Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Thousand First Pages, or How to Concentrate on One Piece of Writing at a Time

I'll be the first to admit it...I have a hard time concentrating on one story idea at a time.  Often, I am barely at the beginning of a novel or short story when I have a new direction to take it in (which completely changes the storyline I've already started following) or a brand new idea emerges which I want to write instead.

Don't get me wrong, I've finished more than a dozen romance manuscripts so I know it can be done and, more importantly, I know I can do it.  But I am constantly battling the desire to discard the known commodity -- my current creation -- to follow a novel idea.

So, how do I limit myself to a single piece of fiction at a time?  I did it by identifying the enemies of concentration.  Here they are, in no particular order.

Stress/ Anxiety

Often, I skip between various beginnings of stories because I am unable to relax enough to follow through on one train of thought at a time.  In other words, I haven't really put myself in the mindset to write and I end up getting my attention snagged on some other project than the one I sat down to tackle.  But, more than that, I'm not producing my best writing on either piece.

Last month, I posted some suggestions related to balancing your writing with your day job.  Part of that series included ideas for simplifying your life.  Stress and anxiety are an inevitable part of every modern life and managing it is a skill we all need to work on.

Sitting down to write when your mind isn't devoted to writing (you're thinking about work, the kids, the dirty dishes) can lead you to write little bits all over and never finish a thing.

Too Many Ideas

I am blessed/ cursed with a glut of ideas for future writing pieces.  So many of them are good ideas (I think) that I end up trying to write them all.  Hey, writing a first page for a novel or a part of a short story gets the idea monkey off of my back, right?  Wrong.

If you were meant to write a particular novel or story, it will persist.  It will keep coming back to the front of your thoughts, demanding attention, until you cannot resist any longer.  We should be spending our time writing these stories, the ones our minds and imaginations just cannot let go.

We do not have to write a story for every idea that pops into our brains.  That's what a writing journal is for: to park the idea until we do have time to give it the proper care and attention it deserves.  Until then, the book we are currently writing should grab all of our attention.  That is the only way I personally can ever finish a manuscript.

Lack of Time

It's funny, you would think a lack of time would require you to concentrate on one project at a time out of sheer necessity.  Not so.  Feeling that I lack time to write can sometimes cause me to skip between incomplete pieces -- the dreaded multitasking.  It doesn't work for my writing and I seriously doubt it works for many people.

Just because I'm crunched for time doesn't mean that I can get more out of my precious writing time by writing a page for five different stories instead of adding five pages to my most recent project.  Doing the math, you would realize that it takes five times longer to finish any one of the five simultaneous pieces than it would to expend all of your energy into completing one piece and then polishing it for submission.

Yes, there is often an inner desire to multitask to optimize my writing time.  I resist it by utilizing some simple strategies.

  • I open only one writing file at a time.
  • When I'm finished with a spurt of writing on that single project, I walk away from the computer while I take a break instead of sitting in front of it, where I may be tempted to open up another file just to say 'hi'.
  • I keep my file at the tip of my fingers for when I sit back down.  Often, my cursor is hovering right on the filename so that I can open it up quickly.
  • If I do want to check out my progress on another story or novel, I wait until the end of my writing session to do this.  That way, I am tired and less inclined to start writing again.
In our current world of multitasking, concentrating on a single writing project at a time can seem counterintuitive and worse, counterproductive.  However, I am convinced that my writing is better when I have one focus and one fictional vista opened up in my mind without switching between alternate worlds.

Photo courtesy of twobee at

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