Writing to Distraction
“I set a goal for myself everyday when I write – 10 pages a day – and it’s much harder because I’m too dumb to turn off my Twitter and everything so it’s always on and it’s a real distraction. It’s a major distraction.” – R.L. Stine
I’ll be honest: even at my age, even after nearly 20 years of writing, I can have a tough time focusing on my craft. As a journalist, I found my job a little easier — public interest stories were short (2000 words) and I could pretty much plot them out in under an hour. I interviewed the people, did the research, and simply sat down and pounded out the story, shipping it off to my editor with a happy “Adios!”
As a novelist, however, the task to stay focused is FAR more daunting – deadlines feel like walking the plank, fiction worlds and rules are my own so I can’t call someone for help, and the characters live solely in my mind. I rule their lives, their fate, and the road is always an unknown. It is easy to get discouraged; easy to want to give in. Distraction happens to every writer I know – it’s a mountain formed in our own hearts and minds and forged in passion laced with doubt. Distraction runs hand-in-hand with writer’s block, so avoiding the former helps curb the latter.
Without doubt, my most recent manuscript has proven to be the most difficult for me to write. I’ve found distractions have been plentiful. Finding a way to work as a writer that limits those distractions (and thus writer’s block) has been critical for me . . . and for a while, I did fail miserably at staying focused. A full week would go by and I’d only write 500 words (when I needed to be pushing 2000 a day at minimum). But then I refocused and used all the tricks I had learned over the years to get back on track.
The following tips have helped me (and other author friends) block distractions so I could focus on the task at hand and skirt the dreaded writer’s block. These tips help ANY writer, whether a student working on an essay or a novelist writing for the first time or the tenth.
MUSIC AS MUSE
Without fail, music has always been a powerful tool that helps me focus when I write. Even as a journalist, I would blast music – everything from the Fugees and Metallica to the Doors and Madonna.
I learned, however, that I needed to always expand my musical “run-list” or the music would fail me – bore me – and I’d get distracted. My sixteen year old daughter solved my musical boredom issue by sharing her playlist with me across iTunes and Spotify. The result is an ever-changing list for me to listen to and select from. I do have Playlists on Spotify, but I’m adding to them almost daily thanks to my daughter, fans, and other authors.
Music also hones your focus, drowning out the world. Music makes you passionate about the words you write, whether for a novel or for an essay at school. Words and music are powerful and merging the two allows many writers to bring forward a richer story and a more intricate composition.
A friend of mine (and fellow writer), S.G. Silva, also advises that it’s equally important to have a playlist that includes classical or instrumental music for those times when dialog or research must be perfect. By not hearing lyrics in the music, S.G. is able to focus fully on more active, difficult scenes. Movie soundtracks are excellent for this type of “advanced” focus – Transformers, Avatar, Harry Potter, and The Avengers are all excellent choices.
As a writer, you must find your musical muse and share it with friends across music platforms so that you may always find new songs to drive your writing and your focus.
Writers (all of us) tend to make excuses when it comes to writing. The dog needs to be fed, the house needs to be cleaned, work is calling, etc. For me, the distractions at HOME were absolutely ruining my ability to write. I found that the same issue was happening to other writer friends of mine, thus we formed Writers Around The Block (WAT-B).
The idea was pretty simple: pick set times and places (mainly coffee houses) throughout the week where a writer could go and write alongside other writers.
Honestly, we didn’t talk much, but the physical act of opening a laptop and typing alongside someone else was a POWERFUL motivator. Those that came to our WAT-B meet-ups went from barely writing to pushing out a thousand words an hour.
We came with our headphones, our notes, and our raw determination. And when we did get stuck on a scene or an idea, we could signal the group for their input and it was immediately given. This instant feedback allowed us to stay away from the mother of all distractions: The Internet.
If you are a student, I suggest seeking out a space at your school where you could go at lunch and meet up with other writers and form your very own Writers Around the Block (or Quad). It works. WAT-B is proof it works, but participants must be committed to the act of writing.
DITCH THE NET
If you are trying to write, then Social Media is the devil, I swear.
Every author on every writer panel I’ve ever been on says the same thing – the Internet is a vicious, time-sucking monster. One of the reasons the Writers Around the Block group worked so well was because everyone turned off their wifi connections when they sat down to write – that was part of the deal. No Net. Period.
Now, the Internet is also like caffeine and candy – it’s a bad, BAD addiction, even for those of us who are authors. In fact, we may be the most addicted of all because we use the Internet to help us story-build and craft worlds and characters. If you are a student, the Internet is a wealth of information at your fingertips – loads and loads of research and history, only a click away. And yes – it’s a necessary evil for anyone who is writing, BUT I have found that when I’m writing, I FORBID myself from going on the Internet. If you are researching something, set a time aside to do the research / Internet surfing that is SEPARATE from your writing time. Then print what you need and bring it with you when you write, but DON’T GO BACK ONLINE.
I know several authors who use software that actually locks them out of the Internet (gasp!) – it’s called Cold Turkey. Highly customizable, Cold Turkey can lock you out of ALL distractions by time limit or word count. I find that programs like Cold Turkey work best for me when I have it on my desktop in my office and have my Spotify playlist playing through my cell phone (NOT desktop). Why, you ask? Because Spotify on my phone is basic, whereas the desktop version is quite fancy and distractible.
For those who want an even more detailed writing experience and want to create folders for information , photos, notes, etc., I suggest checking out Scrivener. Almost EVERY author I know uses it (myself included).
So, as crazy at it sounds, sitting still can wreck your focus. There is a rhythm to writing, which is why music is so critical to me. But I also have a tendency to move while I write and I notice that when I fidget, my word count soars. It can be super simple, like bouncing my foot to the beat of the music as I write, or as nuts as semi-dancing in my seat.
Science has proven that when the mind goes into Default Mode Network (basically auto-pilot), our daydreaming / creative side comes forward like a runaway train. Humans slip into DMN mode when we do something “boring” like walking to a friend’s house, folding clothes, and yes, even driving.
So basically that need to fidget DOES in fact free your mind to make connections in abstract ways – it allows you to see more possibilities in your essay and story than you ever saw before. I even tend to “write” most of my books in my head while daydreaming (often while driving or running), then I go to my computer and write down what I saw in my head.
You CAN buy some fancy items for your home writing area – desk bikes, treadmills, etc. – but I find that simply grabbing a $20 yoga ball and sitting on that at your desk works wonders. Blast your music, sway and bounce, and write until your fingers ache.
DEFEND YOUR CREATIVE SPACE
When I was in college, I could NOT write at a desk. Instead, I wrote on my bed, cross-legged with all my pillows jammed up against the corner for my backrest. I knew other girls who could only work at a certain corner of the library and still others that liked to work in the common rooms.
Defending your creative space means finding the place in your world where YOU work best – not where others tell you to work. For my daughter, this is a combination of her bed for some classes, or her wide desk for other tasks. She says she works best at home, in her own room, and it’s true – she can get so much more done in her own creative space than at school. We even have a Privacy Pop tent, which my son loves (if you are college bound, it’s a must).
So find your spot and make it your own – shuffle your room (if you can) until you find a space that works for you and allows you to focus better. I even knew a kid that worked best UNDER her desk – pillows, blanket, and lamp all set up like a fort. DO what works FOR YOU. For me, when I’m home, I work at my U-shaped desk, but I am most productive when I’m actually at a coffee shop (Dunks and Starbucks are favorites, as well as Panera).
DON’T GET DISCOURAGED
Stuck? Just can’t think of the next line or how to connect the dots in an essay? Find inspiration elsewhere – move, take a walk, go for a run. When I was a journalist and found myself stuck on how to open an article, I’d use a quote that related to the story. You’ll find that the ability to write is in all of us – it just takes equal amounts of bravery, determination, and a fighting spirit to put pen to paper and bleed onto the page.
Never forget that words are powerful.
Words have raised armies and soothed agonies.
Words have toppled kingdoms and rallied the oppressed.
Each and every one of us have something to say and I dare you to find your own unique way to say it.
Make it loud, proud, and unforgettable, for all of us have a story to tell.