Staying Focused on Your Writing

Are you one of those people who, every time you start to write, you get bored or annoyed and want to write something completely different?  Are you someone who, at the onset, is completely obsessed with an idea, you fully plot it, develop its characters and then within a month, maybe even a week you just . . .  give up?  Do you keep jumping from one genre to another, not knowing what you want to write about?

 Don’t feel bad. You aren’t alone.  And as one writer to another, I’d like to pass on some advice that was given to me many years ago when I faced the same dilemma:  don’t worry about it.  It’s part of the writer’s curse to have more than one project going at one time. 

To me, writing is like food.  I need it to sustain me.  But I wouldn’t want to eat the same food every day, all day long.  Imagine a week, a month, a year, of eating nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  While that might sound appetizing when you’re first starting out, after about the 20th sandwich, you’re going to want to look around for something different.  That doesn’t mean you don’t want to eat the PB&J.  It just means you just want to add a BLT or maybe even a filet mignon and broiled lobster tail with drawn butter in there every once in awhile, eh?

Same thing with writing.  Your brain doesn’t have one thought, one idea.  It has many.  So, instead of fretting over straying from your main project every now and then, try to find ways to brainstorm and think of ways to turn this to your advantage.  I have found the following help me, some more than others, and maybe they’ll help you, too.

List Building

Writing lists is a great way of brainstorming for ideas.  Let’s say you have an idea floating around for a YA urban vampire novel.  You could start by answering the primary questions:  who, what, where, when, why, how, then you can move on to the bigger picture. This character will meet this one and become involved because ____________.  The police are hot on the trail of a 17 year old kid because _______________.  The story is about hope, lies, understanding, fill because ________.

I find that these sorts of list allow me to get my thoughts on paper quickly and start to categorize the ideas.  After I get my ideas on paper, then I pick the ideas I really like and start to gather evidence to support them, showing how they fit together, refining.

As with eating, don’t limit yourself to one idea.  You may be mulling over a thought you had a breakfast, but you may overhear a conversation at lunchtime that makes you say “OMG, I have to write about that!”  You know, that’s okay.  Make another list.  Keep them all down in a diary or a composition book or notebook, whatever, and just remember, it’s okay to have a gazillion ideas.  One of them will be the one to stick.  One of them will be the one you obsess over because you just have to get the story out of you.  Sometimes you just need to work through the process.

Open-end/Speed Writing

I LOVE open-end writing and speed writing.  In fact, I tried it out on my writers’ group and they LOVE it, too.  This sort of writing stimulates the brain and it forces you as a writer to ‘let go’.  Here  is the idea:  take five minutes, take 3 essentials to a story:  person, place, thing, set your timer for five minutes, and then write.  Don’t stop and think about what you are writing.  Let go of your inhibitions and write. 

Below is what I wrote from my last writers meeting.  The items that had to appear in our stories were:  a barbarian, Hawaii and a bottle of wine.  This is the kind of weird stuff that happens when you don’t think about what you write:

Bob was a barbarian.  He didn’t make any bones about it, either.  He liked being ruthless, mean, smelly and disgustingly nasty.  Everyone thought he was crazy when he killed off the last of the Santa Barbarans and dug a tunnel to Hawaii.  Ha, and the engineers said it couldn’t be done!  He showed them.  1,000 bottles of wine later the inebriated digger ended up on the shores of Waikiki, a club in one hand and an empty wine bottle in the other.  He’d dug the tunnel entirely with broken wine bottles.

He emerged on the sand and was overcome by a twelve-foot wave which washed him into a punk kid greasing up his board.  The surfer fell flat to the ground, the surfboard in his face, his nose broken.

Bob laughed.

Okay, so as you can see it’s not the greatest story in the world.  It’s not going to win any prizes and it certainly left a lot of questions unanswered, but that’s okay.  Sometimes the best ideas are born out of crazy, nonsensical stuff that at first seems idiotic.  The whole idea about this exercise is to read what you wrote, and then try in a sentence to capture its focus or core idea.  This may be a summary of what you wrote.  Then again, maybe not.  You may have strayed off course. You may have started writing about a barbarian, but then strayed off and started talking about the puppies he saw in the store as he ran past.  Five minute exercises like this can help identify problems in your thinking that you didn’t know you had.  Once you identify the problem, you can keep that in mind when you write again.  If, after several exercises like this, you see the problem is you run off in tangents, then you now identify the issue and try to work through how to correct the problem.


I personally don’t use outlines, but I know a lot of writers who do.  Some people like to break everything down in sections, pieces.  When I started In the Shadow of the Dragon King, I made a simple outline.  Chapter 1, I wanted these things to happen.  Chapter 2, these things needed to occur and so on and so on.  This was enough for me because it gave me enough guidance to know if I ended up with 30 more chapters than what I expected, I’d strayed off course – a lot!

Some people like to outline their novels down to each scene.  Chapter 1, Scene 1, Scene 2, Scene 3, etc., and while it works for them, it drives me bonkers.  I like giving my characters a little free room to run.  I have it in my head where they are, what they are doing.  I live them, eat them, breathe them, sleep with them every day.  I know their ins and outs, their highs, their lows.  I know what they ate for breakfast and the last time they got sick, so creating outlines don’t work well with the way my brain works.  However, I am a huge fanatic with timelines and character bios. 

I am writing 3 novels in the Fallhollow saga and without timelines, I’d be lost.  There are battle scenes, transporting between worlds scenes.  There are sections that feel like months have passed when it’s only been days.  It’s very important, almost anal to me, that I keep track of when everything happens.  The last thing you want is for one of your characters to be pregnant for 18 months.  (I saw this once in a published book by a well-known author.  It was historical fiction and even though it seemed as if the girl was pregnant 9 months, the events she experienced while pregnant took place over an 18 month period).

Character bios are very important to me, too.  This is where I develop my characters.  This is where I give them their traits, their flaws, their likes, dislikes.  The way they handle stress (twirling hair around finger, tapping foot).  This is where I decide how many siblings they have, where they live, why they live there.  I interview my characters and write down their answers.  And even though the reader doesn’t see all this info, the characters are solid because of it.

If you’re an outline sort of person, or one who like to have everything laid out in consecutive order, then outlining may be the way to go for you.

Using Other People’s Ideas

There are hundreds of ways to find ideas ready for the taking. When stuck for an idea or if you find your mind wandering on several ideas, try picking up a novel or two, choose a character from each one, and then combine those characters into one.  Or maybe borrow a plot from a fairy tale or traditional story.  It’s not cheating.  It’s called improvising.  If that doesn’t get you, try using famous quotes to spark new ideas or read blogs, newspapers, etc., and comment.  Respond.  Get the ideas flowing.  Who knows, you may end up with the masterpiece you’ve been searching for.

So, what are your ideas on how to stay focused?  I’d love for you to share your tips and methods.