s a funny thing, but you needn’t worry about forgetting overnight what you were going to write next.  When you come back to your manuscript the next day all the memories flood back in, along with the confidence and fervor of the previous night, and pretty soon you’re in the zone again.

If you wish, before you finish for the night (even in the middle of a sentence!) you could jot down some quick notes of where the prose was headed.  By some mysterious mental mechanism, your brain will be thinking subconsciously during your non-writing interval, working out better phrasing, solving plot problems, etc.  The next day when you resume, you may find you have better ideas than you ended up with the night before.

Has this been your experience?  Do you agree with Helen Dunmore and me, or do you adhere to a different school of thought?  Leave a comment and let me know.  There’s much more I want to say, but I’ll stop here, so you’ll associate feelings of fascination with—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

Is Your First Draft Terrible Enough?

That’s not a typo; I’m questioning whether the first draft of your story is horrible, trashy, and amateurish enough to qualify as a first draft.  I’m not talking about cacography here, I’m talking about tripe, drivel, bunkum.

Yes, I know all writers are different and for some, their first draft is their publishable, final draft.  Isaac Asimov said he didn’t re-write his stories.  But I’m guessing that doesn’t work for most writers, especially beginning writers.

For most of you, here’s my advice:  set out to write a bad first draft.  Why?  I’ll explain.

The first draft is unlike all later ones in that it has no predecessor, just a blank screen (or page) and a writer’s mind buzzing with ideas.  That moment before you write the first word is a daunting one; the task seems mountainous.  Often that story idea in your head seems so perfect, you just know readers will love it.

But when you try writing down that idea, it looks so awful it’s embarrassing.  The text falls far short of the shining, crystalline structure in your mind.  You can get so frustrated you’ll be tempted to abandon the whole stupid idea.  “What was I thinking?  I’m no writer!”

I’m suggesting it’s best to admit up front your first draft will be garbage.  That way you’re establishing reasonable expectations and lessening the frustration.  Trust in your ability to improve the first draft later.  Accept that those later revisions will be easier than writing the first draft; you will get closer to the ideal story in your mind.

How do you write a first draft that qualifies as pure dreck?  Think of your writing mind as having at least four component parts, four people with distinct attributes.  These are your muse, your playful inner child, your squint-eyed editor, and your glad-handing marketer.

I’ve described the muse before.  By the time you’re writing your first draft, her job is done and she’s left town.  Think of your squinty-eyed editor as a scowling old man with an eyeshade and a huge supply of blue pencils.  Send this editor on vacation now.  Trust me, he’ll come back well-rested to help you with your second draft.  As to that ever-smiling, extroverted marketer with the plaid suit, he’s on vacation most of the time and that’s okay for now.

215px-Big_PosterLet’s focus on the one I left out, the playful inner child.  I suggest you picture the character Josh Baskin, played by Tom Hanks in the 1988 movie “Big.”  He was pure drive, energy, and enthusiasm.  He had no inhibitions, no taboos, and no fear of failure.

Channel that character as you write your first draft.  Strive to get in the zone, in the flow.  If you find yourself momentarily stuck, write down what you will need later to get past the sticky part, put that in brackets (or different font or color, whatever), and move on.  For example, knowing how important the opening hook is, let’s say you can’t think of one.  Just write “[come up with hook]” and write on.  Chances are the words you write next might serve as a hook, or a hook will occur to you later.  Don’t stop to do research now, just bracket it, “[Do whales really get hiccups?],” and look it up later.

Even though your first draft is a stinking pile of compost, you’ll feel better about having something written down, something you can now work with.  Further, by writing in burst mode, you can maintain a consistent, integrated work that maintains the same tone and voice throughout.

More great first draft advice is available here, here, and here.  By the way, do you think this blog post is poorly written?  Ha!  You should have seen the first draft typed up by—

                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

Diagnosis: Writer’s Block

Have you experienced writer’s block?  That condition where you feel the desire or pressure to write but you can’t actually come up with any words?  It’s a real thing, an occupational “hazard” first diagnosed in 1947.

I think there are two forms of it–Major Writer’s Block and minor writer’s block.  I define MajWB as the state of being unable to start writing a new work, and of long duration.  On the other hand, minWB is a short-term state of being stuck while in the midst of a work.  MajWB can last for years or even be a career-ender.  But minWB is almost always temporary, lasting a few hours or days.  I have yet to experience MajWB, but get the minor version often.

In either case, the symptoms are pretty much the same.  Words won’t come out, try as you might, and after a while you don’t feel much like trying.  I pay attention to the blogs of writer Andrew Gudgel (full disclosure:  Andy and I are friends), and he wrote a great blog entry on writer’s block on May 3, 2011.  In it, he states that the condition of not writing is only a symptom, not the problem itself.  He makes the case that only when you know the problem can you begin to solve it, and that the problem itself points to the solution.

He divides the spectrum of possible problems into craft-related problems, and problems with other aspects of the writer’s life.  I’ll divide writing block problems a different way, as follows:

  • Story-related problems:
    • plotting problems–the story isn’t going in the right direction
    • character problems–a character isn’t fully fleshed out, or is taking over the story, or is otherwise not proving suitable
    • setting problems
    • other problems with the story itself
  • Craft-related problems that are writing-related, but not about the story:
    • overwhelmed by task
    • inferiority complex, thoughts that your writing won’t measure up
    • lost interest
    • pressured by deadline
    • paralyzed by own success
    • pressure of audience too close (more below)
  • Personal, but non-writing, problems:
    • illness
    • depression
    • relationship problems
    • financial difficulties

Again, identifying which real problem is present can point toward the solution.  The stress caused by any of the problems above can really inhibit the normal creative process.  What’s thought to happen in the short term to the human brain under stress is a shift of activity from the cerebral cortex to the limbic areas.  In other words, the focus shifts from the areas devoted to attention, consciousness, language, memory, and thought to the basic, instinctual fight-or-flight area we inherited from the dinosaurs.  Extended periods of stress damages brain cells, weakens memory, and causes depression.  All of that is bad news for writers.

Most of the items on the list of problems above are self-explanatory, but I thought I’d discuss the pressure of the audience in more detail.  Writing expert Dr. Peter Elbow wrote a much-discussed essay called “Closing My Eyes As I Speak.”  He claims writers feel the presence of an audience as they write.  Unlike performance artists such as singers or stand-up comedians, writers do not have their audience physically present, but they often imagine how readers will react to their work.  Dr. Elbow considers the pressure of this unseen audience can disrupt the flow of words, and suggests writers disregard the audience as they write their first drafts.  The writing will be more natural and genuine.

As a non-writing example, look at this picture of world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma in performance.  He often plays with eyes closed, as if he’s deliberately distancing himself from his audience and playing only for himself in his own private world.  Metaphorically, we should all write that way, too, at least in our first drafts.

I’ve discussed the condition of writer’s block and potential causes, but never got around yet to how to overcome it.  Getting unblocked will have to be the subject of a future blog post by–

                                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

February 12, 2012Permalink

In the Mood…

…for writing, I mean.  If you’re an author, how do you get in the best possible mood to write?

Face it, not every moment of the actual process of writing involves the seamless flow of ideas from brain down to fingers typing with frenzied speed on a keyboard.  There are moments (minutes, hours?) spent staring out the window, looking at a world that’s become far more interesting than the problem of figuring out what the next word should be.  At those times, you need a way to get unstuck.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the classic “writer’s block” where you can be stuck for long periods of time—months or years—and unable to get any creative ideas.  I’m talking about the lesser nephew of writer’s block—let’s call it writer’s clog—a temporary condition where your muse has already whispered the story’s basic idea and sketched out a rough plot.  She has since flitted off to Tonga, or wherever she flits to, and left you in charge of the actual writing part.  You’ve worked on the story for a few days, but all of a sudden words aren’t flowing.

Yogi Berra said of baseball, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental,” and I calculate that statement is eighty percent more true of writing.  So your writer’s clog problem is most likely a mental one.  Now, how are you going to stimulate your mind so it wants to write again?

The simplest way for me is to recall the thought process that led me to the story.  That usually conjures up pleasant memories of the initial enthusiasms, the high expectations of how good the story could be.  Back at that earlier time, my muse had just whispered the story idea and it sounded great.  At that moment, I knew the world needed to hear that story and I was excited about the notion of bringing it forth.

But let’s say that’s not working for you.  Consider using this interesting property of your mind—it can associate two things together (like putting two documents in the same file) just because they happened at the same time, no matter how unlike they are.  Let’s say the muse conveyed the story idea to you while you were in the shower, or mowing the lawn, or out for a walk.  Strangely, your mind now connects your story with that experience.  You might be able to regain your passion for the story, and relieve the writer’s clog, by recreating the experience.

Another method is to artificially create a mental association that’s easier to replicate later.  During the first day of writing the story, while the fervor is still there, the muse’s ideas fresh in your mind—you can make your own mental linkage by finding a picture that depicts something about your story (a scene or character) and staring at it.  You could burn some incense or put out some potpourri and stimulate a fragrant linkage.  Or you could play a CD where the music suggests something about the story, thus establishing an aural connection.

Now whenever you see that picture, smell that scent, or play that CD, you will think of your story and likely be in the mood to continue writing it.  Think of it as Writer’s Clog-Be-Gone (patent not exactly pending).

Do you think this technique might work for you?  Has it worked?   Let me know by clicking “Leave a comment.”  It’s down there right below where I sign this entry as…

Poseidon’s Scribe

Writing in the Flow

You know the feeling.  Maybe you were playing a sport or a musical instrument; maybe you experienced it at work or in church.  I’m talking about that experience of being in the zone, in the moment.  Runners call it the “second wind.”  Everything’s going well and you’re super-productive, almost flawless, and you’ve lost complete track of time.  How cool, how sweet, is that?

When writers experience it, words come out without effort; there’s a lack of awareness of surroundings and the passage of time; and the prose is better. It’s as if writer and muse are one.  If you’re like me and writing is a part-time hobby, then the precious time available for it needs to be maximized somehow.  It’s desirable to spend as much time in the zone as possible.

According to this Wikipedia article, the psychological term is “flow.”  It was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, and there are ten associated factors (though not all are required):

  1. Clear goals
  2. Concentrating within a limited field of attention
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness
  4. Distorted sense of time
  5. Direct and immediate feedback
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge
  7. A sense of personal control over the activity
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs
  10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself

So how can a writer intentionally bring about this state of mind?  For me, preparation is the key.  I find I can make the flow more likely if (1) I’ve prepared a story outline so I know the general direction I’m heading, and (2) I’ve previously thought about the story during “down time.”  Down time is when I’m doing an activity that doesn’t involve intense concentration, an activity such as commuting to or from work, mowing the lawn, and taking a shower.  It’s during these periods when I think about the scenes, characters, dialogue, and plot.  If I’ve done that, my mind is ready to write when I have time available.  I’m much more likely to get in the flow.

You might be different.  Some writers can induce the flow by playing music, by writing in the same spot and at the same time each day, or even by burning incense or setting out potpourri.

Unfortunately, it’s hit-or-miss getting into the flow, and very easy to get kicked out of it.  One way to get kicked out is to decide, as you’re writing, that you need to do some research.  This is a tempting urge, and can be more enjoyable than writing.  Sadly, it is a huge time sink, and there’s really no need to have it spoil your flow.  In my January 30 blog entry, I suggested something I called “bracket research.”  Just take the question you want to investigate and put it in brackets, or highlight the text yellow, or do something to distinguish it. You can stay in the flow and keep going, then do the research later.

Another dangerous practice that will kick you of the flow is to pause and self-edit too much.  You can do that later.  For now, just let words flow.  I don’t know a really good cure for that, but I suspect participating in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, is one way to cure yourself of that urge.

I hope you can experience and maximize the flow in all your favorite activities.  Good luck!  I suppose I should know something about flow; after all, I’m–

Poseidon’s Scribe