Sunday, 6 August 2017

Writing for Beginners (34)

Learning to Focus

A recent shopping expedition to find a birthday present for my wife found me in a similar situation, writing-wise, to a friend who writes short fiction. Surrounded by a plethora of goodies, all suitable (and, what’s more, all potential vote-winners in the pressie stakes) I dithered and shuffled like a nervous teenager on a blind date, not sure what to choose.
Basically, (and here I hasten to say I depart from the teenager analogy – my teens, anyway) there were so many possibilities on offer I couldn’t decide which one to go for. In the end, I allowed greed to heap disaster on me by snatching at something in haste… which, as it happened, proved unsuitable.

But back to my friend. He mentioned that in spite of an abundance of ideas, he had recently found himself in a cycle of constantly starting something, then running out of steam because he couldn’t focus on where to go next. This had resulted in a string of projects, all abandoned at various stages and each resembling a lengthy art-house film: no end in sight and not a lot that made sense.

‘Lucky beggar!’ I hear you mutter. ‘If only I had so many.’

The fact is, many writers experience moments like this, when they can't focus on one particular task.  So eager are they to get their ideas down on paper they flit from one to the other like a honeybee on steroids and end up making a pig’s ear out of each one.

I usually find it hits me just after I’ve completed a large or difficult project, as I slough off the mental concentration of the previous job and try to fix on something new. With ideas collected all around me, I find my wastebasket becomes full of paper balls, my PC games get a hammering and I tend to drift around the house like Marley’s ghost.

This is where self-discipline comes in, and you have to rein back your enthusiasm for grasping at straws or launching into something without some forethought.

Begin by clearing your desk of all those project idea notes you’ve gathered save one. Yes, of course the others are wonderful gems, harvested in the bath, on the train or wherever it is your best ideas hit you. And yes, you want to write them all. But they are also a huge distraction. Stuff them in an envelope and put them somewhere temporarily out of reach, or give them to your neighbour with strict instructions not to let you near them for at least a week.

Now look at your choice of market. One way to help decide what to write, is to focus on the market you want to write for. Given that most magazines have a limited range of subjects or story styles they will accept, this immediately limits what you can work on. You should inevitably find yourself discarding all thoughts about writing anything that is not appropriate.

An alternative is to check the current stock of writing competitions. These may call for a genre or topic you wouldn’t normally try, but as a discipline it will focus your thinking away from that vast plethora of ideas swirling around in your brain.

This is also useful in that as well as a subject goal, you are automatically set a time limit. There’s nothing like knowing you have to meet a deadline for focussing the mind. It cuts out the temptation to dash off at a tangent – usually in pursuit of an idea which has just popped into your mind along with that little voice on your shoulder telling you it will be a real doddle to knock off in a couple of hours. It won’t, of course, and you know it.

Another stumbling-block to completing anything mid-stream is a lack of regular planning. This can be over a simple but important scene which, although small beans compared to the whole story, is enough to make you down tools in frustration and reach for something else.

Instead of letting this minor glitch derail your thoughts completely, take a long, hard look at the scene where you are stuck. On separate lines beneath it, type the key words of what you would like to happen next. (I generally use capitals to ‘shout’ at myself so I don’t miss anything – even if I eventually discard a particular idea). Forget grammar and punctuation – simply put down the points you need to cover.

For example, your key scene might have a character agonising over resigning from a high-powered but hated job, and the inevitable furore that will follow. You could end up with: FEAR – DECISION – DECLARATION – BOSS’S REACTION. Then think about what kind of scene could logically come next. You might end up with: FINANCES – OTHER CONSEQUENCES – ALTERNATIVES - WALKING OUT – FREEDOM – RELEASE. Repeat, as the old medicine bottles used to say, as needed.

In this way you are focussing on a small but crucial part of the story each time, instead of the whole feast. Rather than letting it defeat you, tempting you to grab hold of something else in the hope that it may be easier, you are building stepping stones towards completion of the larger picture.

Before you know where you are, you’ve got the path forward to the next scene and can repeat the exercise as required, instead of pigging out on ideas and ruining all your hard work.


·        Focus on one idea at a time. Trying too many at once will inevitably water down your efforts.
·        Plan what you intend to do next and stick to it.
·        Look for writing challenges (competitions, story websites requesting themed submissions) and see what inspiration they throw up.
·        Read, watch and listen. There are ideas out there everywhere.

Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out.



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