by Tiffany Yates Martin
I want to tell you about a writing tool that will generate infinite story ideas; that will almost unfailingly allow you to accrue steady word counts; that can help you solve literally any problem in your manuscript.
I know it sounds too good to be true, but this tool works—nearly infallibly—as long as you are using it.
If I promised you a tool like that for your writing, I’m guessing most authors would snatch it up and be eager to start wielding it—but you already own this tool. And I’m betting it often sits neglected in your author toolbox.
Hold on—I know it’s trite to talk about how hard it is to write in a distracted world, but for just one moment, try an exercise with me. For the rest of the day, just pay attention. Make a note—mental or actual—of every time you let your focus on whatever you’re doing or working on slip, even slightly, into something else.
What do you do on it? How long does that take? Actually time it. As you’re getting ready or exercising or walking your dogs, are you reading email, scrolling social media, surfing the internet, texting or talking, reading, listening to a podcast? If you commute, do you listen to books on tape or podcasts or news or music? Talk on the phone?
Do you get pulled away after a time to “real quick” look at email, or answer a text, or “just check this one thing” you have to know right that moment? Notice how long your distraction lasts. Notice how long it takes when you refocus on your task before your focus starts to slip again. Notice how many times you pick up your phone in an hour, in a day.
While you’re watching TV, are you also on the phone or your computer? While reading, do you stop to look things up or take a quick look at social media?
Good writing happens as a result of—at the risk of going Jack Handey on you—deep thoughts. Scattered, shallow thoughts result in underdeveloped, shallow stories. That’s not the kind most of us want to create, but rather the stories that draw readers deeply into their world, that present characters who feel fully fleshed and real, that move readers or make them think or make them see the world in a new way.
And yet most of us are constantly denying our brains that state of full concentration that allows us to fully develop stories like that.
There’s a Cherokee parable you may be familiar with that I’ll sum up: An elder tells his grandson there are two wolves battling inside each of us, one that is our evil impulses and one that is our good ones.
“Which one wins?” the boy asks.
The grandfather says, “The one you feed.”
Think of your focus as those two wolves: one that allows you to think deeply, concentrate fully, give yourself wholly to your writing—or any pursuit—and one that wants to take you down an internet search rabbit hole or suck you into social media or texts or emails or any other distractions.
When I first did this, I realized that I was flipping between something I was working on and email or the internet about every five or ten minutes. A recent UC-Irvine study found that after your focus is broken it can take 23 minutes to regain it, so in most cases I never actually fully got my focus back before I broke it again.
How can we solve thorny plot problems, deeply develop character, or even stay oriented to the world of our stories if we are constantly fragmenting our thoughts?
It will be hard at first.
Even with the intention of concentrating on a certain thing for a period of time, I’m startled at how often I notice a powerful, insidious pull to “fact check” something really quickly, or bop into email, or just take a quick peek at social media for a brain break, or go grab a snack—especially if what I’m working on is hard or I don’t want to do it.
You can look up that perfect word or obscure research detail later. I make a quick note in brackets when I’m stuck on something to remind me to come back and fix it, e.g., “[something funny here]” or “[research time it takes to refocus].” And then I keep writing. Remember every time you stop to look something up, it will take you 23 minutes to get that deep focus back.
Multitasking is a myth, as countless studies have proven. Human brains cannot effectively focus on more than one task at a time. What you’re actually doing is breaking your form. Set blocks of time—whatever works best for you (I like 30 to 90 minutes at a pop)—where you resolve not to allow your truculent brain to wander anywhere else, at all, and rigidly stick to it.
Having an off switch is good—your brain needs the rest, and often the problems you’ve been focusing on will keep perking in the background while you give it one. The trick is to make sure you’re doing it intentionally, rather than your focus being hijacked, and that it’s true downtime, not more of that same kind of distraction, leaping from thought to random thought like a capuchin monkey trained by our habitual lack of focus.
Stand up, take a walk, do jumping jacks, play with your kids or pets, even scroll social media if you must. (Though be aware it’s literally designed to suck your brain and be addictive.) Just be sure to keep the break to a defined period of time so it doesn’t leak into the rest of your focus blocks for the day.
You might also work on something else that requires less focus or a different part of your brain. I often switch from deep editing, for instance, to a brief break of something like working on my website redesign, or writing a blog post, or interviewing an author for my How Writers Revise feature.
And stay present in those moments where you are gathering information for your storytelling (in other words, life), rather than burying your head—and your focus—in your computer or your phone. Don’t lose the present moment by “leaving” it with your distracted attention. Everyday experiences—both your own and those you observe—are rich fodder for story. Let yourself fully live them.
How about you, authors--do you find your focus to be slippery when you’re writing? How often? What distractions fracture your attention? What techniques do you have to combat them? Please share your story down in the comments!
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Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels, including the upcoming The Way We Weren't (Nov., Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.
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