Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Hitting the Hard Parts: Distractions

I've been talking recently about getting past the hard parts in writing -- those times when you're stuck or distracted and it's hard to write. Today, I'll talk about distractions.

Writing requires intense focus -- the ability to immerse yourself in another world to create a story. That gets hard when your mind is spinning off in multiple directions. There are so many potential distractions. There are life events, like illness in yourself or loved one, family crises, the day job flaring up, moves, remodeling, etc. There are worries -- your career, home, family, finances. There are fun distractions -- the TV series you're binge-watching, the book you're reading, the nice day outside. The really annoying thing about these distractions is it's not just the things themselves that are distracting, but it's also thinking about these things that can get you off track. Even if you have the self discipline to wait until the evening to watch another episode of that TV series you're binge watching, for example, you may find yourself thinking about it when you're supposed to be writing. As a writer, you can't help but analyze the plotting and characterization and try to figure out where it's going. You may not be running off to the grocery store right this minute, but you may be making the grocery list in your head.

What makes matters worse is that the more difficult the writing is, the more likely it is that these distractions will pop up. That's also when the Shiny New Idea tends to make its appearance. If you're getting bogged down in the middle of a book and are feeling stuck, then suddenly your house will need cleaning, other people's characters will be more interesting to you than your own, and you'll be obsessing over your career path. How do you handle this?

First, there are some life events you can't control that it's right to focus on. Unless you're under a contracted deadline, you should prioritize your health and crises involving loved ones. You may need to take time to deal with a move or a difficult day job. Even if you have a contracted deadline, if things are pretty extreme you can talk to your editor about your issues. A publisher would rather know months ahead that you're not going to make your deadline. That way things can be rescheduled and you can get some breathing room.

But if it's not a major life event that's distracting you or you can't reschedule, you need to soldier on. If you're finding yourself more easily distracted than usual, one of the first things to do is figure out if it's you or the book. Are you stuck or blocked? Are you falling out of love with your story? Then you can try some of my recent tips on getting past the hard part of a book.

When the distraction is a minor thing, like dirty dishes or needing to make a grocery list, go ahead and do it and get it out of the way. If you find yourself obsessing about your career, write down your thoughts and make a plan. Really, writing things down is a great way to get distracting thoughts out of your head. It may help to begin your writing time with some free writing. Write for a certain amount of time or a certain number of pages, pouring out whatever pops into your head. Once the thoughts have been expressed, they're less likely to swirl around in your head.

Doctors say that one way to help yourself get to sleep is to create a routine that signals to your body that it's time to rest. The same thing can apply to writing. Set a schedule for work and have a routine that tells your mind and body that it's time to write. You may go to a particular location with minimal distractions, adjust the lighting, use headphones to play particular music you associate with your work (that isn't distracting), make a cup of tea or other beverage you usually drink while writing. Use these sorts of tools to get into your story, as well. You may have triggers like music, photos, or even scent that take you into the world of your story. It may help to start a writing session by re-reading your outline or synopsis or by reviewing and editing the previous day's work. Whatever it is, find a sequence of actions and environmental triggers that say that it's time to write.

I also find that it helps to set specific goals. I aim for a certain amount of writing time every day, as tracked by a stopwatch (so that tea breaks don't count) as well as a word or page count goal when I'm on a first draft. Give yourself little rewards along the way. I let myself take a short break after every half hour of dedicated writing and then a longer break after an hour and a half. It's easier to make myself put everything else aside to write if I tell myself I only have to do it for half an hour. If I'm on a roll, I may not even take the break, but it helps get started if I know it's there.

You may not end up feeling as distracted at work time if you allow yourself to deal with the things that distract you at other times. Set aside time to deal with personal and family business, clean your house (or hire someone to do it), read, and do other things that entertain you. If you let yourself do these things regularly, they'll be less tempting when it's time to write. You may have to adjust the amount of fun time you have, depending on your writing schedule, deadlines, and other events, but you know that there will come a time when you're able to play and deal with life again.

But a lot of it comes back to the story you're telling. The more you love it and the more excited you are about it, the less likely you are to be distracted. If you're being easily distracted and suddenly feel the urge to dust your bookshelves and then reread that book you ran across that you suddenly find strangely fascinating, then chances are you've got a problem in the story you're telling. Fixing that and finding inspiration for your work can do a lot toward blocking the distractions.

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