Rather than write a monster blog post, I’m breaking this up into three pieces:
3. Part 3 – Staying Focus – This post!
When I was writing short stories for fun, sometimes I’d stop working on one to work on another. There was no problem in that, as I didn’t owe anyone anything and so I skated to where the puck of my passion was or was going to be (too Canadian there for ya?).
At least, that’s how it was at first. Then I started to get annoyed at myself, and so I’d force myself to finish a story. That probably was why I’d write one or FIVE stories and then have those long breaks. I had no method to my madness.
When you unlock your creativity there’s a feeling that if we ignore any of it, that we might ‘lose our touch’. But if we chase everything, then we’ll finish nothing.
This isn’t unique to writing, but it probably affects us more because at least for writers like myself, having too many stories going on in my head at once in different universes (The Yellow Hoods versus a high fantasy versus a gritty back-street tale) just drains you. It brings about that feeling like you’re just spinning and getting nowhere.
When I was writing Along Came a Wolf, it only took me a month and so the desire to do something else was low. Also, it was my first story I’d written in a very long time, and it became my first book, so there was all manner of honeymoon sentiments around it.
For decades I’ve kept notebooks of ideas. The main one that I’ve been using for the past couple of years, and only really started to fill up since The Yellow Hoods series started, is about 8″ by 15″. I like the feel and look of it.
That notebook is where I work out the details of what I’m working on now, and what I’m likely to work on next and little else. It’s not for capturing every little idea and notion, etc. For that, I use an app.
I’ve gone through a lot of different task and todo list apps over the years, but the one that I find really helps me for the way I need to work is Things.
It allows me to define Areas, Areas have Projects and Projects have Tasks. So The Yellow Hoods Series is an area, Book 3 is a Project as is Marketing/Launch. Tasks depend on what I’m using the project for.
In a Marketing/Launch project, it could be “write awesome monthly newsletter.” So regular ‘tasks’ as you might expect. However when it’s a book or other story, it’s plot points, ideas as well as potentially tasks. I use the tags feature to differentiate (when I need to).
If I’m on the train and I have a Book 4 – All the King’s Men idea, I go into the app, and stuff that idea in as a new ‘task’ for the Book 4 project, and then my mind is free. If I have an idea for a new series or short story or a “I’m not sure what to do with this yet”, I either create a project for it in an Area called “Crazy New Ideas” or “Potential Books” and stuff the ideas there.
Every now and then, when I don’t know what to do with myself, I’ll go and clean up those areas. Some ideas I’m able to fold into other projects, and some of them I throw away. I find I don’t keep that many of them, it really has to be survival of the fittest.
When I was part way through writing Book 2 – Breadcrumb Trail, I ran into an interesting opportunity to write a DieselPunk story as a submission for an anthology. The anthology had a deadline of August 1st, my book had a deadline two weeks earlier.
I knew that it wasn’t a good idea for a writer like me to work on multiple things at once, but this really was a good opportunity. If I could write something (I’d never heard of DieselPunk before then) and get it in, then I’d be able to increase my reach of potential readers for my other works.
So I did. At one point, I had to stop working on the DieselPunk story (called The Torrents of Tangier) because I was contaminating it with The Yellow Hoods feel and themes, and I was putting myself in a weird mental state to write The Yellow Hoods. I stopped, finished book 2, did 4 instead of my usual 3 passes before editing started to clean it up, and then returned to the Torrents story and get it in proper shape and out the door.
If I’d missed the book deadline, it would mean that I’d be going to two Fan Expos without a book 2 to offer, SaskExpo and EdmontonExpo, at the end of September. That would have been a disaster. But I made it, however, it cost me a lot more time on both than if I’d just focused on one at a time as I ultimately had to.
In part 2, I talked about coaches and accountability partners briefly, but this is another part where they can play a key role.
It’s completely reasonable for you to decide that you are going to put a project down and do something else for a bit. Maybe you don’t have the skill to get it to where it should go, which is how I felt about my memoir (see parts 1). Or maybe you’ve been slogging it out and just can’t move forward.
The role of the coach or accountability partner in those situations is to help you determine whether or not this is really warranted, and what the risks are. As a coach, I’ve challenged people with “What’s really the issue here?” Sometimes it’s:
- Burnt out – You’ve been writing too much, too long, and need to get some R&R. You might not like it, but you need it. This is a good reason to pause, figure out how to get the breather, and then WHEN to jump back in. Don’t return too early. Maybe you need a week off, not a day. But don’t use this to hide the next reason.
- Scared – This is a biggy. Maybe you’re afraid of finishing it off because it means you will be judged on that work. The coach/partner’s role here is to sniff this out and not let you run away. Finishing and getting something out there is the single most important part of the whole endeavour. There is no point in writing 20 great starts when you could FINISH one mediocre work, because finishing that work will bring you SO MUCH experience for doing everything after it that you rob yourself of if you don’t.
- Wrong Project – You took on the project that you felt you should, as opposed to the project that is a best fit for the moment. That sense of obligation can weigh on your creative process.
- Stumped – This is where the coach/partner, I think, has a huge responsibility. The writer needs someone they can talk talk things out with, through darts at the wall with, kick things around and change things up.
As a coach, it’s important to share what you’re doing, your challenges and the struggles you’re going through. You aren’t supposed to be the all knowing, all seeing mentor, you’re just on slightly higher ground (i.e. a bit further along) that the person you’re helping. Some writers need this because having a peer can make them feel like it’s too people lost in the forest together, and they at best, you might die a horrible death with company.
For other people, they need a peer, that gym buddy, with whom they can most closely relate. Each success of one half of the partnership fuels a little competitive element in the other person to catch up and do better, and that becomes a virtuous cycle. Until … well…
This has nothing to do with ripping the heart out of your accountability partner or coach. Not really. Well… no, not that much.
Staying focused is about being ruthless in getting to the goal, and that goal is FINISHING the piece you’re working on. It’s about not letting yourself be tempted away, but also not staying on an impossible quest. It’s about removing the distractions (like using the app approach to stuff things away) and stealing the time from wherever you can while maintaining a healthy life and environment around you.
In 1995 I had a severe hard drive crash. I lost everything I’d been writing for the past four years. I had been insanely prolific in that period. When I went to my first backup tape, it failed. But HAHA! I was PARANOID and so pulled out the SECOND backup tape, which also failed. I was left with some printed copies of the some of the works, some older versions here and there, but psychologically it was very, very hard to take.
I look back at The Great Crash of ’95 different these days. Yes, I use cloud storage, and have a copy copies elsewhere, but MOST IMPORTANTLY I am getting my stuff finished and out into people’s hands. I would rather have something out there that changed the life of 5 people in a small way and that 100 people hated, than a million stories that ceased to exist that no one ever knew about.
So consider your story to be male, and then in the words of Mortal Kombat, “FINISH HIM!”
The End. There is no part 4.