#84: Staying Focused Long Enough to Write a Novel

Hi, Story Nurse,

I want to get this novel written. Badly. Or not necessarily THIS novel, but A NOVEL. (Though THIS novel would be a really good one, except for the bit where the genderfluid protagonist is *really obviously* ADHD-Butterfly Sue. But that’s a different Story Nurse question!)

The problem is the novel beginnings on my hard drive number in the triple digits. Some of them are the same concept because I came back to the idea later and the first version didn’t hold up anymore, but most of them are new shinies that became old and boring when another new shiny came along. None of them are longer than ten thousand words. And yes, that’s pretty obviously one consequence of getting nearly to age thirty with undiagnosed ADHD? But.

I already know the NaNoWriMo format doesn’t work for me, even with a reduced daily goal and a longer time frame. But if I only write when ~*inspired*~, then I know perfectly well I’ll end up writing things that have nothing to do with this novel, and eventually lose track of the novel altogether.

How do I keep my attention on ONE idea long enough to get a whole novel drafted?

Thanks,

ADHD-Butterfly (they/them)

Dear ADHD-Butterfly,

Don’t panic! You are totally capable of writing an entire novel, with some preparation and self-examination (and ideally also with appropriate treatment for your ADHD, now that you have that diagnosis—I hope you’re working with the relevant medical professionals on that). Here’s a plan for you to follow, and to come back to whenever you find yourself wandering astray.

Figure out why you want to write a novel. Really dig into it. If shorter things are easier, why not just write shorter things? What is it about writing a novel, as a concept, that calls to you? Is it attached to your idea of what it means to be a successful writer, or a functional person? Is it a way to prove that ADHD doesn’t own you or that everyone who called you lazy was wrong? Is it a thing you actually want to do for other people more than for yourself? Do you feel like it’s what you “should” be doing? Do you keep getting ideas that cry out to be developed at novel length? Is it a thing you hunger for so desperately that you can’t begin to explain why, except that it’s deeply rooted in your soul? If you never wrote a novel, how sad would you be?

Spend some time on this step. Until you make your abstract goal more solid and figure out what makes it personally meaningful to you, it will keep losing out to shiny new ideas. If you can’t find that personal meaning in your goal, it may not be the right goal for you. (There is no shame in this at all. Every writer is different, and needs different types of projects.) So think about it, until you’ve either realized it’s time to let go of this goal or become really passionate and determined to see a novel project through to completion.

Got that passion? Good. Write down what this goal means to you, in the most personal terms, and put it someplace where you can refer back to it when your attention starts to drift. This is a letter to your future self, so be persuasive in exactly the ways you know will be most effective for you: “Dear future butterfly, here’s why you should stick with what you’re working on and not let the shiny lure you away.” Again, if you can’t do this in a way that seems likely to work—if there is nothing that would make finishing a novel more attractive than pursuing a new idea—then it’s time to consider different writing goals.

Come up with a shiny-corralling protocol. When an idea hits you, your first impulse will be to start writing it. You need a different thing to do with the idea instead, so you can get it dealt with and then go back to your primary project. Many people who are driven to follow each new idea have a fear of missing out; having a consistent way of dealing with new ideas will help to reassure you that they’ll all be there when you finish this project and want to start the next one. You can write it down in a bullet journal, make a new file for it in your “writing ideas” folder, send yourself a text message or Twitter DM about it—whatever works for you. What’s important is that it is quick (so as not to take too much time or attention away from your primary project), organized or searchable (so you can reassure your anxiety that you won’t lose your ideas), and consistent (so you can make a real practice out of it). Develop this protocol and write it down for your reference. Practice it a few times with ideas you already have, just to make sure that it works well for you. When you have corralled a shiny, you should be able to really let go of it and go back to what you were doing.

Look for patterns in where you’ve dropped past projects. Is there a certain stage in a writing project when you almost inevitably start to feel bored? Getting bored while writing can mean a number of things: you’re feeling anxious and avoidant or uncertain about what’s coming next in the book, you’re feeling critical of what you’ve already written, you’re feeling mentally or physically exhausted and need to take a break, or you’ve let the tension ebb in your story and it’s actually become boring.

Glance through the last 1000 words or so of your five most recent interrupted projects—it’s important to make this finite so that you don’t get too distracted—and see whether there are similarities in your stopping points. That will help you know when to expect boredom to hit as you’re working on this new project, and how to address it when it does: doing a little planning so you feel more confident about tackling the next section of the book, reassuring your inner critic, resting, or fixing your story’s momentum.

Do some warm-ups. If you tend to bottom out at 10,000 words, write a story that’s complete at 10,000 words. Then try for 12,000, then 20,000, then 30,000. This step is optional, but it can help you build confidence and also help you identify what it is about the 10k mark that tends to stop you.

Now you are ready to try writing a novel! Pick a practice project. It should be something you think is fun but don’t feel too strongly about. It should be easy, insofar as any novel is ever easy—write that Butterfly Sue and some cardboard cut-out supporting characters, scribble in that paint-by-numbers setting, steal that plot from another story you love, aim for 80,000 words rather than 150,000. Your goal is not to finish a great novel; it is to finish any novel. Set yourself up to succeed rather than putting more barriers in your own way.

Also pick a passion project that you feel absolutely devoted to and can pour your heart and soul into. You asked how to keep your attention on one idea, but it doesn’t sound like your brain is wired to do that—so don’t do it! Instead, coopt your ADHD by giving yourself a defined second thing to swap over to when the first thing loses your attention. Your practice project is the one with the “finish this” goal attached. Your passion project is there to remind you what makes writing worth the struggle and stress, and to get you invigorated again. What’s key is that you then swap back to the practice project instead of jumping to something new.

Set up a schedule of some kind. Some parts of my NaNoWriMo post on time management won’t be relevant, because you don’t have that tight deadline, but do at least calculate your minimum Writing Time Unit so you know how much time you need to block out for a writing session. Then schedule at least one regular writing session a week, and more if you can swing it. The key word is regular.

Set a session goal. Don’t set wordcount goals if those don’t work for you, but do set the goal of “do something writing-related with this time”. This is especially useful during the planning stage. Once you’re in the drafting stage, if you can’t make words happen, pick a task that will help words come more easily next time, such as focused research, outlining, character sketches, or brainstorming. You can also track your words per hour and try to beat your average. I love this one because my average, by definition, is a thing I’ve already done and therefore a thing I am confident I’ll be able to do again. And if you consistently beat your average, your average will go up, creating a challenge that grows with you and stays within reach as long as you stretch yourself just a little.

Optimize your writing environment. If you live with people, shut your door and put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on it; if you live with pets, make sure they’re well fed and petted before your writing time begins; if you’re at a coffee shop, get your favorite beverage and make sure you’ve got earplugs or headphones if you need to block out crowd noise. Put your phone on silent and out of reach, snooze your Slack notifications, and quit out of distracting apps and websites. If stimming helps you stay focused, keep stim toys handy, put a bumpy mat on your chair, or sit on an exercise ball so you can bounce and rock as you write. Play music or put on white noise or work in pure perfect silence. Do whatever makes writing easier.

If you’re a planner, plan. Make a timeline, draw a map, figure out who your characters are, outline the plot, and so on. Don’t get too caught up in this; you may want to set a finite number of writing sessions for it, after which you start making words even if you don’t feel ready yet. You can always dedicate a later session to filling in the gaps if you really need to, but remember that many many flaws can be repaired in revisions. Your goal is not to write a gleaming perfect gem of a first draft; it’s to write a first draft.

Even if you’re an improviser more than a planner, take two minutes at the start of every writing session to jot down a note about what you intend to write. It can be as simple as “that scene where they do the thing with the stuff”. This is to give you a little initial focus so you ideally start the session feeling purposeful and confident rather than flailing and directionless and anxious.

Write.

Have big feelings about your book and the process of writing it—be mad and sad and excited and scared and enthralled and teary-eyed. Martha Alderson says that every writer goes on their own heroic journey in the process of writing a book, and is transformed by it. Transformation is hard, but keep going. You are strong and you will survive it.

Pause. When you get bored, identify the flavor of boredom and address it. When you lose momentum, switch projects. When you get tired, rest. When you wonder why you’re bothering, reread that letter to yourself.

Keep writing. When you hate the book and think it sucks, keep writing. When you’re in the three-quarters slump, keep writing. When you have no idea what you’re doing, keep writing. When you’re blocked, keep writing. When you’re not inspired, keep writing.

And when you’re done, type “The End”.

If this goal is the right goal for you, then I am absolutely confident you’ll achieve it. Drop me a note when you’ve got a draft done and we’ll throw you a little blog party in the comments.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#69: Getting Unstuck from “Should”

Hi Story Nurse!

I’ve found your advice on getting back into writing after a long break really helpful, thanks! At this point I’m having what feels like a related problem. Earlier this year, I got back into a more regular writing habit after many years of not writing, or only writing very rarely and with extreme difficulty. I write mostly fanfiction, though recently I’ve come up with a couple ideas for original short stories that I’m excited to tackle. I still feel out of practice and kind of clunky, which is frustrating – but I want to stick with it and build my writing muscles to the point where the hard stuff is easier, and the fun parts are even more fun. Before that long hiatus, I had a real sense that I was getting better at getting stories out of my head and onto the page, and I want to get there again.

At first, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with enough ideas to keep writing consistently, but actually I’m having the opposite problem. It seems like as soon as I start writing one story, I’ll come up with an idea that feels even more important to get on the page as soon as possible, so I’ll put the first project aside and start working on the bright shiny new one. I’ll mean to get back to the first one, but a lot of the time the same thing happens again, and I’ll end up abandoning the first project.

I think a lot of this comes from wanting to avoid what’s harder for me right now – I love mapping out the bones of a story on notebook paper and planning how all the pieces might fit together, while finishing a first draft and revising feels like hard and confusing work. So it makes sense that the new thing would be that much more tempting to me! But I don’t just want practice at starting stories, I want to get better at the whole process. And the whole reason I love writing fanfic is the sense of collaboration – reading other people’s interpretations of the characters, worlds, etc, and sharing my own. But that isn’t really happening if all of my own are sitting half-written on my hard drive.

When I have a deadline (two of my three finished stories this year have been for fic exchanges) I can finish a story, but because I’m worried about the time pressure, I end up writing stories I know I can finish, not ones I’m very excited about or interested in. The answer seems to be stop doing exchanges for a while, but I’m afraid then I wouldn’t finish anything. Due to the finite nature of time, it’s not going to be possible to write every single idea I come up with, so it’s fine if some are abandoned – but how do I prioritize so that some of them do get finished?

What makes it worse is that in the background, I’m constantly afraid that I’ll abandon my current project and never start writing again (or at least have to re-learn a ton of stuff whenever I do start again). And it’s much easier to abandon a project when it gets boring, so it seems even more important to chase those super interesting new ones. But that’s no way to finish anything! I feel stuck in this pattern – any ideas for how to get unstuck?

Thanks!

—Unfinished Business (they/them)

Dear Unfinished Business,

It sounds like what you’re stuck in is a whole lot of pairs of competing urges and influences:

  • Wanting to push yourself to learn and get stronger but not wanting to do difficult things.
  • Wanting to finish anything at all but feeling that the things you do finish don’t count.
  • Understanding that not every story can be finished but trying to develop every new story idea.
  • Dropping projects when they get boring but dodging the challenges that keep projects exciting.

You need to have a good hard think about your priorities along each of these axes. Think about what you get out of them, what makes them appeal to you in the short and long terms. Also think about, for a lack of a better term, your values—the type of writer you want to be. Which choices are in line with those values? Which paths take you closer to your own personal definition of satisfaction and success?

A lot of this looks to me like conflicts between your inner desires and what you think you should be doing. For example, there’s a very strong cultural idea that you should finish things, and want to finish them. But it’s perfectly okay to write for other reasons besides generating a finished product. Rose Lemberg just wrote a magnificent piece about writing as stimming, and the shame that can accompany not finishing things even if you only want to write for the pleasure of writing. It’s perfectly okay to only do the parts of writing you find fun and easy and exciting; that’s called having a hobby. It’s also perfectly okay to make practical decisions on deadline, like finishing the story you know you can finish rather than the story that excites you; letting that pressure push you in directions you wouldn’t otherwise go in is an excellent way to build your skills. (I definitely don’t know how you got the idea that you should stop doing the only kind of writing that you finish, when finishing stories is what you want to do. You are doing the thing you want to do! Keep doing it! Everything you learn from doing it is absolutely applicable to your original fiction.) It’s perfectly okay to write playfully sometimes and push yourself hard at other times. Every single approach to writing is perfectly okay, as long as it’s in line with the kind of writer you want to be.

So if “should” is keeping you stuck, give yourself permission to let go of it. Let every choice be equally acceptable in the broader sense. If there were an easy decision to be made you would have made it already, so clearly there’s something to genuinely recommend each of these options. Now is also a good time to accept yourself for who you are right now, how you’re inclined to write, and where you are in the never-ending learning process.

Then figure out your values and commit to pursuing them. Whenever you feel stuck, use that commitment and those values as levers to unstick yourself. It may help to write up a series of statements beginning “I want to be a writer who…” and post them prominently in your writing space, always keeping in mind that you can add, change, and remove list items as you learn more about yourself and how you write.

(This technique is cribbed from a psychology approach called acceptance and commitment therapy, which is used to help people find healthy ways to interact with personal experiences that they fear or avoid. I’ve found it extremely useful for getting past inner roadblocks to writing and building better writing habits.)

Finally, a note on boredom. You know that you want to stop doing things when you get bored of doing them, so use that! Indulge your bad habits until you get bored of them and decide to try something else. Flit from idea to idea until you’re so tired of that that you actively want to commit to one and see it through, just for a change of pace. Whenever something challenges you, remind yourself that being challenged is better than being bored.

No one is born with the perfect writing mentality (because there’s no such thing). We all have to figure out our own combinations of carrots and sticks. Keep trying different ways to get yourself to do the things that are short-term difficult but long-term educational, or that feel embarrassing or unproductive but also deeply enjoyable and satisfying, or that make you anxious but also get you closer to your goals. If you sometimes need to give yourself a little kick in the pants or play the occasional mind game on yourself in order to get where you want to go, there’s no shame in that. We all do it. As you build your unique set of writing tools and habits, you’ll find that all these things get easier.

If you decide that a finisher of stories is who you want to be, then I have no doubt that you will finish many and many more stories. And if you decide that right now you just want to write for fun, then I have no doubt that you will have loads of fun. All these possible paths lead to the same place: the concretization of your writing dreams and goals, the maturity of your writing skills, the satisfaction that comes from finding ways to enjoy and achieve simultaneously. Just pick a direction—any direction you like—and go. You’ll be in the groove before you know it.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!