Is Your Killer Focus On The Loose?

While we’re day-dreaming about making it big, our most important ally is sawing his way into freedom one bar at a time. A killer focus doesn’t work with promises of glorious results, but with tangible little things he can use.

Setting clear and achievable goals is the first essential step in becoming a professional writer, but goals alone are just the expressions of dreams. Beautiful and desirable, but still only figments of our imagination. What transforms them into reality is our gradual investment in them, our focused work. You know, “focus”, one of those famous top habits of successful people. The one that comes in fancy combinations of words that send chills down your spine, like razor-sharp or even laser focus. Wow. It even sounds so darn good: “keep your eyes on the finish line”, “focus on the target”, “Aim with yer eye, then with yer shotgun, son!”

Focusing on the result works brilliantly with tasks. But with long projects, such as building a house or writing a novel and getting it published? Nuh, not so much. I’ve always wondered, how the freck am I supposed to know what I’m doing right now if my gaze is fixed on the horizon? How am I supposed to know if my efforts are worth a sweat if I’m not paying close attention to the here and now, but instead I’m drooling at my glorious goals far ahead?

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my little blip of an existence, while I was building a house with my own hands and practically living in a sleeping bag on the concrete floor, is this:

Focus is worthless if it’s directed at the wrong thing.

Just like we can’t get results if we invest energy randomly, our edifice won’t amount to anything if we stare at the layout while we throw bricks at the ground. Big projects must be broken down into manageable tasks, and the focus must shift to each individual task as it is being accomplished.

Focusing on the end result, on our goal, is easy. It’s our dream after all, we believe it’s going to make us happy and rich and famous for all eternity. Of course we’re keeping our eyes on the prize, that’s where our motivation is coming from. But it’s not what will help us turn our daily efforts into a functioning whole.

Now enough of that philosophical yakking. *takes a gulp of coffee* Here’s the battle plan for writing a novel.

Say the goal is to finish writing a 100K paranormal thriller by August 2013. We have 12 months to complete the project. Here’s how breaking down into manageable tasks works:

100,000 words in 12 months
December falls away because it’s Christmas and New Year and most of the month is spent gorging and toasting anyway, so any work done will probably be drunk stammering. So that leaves us with 11 months.
Take one month for preliminary worldbuilding and planning. Research will be an ongoing task along the way.
100,000 words in 10 months
makes 10,000 words a month
To stay sane, let’s say we write only 5 days a week and play video games have a life on weekends. An average month has 4 weeks, which means it has 20 workdays, and we need to get 10K words done each month.
makes 500 words per day

Think about it.

How does “I must write 2 pages today” sound like, compared to “I’d love to write a novel by next summer”?

The dream of a finished novel feels kinda hazy, doesn’t it? Sounds too good to be true. It’s such a big project, there are so many things you need to take care of, so many aspects and things to learn, there’s planning and fidgeting and so many feelings… But how about getting two pages done by bedtime?

Bit by bit. Day by day. Forget the big goal at the end of the road, focus on your next step. Invest all your energy, every muscle and every breath into making just this one step. Plant your foot, shift your weight and stand. Task accomplished.

We all know how to break down a goal into manageable tasks. But it’s no good to focus on it while we work on the individual tasks. We start out with it, make a battle plan for it, and then switch to execution mode and focus on each task. We can’t invest half of our energy into working to achieve that goal, and half into sustaining The Dream. That second half is wasted. I believe we must invest all our energy into every task we perform, and the total amount of these tasks will create the reality of that goal we wanted to reach.

This is how I function. This is how a plotter functions.

What’s your strategy?

 

17 Replies to “Is Your Killer Focus On The Loose?”

  1. More great advice, Vero. I’m starting to think there’s something sinister at work here with this whole “never disagreeing” thing. Are you a figment of my imagination? Am I a figment of your imagination?

    Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly, and do my best to apply pretty much this exact philosophy into my daily routine. And it’s interesting how you broke down the word count goal, because it’s very similar to how I always arrive at my own daily goal. If I’m working with a deadline (self-imposed or otherwise), I always try to figure out what the minimum daily requirement is, then double it. For instance, in this example my daily goal would have been 1000 words (which, interestingly enough is actually my default goal when I’m not working to deadline). Of course, you don’t always hit that goal, but sometimes you soar right past it. The important thing is keeping that magic number in mind.

    And you’ve illustrated exactly why that relatively small goal is so damned important. Shooting for the moon is great . . . but if you’re not paying attention on the way, you might smack right into some space junk, and before you know it you’re heading back down to Earth. Probably on fire. 😀

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    1. Ha! 😀 Matrix loop, eh? Unbelievable.

      My current wordcount target for my WIP is 1,000 words per writing day (which is usually a working day) but just like you said, it’s not etched in stone. Some days it’s only 600-700 words, other days it’s closer to 2,000. I usually try to finish a scene the same day I start it, because of the internal cohesion and the “feel” of it. Otherwise it feels chopped off. Making that one scene tight and strong is all I’m focusing on. Then it’s on to the next one.

      Thank you very much for the comment! 🙂

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  2. I try my best to write everyday, but I don’t come even close to that. With my job, I travel a lot and I’m always having to be “on” in front of clients. So when I get home, I’m emotionally drained. But when I write, it’s like the floodgates exploding. I wrote 6,000 words in one weekend. That’s a lot for a perfectionist like me.

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    1. Your struggles with the schedule are very relatable, Jay. It sucks having to put writing last on a list when it’s the thing you want to do most in the world. But you’re a great example of determination trumping difficulty. Big kudos for that!

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      1. Thanks!!!

        Since my time is limited, I have to make the best use of my time. So I outline an entire book these days. Helps keep me focused. I probably stick to that outline 75% of the time, so I’m not fanatical about it.

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  3. Great article, Vero! This is why I’m a big proponent of having an outline when you write. Some may be able to write without one, but I found it next to impossible to complete a novel without it. This allows me to completely immerse myself in whatever scene I am writing, even letting it meander organically, knowing that when I come back up for air all I have to do is grab hold of the (out)line to know where to go next to get to the ‘goal’ or end of the book.

    Focus is definitely something that must be shifted based on what the ‘lens’ is pointed at. And breaking down your goal of writing 100k in a year into manageable chunks is great advice. As long as it took me to write my last book, I vowed that my next one would go much quicker and have begun formulating mental tools such as what you mentioned to make sure it happens. I need to pick up the pace if I’m ever going to get any traction at this ‘writing as a career’ thing! 🙂

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    1. Outlines are awesome! They’re fun to write and offer great support during the loooong drafting process. I gotta admit, I wish I could work on a detailed outline, download the story from my head and plaster it on paper, and then review & revise the shit out of it for the next half year. That’d be great. But we haven’t invented the right kind of nanobots for the downloading task just yet, so I have to draft. And it’s the outline that keeps me going and steers me, even if I end up changing it as I move deeper into the story. Shifting focus to the part of it I’m currently working on is a great energy saver and helps me build momentum.

      Thanks a lot for the comment, Tim. We share a similar experience with this. And yeah, the first novel is the longest and hardest to write, but every headache with it is a lesson well learned. I hope. 😉

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      1. Just for the record, when I refer to my ‘last’ book I guess I meant the sci_fi book that I’m currently in the process of getting epubbed. (Still tinkering with minor edits and cover work). My first novel was actually a fantasy piece that I completed in the mid-90’s. The first took me around 3 years to finish if I remember, whereas the space opera took longer as far as years are concerned, but maybe not so much if you count the actual time put into working on it because of everything going on in my life at the time, e.g. birth of a child, major job changes, health issues, divorce, etc.

        And yes, the first was definitely the hardest and though it never saw the light of publishing day, I learned much from it. In some ways I’m glad it never did get published, as I’m definitely a much better writer now (and hope to continue getting better). While I’m a firm believer in the writing community and all the wonderful advice out there, the only way we can truly progress as writers is to keep writing.

        Cheers!

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  4. Well, we’ve had the plotter/pantser discussion before, and I fall somewhere in the middle..BUT..I do get up every single morning at 5 a.m. and write for an hour. This typically nets me anywhere from 500-1000 words. On weekends I can sneak in a bit more. In 3 months, for a 65-70k young adult novel, I have a first draft. Then I can bookmap and clean the sucker up. Slow and steady wins the race. I’d add consistency and dedication to that focus!

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    1. Hear, hear!

      In my opinion, writing is always a combination of plotting and pantsing, however we look at it, but it’s completely irrelevant if there’s, how you said, consistency and dedication, and the drive to do what it takes to see a work finished. One has an outline, another a daily writing schedule, another yet a chunk of time set aside to write with pure madness (like a month or two at a writer’s retreat). Writing is rewriting — and the more focus there is, the less sweat it’ll cause.

      Thanks for the comment, Jaye. 🙂

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  5. Great post Vero – and absolutely spot-on for where I keep finding myself… I get so focused on “I have to finish the book, I have to finish the book” that I lose sight of the writing that’s getting me there. I have a monthly writing/editing goal, which helps, but am still far too focused on the end-game most of the time – because even a monthly goal is an end-game, right? I like the concept of approaching a novel as 500 words a day – even on my worst day I can manage that, and if I’m having a less-than-worst day and get more words, that’s just a bonus then… Thanks for some great food for thought – and for stopping by with encouraging words the other day! 🙂

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      1. Thanks, Jill! For the comment, the shared experience and the linkage — and wish you a wonderful vacation!

        Keeping things simple in matter of goals and breaking down tasks is guaranteed to lower stress levels, and give more room to the creative part of the brain to frolic. Having wordcount targets is awesome for perseverance and discipline, but focusing on goals that cannot be achieved immediately (such as a whole novel compared to those 500 words a day) only creates unnecessary pressure where there shouldn’t be any. 🙂

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  6. Great post, Vero. Any seemingly overwhelming project can be broken down into manageable pieces. But sometimes we still freak out until we take a deep breath and start tackling each section individually.

    One of your most important points is recognizing and planning for less productive periods, such as holidays. If we factor that downtime into the planning process, we’ll be fine.

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    1. Thank you, Cindy! Holidays and days off during the week are important, because—life. We’re never gonna hit the target every day, and these provide a buffer. And, well, time off to energize. 🙂

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