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Home » Advice, Community, op-eds

The Focus of a Writer

Submitted by on February 26, 2014 – 10:50 am

Many of my life successes I attribute to my ability to focus.  I’ve written before (http://theotherstephenkingonwriting.blogspot.com/2012/08/two-lessons-about-goal-setting.html) about the focus on a physical fitness goal that earned me admission to West Point, for example.  Focus earned me graduation from there with dual majors, and focus later helped me finish all the way to a PhD.  Focus in my day job has carried me through a great many hurdles that seemed impossible at first.

As an indie writer, the need to focus is still present, but it’s different.

I didn’t realize that at first.  Heck, I didn’t realize at first that I’d end up being an indie writer.  As I’ve heard most do, I saw writing the first book as the real hurdle; after I finished that, I’d sell it for hundreds of thousands of dollars to a big publishing house, and they’d take care of everything else, forever after.

Now, don’t tell me you didn’t also, at one time or another, bear such a fantasy….

Thus it was that I finished my first book, revised it, had it edited, secured eighty rejections before finding a small publisher who’d take it on, and then realized I needed to get another book done.  I furiously started revising the draft of the second novel, and then, as so many other writers have described, the glass slipper of the publishing offer shattered.

Since then I’ve gotten four books out there, and the fifth is due to be released on March 15, 2014.  Along the way I’ve learned a fair bit about a writer’s focus.

The most important lesson is that the two sides of our business have to be treated differently.  The one side, the part I enjoy largely because it’s so absent from my day job, is the pure creation part.  You know, the right brain stuff.  That’s the part where I sit down at the keyboard for an hour or more at a time and scratch words that everybody has used before into phrases, scenes, and themes that nobody has ever used before.  It’s a kick; it’s truly a marvelous way to express myself, to relieve tension, and all that other feel-good stuff.

And it needs a lot of focus.

I learned that the summer of 2013.  I moved to a new city, took over a new campus, inhabited a new house, and along the way I forgot to focus on writing.  Thus it was that I had, at one point, five works in progress open on my desktop.  I’d get home from a day at work, sit down to piece together scenes, and realize that I had no idea which work I felt most like adding words to.  Then the word counts became just that—word counts.

Bah.  That sucked.  After a while of looking at myself funny in the mirror for my sudden inability to write, I remembered the word focus.  I closed out all but one, focused on it, and now it’s ready for release to the general public.

Yay, right?  But there’s more to writing than just creating.  There’s also the evaluative process we all go through.  You know: revision.  Editing.  Killing your darlings.  Whatever you wish to call it, it’s a different process from the purely creative manipulation of alphabetic symbols.

And, to me, it takes a different focus.

To me, you see, when I’m in rough draft mode, my mind is completely immersed in the story and its characters.  I imagine coming scenes in the morning as I shower.  I’ve been known to turn on the voice recorder of my smart phone to capture some dialog as it comes to me on my drive to work.

When I create, I can only work on that one, specific, work, but if I try to do that in revision stage I go stark raving mad.

A large part of that is that the rules of the English language are multitudinous, generally flexible, and sometimes all-too specific.  There are usually several different and entirely correct ways of writing the same thought or scene snippet, but often only one of those gets it all across in precisely the right way.

That’s the part of writing that Douglas Adams said was easy: “You only need to stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.”  It takes that much thought, that much concentration, to put the alphabetic characters into precisely the correct order to invoke the right ideas and emotions in the reader.

That’s why I can’t do it all at once; I can’t focus on that like I can on creative writing.  The evaluation of my drafts I have to do in snippets and in pieces of snippets, because otherwise I end up leaving entire passages messy.  When I focus on revision, I end up having readers come back to me asking, “Why did you write that line the way you did, when you could have made it clearer in half the number of words?”

I’ve found it best, then, to combine revision periods with short story drafting.  That way I can manage the focus of creative effort in short burst while still managing to not drive myself stir-crazy in long focused revision sessions.

Hope this helps!

– TOSK

About Stephen H. King (TOSK):

A Southern boy, taken away from Mississippi at a young age, settled back in to the southern United States to enjoy his day job of Dean, and writing fantasy tales whenever he can.  Watch for his newest effort, coming soon, for the tale of a Southern girl who finds herself in the land of the elves.

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