As I type this I am riding in our family minivan, with five year old twin siblings in the back making all sorts of interesting noises, my seven year old sister beside me discussing her King Tut book with our Mom, while Dad listens to Spanish radio through the car’s speakers, and El Paso traffic rushes around us as we make our way to San Antonio. The point? It is possible to write without waiting for the perfect moment. The perfect moment rarely comes. If you wait for it, you’re libel never to write at all. In this second installment of our little writing series, let’s look at the importance of focusing, and ways to help focus on your story.
It is impossible to write something well if your mind is racing off on something else while your fingers type. Believe me, I know this because I do it all the time. If you’re distracted as you write, your story will reflect that. It will come out disjointed, choppy, and badly written. This is a general fact of life; if only half of you is paying attention to a job, the job will come out only half as well as you can do it. But with a novel this fact can be even more starkly seen. Think about two different times when you pick up the same book;
Situation 1.) You feel like you just have to stop for a moment on a Saturday afternoon and plop onto the couch, only to immediately hop up again because a dog bone and two wooden trains were on your seat. You shove them away and sit down again, grabbing at a book to try and distract yourself from the messy living room. As you flip open the cover, your phone vibrates with a new text in your pocket, and your toddler races through the room yelling. After watching to make sure the dog is outside where the toddler can’t jump on him, you remember the book and flip open the cover to read; “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”
Situation 2.) You sit down in your comfortable armchair, a contented sigh sliding from you at the sensation of being off your feet, and feel the delightful silence of a house with finally sleeping children close in. After a minute of just sitting, you flip a Bach album on, and then pick up the book nearest to hand. The cover is a lovely deep black with an interesting picture on the front and a nice smooth feel in your hands. That being noted, you flip open the cover and read the first line; “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”
In Situation 1 that first line hardly even registers on your mind. You read it over three times, and start to think it might be okay. Then the toddler yells again, or the phone rings, or something breaks in and you lose your train of thought. Once you come back to it, you find you have to read the second line twice to understand it, and then move on to skim the first paragraph. But it still just bounces off your brain and out into thin air without making an impression. After two minutes you put it down and begin to clean up the living room, vaguely wondering why your friend recommended a book that has such an uninteresting beginning. But in situation 2 you have the opportunity to focus on the book. And what happens? After a few paragraphs, if it is at all a good book, you’re going to be drawn in. The Bach album fades into a faint background noise in your mind, and you begin to live the adventure with the characters. A few minutes more, and the act of reading is even forgotten. The places, people, and plot take shape in your mind as your eyes take in the words. You begin to forget you are even sitting in your chair. You’re in another world fighting epic battles with strange creatures, and by chapter three you’re probably ready to stay there all night and thinking, “Wow, this is a really good book.”
What made the difference isn’t the book; it’s your frame of mind. When you focus on a novel, you’re able to enjoy it and be drawn in to the story. Stop and remember for a moment and I’m sure you can think of an instance in your own reading life like this; times of forgetfulness, when everything but the story fades away until it seems alive. The same idea goes right along with writing a book. You can gain that same feeling of forgetfulness, of losing yourself in the story, when you write. And that is when your story is the smoothest and the most enjoyable to read and to write. If you are completely distracted, your sentences are going to be all mixed, what you do get written will be choppy, and you will certainly have no fun with your writing. But, if you can focus enough to get drawn in, to gain forgetfulness of all but the words, your writing starts to flow from your mind onto the page as if you’re just watching the story unfold. One of the greatest challenges of writing is focusing enough to get into the right frame of mind. If you can make yourself focus on what you’re writing for five minutes, it almost always cures even the deadly curse of Writer’s Block, the bitter word biter that has destroyed so many books. And it can also cure the evil cousin of Writer’s Bock, Frustration; that pent up grumpy realization that ‘nothing is working.’ He makes a writer slam their laptop closed and go off in a huff to drown their sorrow in ice cream. But with a backspace key, a little patience, and a few minutes of determined focus, you can beat both these dreaded foes. After the third erasing of the same chapter beginning and starting again, it starts to click. There comes the happy realization that the chapter’s beginning sounds a little more like you want it to sound, and then things begin to get smoother. And as the words come easier, focus becomes clearer, and you begin to be drawn into your creation. And that’s when the fun begins.
All this sounds great right? But how do you focus when, well… LIFE is all around you all the time? Sometimes you can’t. That’s life. There are some times when you are needed somewhere else, no matter how far behind you are on your novel’s word count. Always remember, our first duty is not to our novel, but to our God. And He calls us to love others as ourselves. If you’re needed somewhere else, don’t hole up with your novel. Sit the story aside, do your duty with joy, and when you are able to come back to the story your conscience will be clear and your soul will be at peace. And a soul at peace is a great help to focusing. But beware, Frustration loves these times. He feeds on them like a locust devours crops. But Frustration can still be beaten by three simple time-tried remedies; prayer, patience, and the common sense to pick your writing times. Wait until you know you do have a little time before you flip that laptop open. Yes, you’re still likely to be called away. But you are less likely to be called away if you wait until you at least think you have a few minutes to spare. Use common sense. And keep your eyes peeled for opportunities. Using common sense doesn’t mean you have to wait until you have a Situation 2 on your hands. Keep your laptop battery charged, or your writing notebook in your car. Then, when you find yourself in the mall waiting for someone to find that perfect pair of shoes, pull it out and start writing. Or even when you’re wandering around in the zoo with your family and notice a great bench in the aviary, take the opportunity to get a few paragraphs in while everyone else heads towards the reptiles. There are more opportunities then you might think if you keep yourself prepared. Just think about all the time you spend sitting in the car staring idly out the windows! If you don’t get carsick, a car ride is one of the best times to sneak in a little extra writing.
Which brings us finally to what I was actually supposed to be talking about when I started typing this; what does it take to focus on your novel? What do you need to stuff in your backpack in order to be prepared? I have three things that are essential for me to focus on my book and quickly slide into that smooth sensation of being drawn into the story. I hope they are helpful to you.
Determination. My brain is a lot like a happy dog, easily distracted, and delighted to go running off chasing any rabbit that shows its fuzzy head. The rabbit trails in my mind are well-trod, and rarely get lonely. Actually my brain is often more like four dogs who all go racing off after different rabbits at once. Have you ever tried to get four dogs to do the same thing at the same time? I had the brilliant idea to train my two corgis to do a syncopated roll the other day… I gave up on it pretty quickly. But with a little work, you can train your mind to behave and do your wishes. It isn’t that difficult and we all do it. When your brain wants to think about the chicken in the oven, stop it, and tell it to get back onto figuring out how to get your character out of the mess you shoved them in during chapter two. Then when it wanders off to the movie you watched last night, make it stop and get back on track. Some days it’s easier than others. The level of caffeine racing in the blood can drastically change number of rabbits that pop up calling you to chase them down their trails. But after a few minutes of studiously making your brain focus on your words, the rabbits begin to dive back into their holes, and the rabbit-trails are easier to ignore. There are not many tips to help with this, it’s just a matter of making it happen. Focusing takes a certain amount of self-control. Some days it takes a whole lot of self-control. There are, however, some tips for making it easier. Two especially come to mind, so keep reading.
Music. Make yourself a playlist early on in your novel. You know what genre it is, and what style you want, pick music that matches. Find a soundtrack that fits with your novel, or find eight soundtracks and a pop album. Almost all my playlists are taken up with John Powell soundtracks; Knight and Day, How to Train Your Dragon, Bourne Supremacy, and a few other random things, such as various Piano Guys songs. Most of them I haven’t even watched the movies, I just love the music. For one set of books I listened almost exclusively to the Narnia soundtrack, Powell’s Dragon soundtrack, and Hevia (a great Austrian/Spanish asthmatic electric bagpiper). Whatever, get out there and find yourself music that is fitted to your story, and play it when you write. After a few times, that music will automatically start to trigger the feeling you get from your book. The human brain is a funny thing, and a very skilled thing. It remembers feelings and tacks them with sensations. Those particular songs in your playlist will win half the battle of focusing. When the sound invades your mind, memories flood you. Scan your last paragraphs as it plays, and suddenly you remember exactly who your characters are, what their world looks like, and what you were writing last time you listened to that song. It gives you the feel of your book, which is exactly what you’re aiming at finding when you first sit down to a writing session. Your playlist will hand that to you without much actual work on your part. It takes a few days of writing to get those triggers in place, but it happens. And as an added bonus, two years later when someone flips on a song from your playlist the same sensations will come back, and you remember how much fun you had that November when you wrote that great novel of yours. But even with music playing it is still easy to get distracted, especially when the world around you is going crazy hyper. There’s one more trick that can cancel out a lot of the crazy, a tip that goes hand in hand with your book’s mood music.
Headphones. Invest in a decent pair of sound excluding headphones. This is absolutely essential if you want to be able to write without waiting for the right moment for it. Pop open your laptop, stick your headphones in your ears, turn on your playlist, and TAH-DAH! You are in your own little world. With even a cheap pair of earbuds, if you turn your playlist on loud enough everything fades out of focus, except that music triggering the feeling of your book. The music might seem distractingly loud when you start, but it will fade into a background noise-blocker after a few minutes of typing. And even when you forget it’s playing because you’re so focused on telling your superlative story, those earbuds keep all the incredibly distracting noises from breaking through to register in your mind. Keep your eyes on your screen or notebook, keep the headphones securely on, and let the music do its work. As it plays, breeze the plot points that you’re supposed to get into this new chapter (see my earlier post on Plotting) and remember your ideas. Then sit your fingers on that keyboard, take a deep breath, and start in. Now by the time you actually begin to type you’ve already nearly gained that sensation of being drawn in to your story. After that it just takes a certain amount of determination to keep your eyes on your screen instead of wandering off to the pretty birds in the aviary, or the traffic whizzing around your windows, and you slide right into that smooth focus that allows you to begin to forget yourself and enjoy your book. And those songs keep feeding your subconscious the feel of your book, and gaining a stronger trigger for the next time you open up your laptop. Which means the next time you want to focus, it’s going to be even easier to be drawn in to your book.
See, focusing in the midst of even absolute chaos isn’t that hard after all! But I will give one word of warning; it is a good idea to mention you are going off in your own world before you put your earbuds in and turn up your music. An early warning allows the people around you know they have to punch your arm to get your attention. If you neglect that duty, you might worry them, or make them mad by your studious snub-ery, or you might take off your headphones only to find out you are eating at Phil’s Crab Shack instead of the Olive Garden you wanted. Be prepared to get left out of the world that’s actually around you if you really want to focus on your book’s world. But creating something truly unique and adding a slice of yourself to the literary world is part of the reason we all love writing, isn’t it? And getting that work smooth is worth having to find something likeable on a seafood menu every once in a while.