#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?


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.


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!


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!

#80: Adaptation and Creation

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m in the planning stages of a trilogy adapting my Dungeons and Dragons character’s story to a novel format. It follows my character through her training as a knight, her fall from knightly society and loss of her homeland, regaining her honor, gathering allies and assets, and reclaiming her homeland from the rule of her half-brother and stepmother.

The first and last parts were left up to my imagination so I’m having an easier time outlining them. But the “regaining her honor and gathering allies bit” which will make up the bulk of Book 2 was played out in-game. And I’m completely stuck on how to adapt it.

I don’t want to use the campaign story because it belongs to the Game Master and my character didn’t really have a connection to the central conflict besides that fighting the bad guys was the Right Thing To Do. But I can’t think of new villains and new tensions for my character!

I have a feeling that brainstorming, developing my setting and side characters, and reading other fantasy novels for inspiration will help, but if you have any other advice, I would be most grateful.


Book 2 Blues (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.


Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

NaNoWriMo: Keeping the Momentum Going After November

Dear friends,

We’re in the NaNoWriMo home stretch. Whatever your NaNo has been like, it’s nearly over. In a few days, it will be December.

Then what?

If you’re desperately trying to stay focused on your November 30 deadline and keep the words flowing, you may not want to read this just yet. Come back to it when you’re ready (though I do recommend reading it before the end of November). But I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s already looking ahead—sometimes, let’s be honest, as a way of procrastinating—and thinking about how to use the things I’ve learned and the habits I’ve built in November to improve my writing and increase my output in December and beyond.

Continue reading

NaNoWriMo: Time Management Tips

Dear friends,

Welcome to my 2017 NaNoWriMo bonus posts! Thanks again to all the Patreon patrons who are funding this series. If you missed last year’s posts, you can find them here.

The first request I received was for time management tips. This request came from someone who has a couple of other big projects happening in November, but I expect just about everyone doing NaNo has other things going on. If you have nothing better to do than write 1700 words a day, then you’re a career novelist and more power to you! This post is for everyone else. It addresses both planning your time and using your time effectively.

1. Determine your Writing Time Unit (WTU). A Writing Time Unit is an amount of time sufficient for you to get into the writing mindset, make some words happen, and start to run out of steam. Every writer has a different range of WTUs. My minimum WTU is about 20 minutes and my maximum is about an hour, maybe an hour and a half if I’m really in the groove. For planning purposes, I consider a WTU to be 20 minutes and think of longer bouts in terms of multiple WTUs: if I’ve set aside 45 minutes to write, that’s two 20-minute WTUs with a short break in between.

In order to get the most out of your writing time, you want to schedule enough time to rev up and write but not so much time that you run out of juice and then feel bad about not making the most of the time you’ve set aside. Your bout of writing should end when you’re starting to flag, not when you’re completely done in. So when you’re calculating your WTU, remember that it’s a minimum, not a maximum. If you finish one WTU worth of writing and you’re still raring to go, you can always do another!

Take a moment now to think about your writing habits and calculate a minimum WTU. It could be as short as five or ten minutes, or much longer. An easy way to know whether you’ve found your minimum WTU is to complete this sentence: “If I have less than [quantity of time] I’m just not going to make any real writing progress.” If you’re more likely to have a few long stretches of writing time than a lot of short ones, you may also want to think about how many WTUs you can realistically do in a row.

(Does getting into the writing mindset always take a while? Here are some ideas for writing rituals that will help you to shift gears.)

2. Plan to be done by November 25. Before you have a heart attack, hear me out. Every good plan with a deadline allows for schedule creep. You almost certainly won’t finish by November 25, but if you plan to be done by November 25, that gives you 20% leeway. Aiming for November 30 and getting anxious over every shortfall is a much less enjoyable experience than aiming for November 25 and knowing you have a five-day safety net.  Those of you who like dividing numbers by other numbers can also enjoy the nice round numerical goals of 2000 words a day or 14,000 words a week. Just remember that the idea is to make it okay for you to miss a day or fall short one week and not stress over it. Less stress means more productivity and more fun!

3. Block out time. Look at your schedule for November and figure out where you already have (or can make) spaces that writing can fit into. Go through your calendar day by day and ask Is there room for writing here? How much? This is where your WTU comes in. A 20-minute lunch break is enough time for some writers but not for others. A two-hour morning writing session is perfect for some writers and way too long for others. Also make sure it’s at a time of day when your brain is working well enough for writing to happen. Don’t bother setting aside time unless it’s time you can actually use.

Get creative, and enlist assistance! Maybe on Mondays you can fit in a writing sprint while you’re dialed in to a boring phone meeting, or Tuesdays and Wednesdays your partner will handle morning childcare so you can write for an hour. Maybe your Thanksgiving plans involve a plane trip and you can write in the airport or in flight. But be realistic: if you know you’re always too sleepy on your train commute home to get anything done, don’t pretend that that will magically change for the month of November.

Most importantly, block out that time on your calendar, and make sure other people know not to disturb you while you’re writing. If possible, go somewhere quiet and devoid of interruptions. You are making a commitment to yourself to get some writing done. Take it seriously and defend it fiercely.

Once you’ve got all your writing time booked, divide your wordcount goal by the number of WTUs you have scheduled between now and November 25, and you’ll have a rough idea of how much you need to write per session. This is a great time to adjust your goal if you realize you’ve set yourself up to write 4000 words in 40 minutes. (It’s always okay to make accommodations for yourself and choose a different goal or timeline.) And remember to book writing time all the way through to the end of November so you have it if you need it. If you do finish early, you can use that time for reading books, knitting, or basking in your own glory—or for editing your manuscript or starting the next writing project.

4. Don’t expect every day to be the same. The numerical nature of NaNo goals—30 days, 50,000 words—naturally lends itself to ideas about daily writing sprints or daily wordcount goals that inevitably fall apart when they run up against real life. Don’t set yourself up to fail. If your plan is so fragile that a single day of dealing with a work emergency or caring for a sick kid can disrupt it, you need a better plan.

Most of us have fairly regular weekly routines, so it may make sense for you to set up your NaNo writing plan on that basis. For example, Thursday is my long day at the office; I usually work twelve hours or more. When I set up my own modified NaNo plan to write for at least one WTU per calendar day, I thought about that and added “except Thursday.” To balance that out, I’ll aim for two WTUs on a Tuesday or Friday, when I tend to have free time.

If you’re not already a very disciplined butt-in-chair type of writer, and perhaps even if you are, it’s wise to anticipate some pretty big variations in your writing productivity over the course of the month. From what I’ve heard (and I would love to get some hard data on this), the typical NaNoWriMo wordcount curve looks a lot like the Kickstarter funding curve. Expect productivity spikes at the beginning (when you’re excited) and the end (when you’re desperate), and a lull in the middle (when you realize just how much of a challenge you’ve set yourself). Coincidentally, the Kickstarter team determined that 30 days is the optimal duration for a Kickstarter campaign: “sufficient to maximize the burst of activity at the beginning and end, and still have a small trough where you can regroup or allow some momentum to build.” So when you’re in that trough, think about what regrouping and building momentum look like for you. Do you need to revisit your outline? Change your schedule? Reconnect with your early excitement over your concept? Check in with a friend who motivates you, or commiserate with other NaNo participants? Don’t waste time despairing or fretting; have faith that that final productivity spike is coming, and do what you can to prepare for it and encourage it to spike hard and high.

5. Boost your productivity to make the most of your time. NaNo is focused on word generation, so don’t get too caught up in outlining or character sketching or research, but do feel free to spend a couple of your early sessions investing in preparation activities that will genuinely make you more productive later on. Just remember to account for that when setting your intermediate wordcount goals.

Rachel Aaron suggests spending a few minutes at the beginning of each session jotting down notes for the scene you’re going to write next so you’re not slowing yourself down by planning and writing at the same time. Your mini-outline can be as simple as “John and Steve fight, feel bad, and make up” or “The detective interviews three more suspects and starts to follow a red herring.” It’s fine if your eventual writing deviates from that plan; the idea is just to have something to guide and nudge you if you get stuck.

Speaking of getting stuck, there will definitely be times when you hit a wall. If that happens, don’t despair! Try one or two of these five-minute writing-related tasks and see whether that unsticks you. If not, at least you’ll have made some progress on the planning front, and that will make the next session easier.

6. Periodically check in and adjust. In addition to generally staying aware of what’s working and what’s not, and doing more of the former and less of the latter, I recommend doing check-ins on November 5, 15, and 25 to see how your progress compares to your plan. Don’t just look at the numbers; consider the experience of your writing so far, which types of pre-writing prep have been helpful and which have distracted and delayed you, what writing environments have worked well, whether your minimum WTU is what you thought it was, and so on. Then make adjustments to your schedule and expectations.

If you haven’t written on deadline before, one of the things NaNo will teach you is that you can’t lie to yourself about what works for you or doesn’t. The wordcount tells the truth. It may be hard to let go of your idealized notions of how easy it will be to write in a cafe, how much the people in your life will respect your scheduled writing time, or how little planning you need to do before you start to write, but do force yourself to do it. You’ll get much more done and have much more fun if you’re honest about what your conditions for happy writing look like and do your best to create those conditions.

If you’re an old hand at NaNo (or writing fiction on tight deadlines) and have other time management tips, please do share them in the comments. Good luck to everyone doing NaNoWriMo this year!


Story Nurse

This post is part of a special NaNoWriMo 2017 series supported by my fabulous Patreon patronsGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!