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How to Focus on One Story

How to Focus on One Story

How to Focus on One StoryA lot of my novel-mentees struggle to stay focused on one story at a time. I get that. I mean, there’s so many other sparkly things out there to explore!

That abundance of story ideas might be a good thing far down the road, when you’re churning out multiple books a year. But early on, it can be dangerous. It’s always tempting to ditch whatever piece you’re working on for the newest, shiniest idea. And that’s what you want to avoid, particularly if you’re a chronic follower of random, time-device wielding rabbits.

 

Here are some tricks I use when I hear the siren call of another project, especially at an inopportune moment:

  • Remind myself why I love my current story. One of my writing professors used to make us write out a list of 30 scenes we were excited about in the story. The idea was to get them down, then figure out which order works best, and then try to move between them as quickly as possible during the draft. This might be a fun way for you to think ahead and stay motivated about this story.
  • Cheat a little. Sometimes, even if we prefer to write linearly, it’s appropriate to jump ahead to a scene we’re really excited about. Often when we’re most excited, the scene will come the smoothest. It will take revision (sometimes a lot of it) to make sure the scene fits in the overall flow once you have your draft, but this can be an invigorating exercise to remind you why you love this story and are excited to finish it.
  • Keep a notebook. Any time I have a story idea that threatens to derail my concentration, I write it down in a notebook and leave it there. I’m not allowed to daydream about it or write anything unless I have a moment of absolute clarity for a scene or plot point — and if I do, I have to just jot that down and leave it again.
  • Surround myself with story ascetic. In the early parts of drafting, I’ll spend a lot of time creating a playlist for my story, building a pinterest board, making graphics (like desktop wallpapers), and playing dress up games (it sounds weird but it’s really fun way to visualize your characters when you can’t draw). In the past, I would even make a physical story board with inspirational pictures and quotes! I’m a visual and audio learner, so having a cellphone background from a story or a playlist I can switch on while driving helps me stay in the mindset of the story I need to work on.
  • Outline. Extensively. This is 100% my style preference, but I’m a huge outliner. I used to be afraid of outlining because I didn’t want to “spoil” it for myself. But what I’ve learned about myself is that I write more confidently when I know exactly where each scene is going. If I don’t know what direction I’m headed, I stall out, get lazy, and then wander off somewhere else.
  • Draft fast. Back in the far-off days, I would take years to finish the first draft of a manuscript. This was partially because of the faulty belief that finishing the manuscript was the time-consuming part. Again, as I grew into writing, I realized that I tend to be much heavier (and more effective) in revision. It was in my best interests to make a crazy detailed outline and do a lot of prep work, draft in a month or two, and then return for revisions later. If I took a long time on the first draft, I would get bored and want to move on.
  • Intentional breaks. I wouldn’t have done this as a young writer, but it’s something I do a lot now: I’ll have two projects going at once. Ideally, they’ll be at different stages of production. For example, right now while I’m in the final-final edits of my debut, I’m also in the early plotting/brainstorming part of Book 2. When I need to take a break from one project to let my brain rest, I can switch into a different mode to work on something different. Again, I think this is something I got better at after I’d already been through several story projects, so it might not be the wisest thing to play with, but it is something to keep in mind as an option.

I’m curious: What do you do to keep focused, or when do you find yourself most likely to wander into another project?

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Alyssa

Alyssa was born in small town Milton, Florida, but life as a roving military kid soon mellowed her (unintelligibly strong) Southern accent. Wanderlust is in her blood, and she’s always waiting for the wind to change. Stories remain her constant. Alyssa received her bachelor’s in English/Creative Writing from Berry College and her master's in Creative Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. Alyssa is represented by Amber Caraveo at Skylark Literary. Her debut The Eleventh Trade – "a powerful story of love, loss, friendship and hope, centered around Sami, a young refugee from Afghanistan now building a new life with his grandfather in Boston" – will be published Fall 2018 by Macmillan (U.S.) and HotKey (U.K.).

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4 Comments

  1. Hello Miss,

    I want to wander into another story when I get stuck in the one I am currently outlining/writing. Or when a new, shiny idea strikes me and I think ”Oh, this might just be the story I will never get stuck in!” So, it’s really all about being stuck, which is similar to writer’s block. Ideas won’t come or if they do they’re just not what I’m looking for. Do you have tips to get unstuck?

    Thank you for this post!

    1. Good question! Normally I find the best way to get unstuck is to take a break from engaging in the story in the “normal” way and do some creative brainstorming exercises. I’ve got two blog entries that are a bit more thorough on this (one about novel journal activities and one about procrastinating), but basically letting your brain take a rest from pushing for a day or two (maybe a week or two at most) to allow new ideas will help. If you like plotting, maybe revisit your plot for the next few chapters or for the entire book (depending on how blocked you felt). Either way, try to return to work full-speed after just a short break. You don’t want your little break to turn into an even bigger block!

  2. I’m an aspiring author and also (unfortunately) a perfectionist. I have re-written the first third of my ‘main’ story about four times because I didn’t like it; but in the mean time, other story ideas have struck. At first I have stopped my main project and tried to follow the other ones, but then just got in a muddle. Now, I have a small notebook for each story idea and when a new scene or plot line or conversation comes to me, I write it down in the relevant book for when I’ll need it later. Hopefully by the time I get around to writing those novels, I’ll have a note book ready full of ideas.

    Recently I had a new idea which really threatened to take over my main project, and having no spare note books to hand, I stole an A3 sheet of paper from my daughter’s art book and mind mapped/ spider diagram the characters and basic plot and how they relate to each other. That took me about four hours, but after I finished (for the time being!) I was able to put it down and continue with the project at hand. I think that might be the way to go in the future.

    1. Way to go! Always nice to hear from a fellow perfectionist. 😉 It sounds like you’re well on your way to figuring out what works for you.

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