When I was at school, one of the main criticisms I remember my teachers putting in my report cards was that I tended to daydream. They were right. I still do it. In fact, I generally consider it a bit of a boon as a story writer and especially as a pantser (that is, someone who prefers to write with little or no pre-set plan; in other words, someone who writes ‘by the seat of their pants’) because I just write whatever I dream up.
The trouble is, while this might be a more enjoyable way to write (at least for me), it’s not a terribly efficient way to write anything much larger than a couple of thousand words because the vast majority of what you write gets wasted. I know it works for some people (it certainly comes more naturally to me) but in reality, I find I only end up expending a lot of effort creating something very poorly organised at best. I decided, therefore, to stop complaining about how much more painstaking it would be and start trying to plan my large projects properly (I still pants the shorter things – like this blog!); beginning with research, then planning out the particulars of my story and finally, when all that was done, writing up the story as I planned it.
I immediately hit an obstacle; my own easily distracted, wandering mind. Sometimes, as I was researching my story, I got bored and ended up daydreaming about the writing (or even publishing – ha!) stage. Other times I would go too far the other way; I would find the research so interesting that I would forget what it was I was actually researching for and would begin perusing the internet for increasingly irrelevant things (for instance, I was recently researching the so called ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ for a novel I’m working on. Before I knew it, I had spent half an hour reading a fascinating but entirely irrelevant article about the German Imperial Army). Try as I might, I could not resist the pull of distraction. At least in school, daydreaming was the only thing I had to distract me. When I’m trying to write at home, without a teacher breathing down my neck, there’s about a million other things that can distract me in addition to daydreaming; the internet, books, TV and plain old fashioned staring out the window, for instance.
However, not willing to be deterred from my recent conversion to planner, I decided to try a new approach. Instead of trying to force myself to focus on the task, I decided to try and reach a compromise with myself which I am pleased to say, appears to be paying off. It’s quite simple really.
I give myself half an hour to work on my writing and not a second longer. As soon as that alarm rings to tell me my half hour is up, I set another alarm for a short break of five or ten minutes in which I can do anything but writing. Once that five minutes is up, I go back to writing for another half hour and repeat the process over and over. Thus, my day is divided into many half hour writing segments, punctuated by many short breaks. I tend to spend the first half hour writing whatever random scribblings I want to (just to get it out of my system) but after that, I focus resolutely on the researching/planning/writing I am supposed to be doing.
The reason I’ve found this helpful is that even someone as easily distracted as me finds it relatively easy to stay focused in half hour bursts. My little breaks give me ample opportunity to read other things, daydream or whatever else it is I feel like doing while still affording the majority of my time to the actual work I’ve got to do. In the unlikely event that I do become distracted when I’m supposed to be working, I don’t lose more than a few minutes since my little break is usually sufficient to get me back on track with what I’m supposed to be doing. It also makes the whole process altogether more enjoyable. After all, I do happen to love writing and even the research stage can often be very interesting since it probably involves learning about something I’m at least half-interested in (if you’re not interested in the subject matter of your own novel, drop it and do something else; if you’re not interested in it, why should anyone else be?). What I do find frustrating about meticulously researching and planning my novel before I write it is how difficult I find it to restrain my wandering, distracted, daydreaming mind that gets fed up doing the same chore for hours on end. When that happens, discouragement quickly follows and it’s all too easy to yield to the temptation to play a game or read a book instead. Breaking up my day with lots of microbreaks keeps me refreshed and allows me to reach a compromise with my urge to stare out the window.
It works for me, at any rate. If you’re a chronic window-starer-outter, you might want to give it a bash – and be sure to comment and let us all know if you’re aware of any other good ways to keep your mind from wandering!