10 Ways to Refocus Yourself and Write

In the previous post, "Making Time to Write" I wrote about time (or lack thereof) and how, as an author, you have to make time rather than find it. You have to commit and focus. It requires effort and persistence.

Even the busiest person can write if they schedule themselves effectively and are determined to stick with it.

Sometimes, though, this is easier said than done.

Right now, for example, I'm writing blog posts rather than writing the chapter of "The Dreadful Wind and Rain" that has me a bit stuck.

This, as you'll see, is all part of my strategy. 

In no particular order, here are my 10 best strategies to refocus myself to write:

10. Make a Schedule. Stick to it.

I think this is probably the foundation of my writing practice. I try to write, edit or plan every single day. Sometimes the results are sporadic and the session doesn't lead to much but other times sitting down and making myself try is just what I need to get into a great flow. If you can hack out even a paragraph a day you are well on your way. 

My best writing times are often immediately after school while I'm still in a working mode and not yet too exhausted to do anything but laze around.

I like to get out of the classroom and out of the house. I'll force myself to spend an allotted amount of time writing in a quiet comfortable space before moving on to the next thing on the agenda (usually either yoga or going home for dinner). I usually try to spend at least an hour every weeknight doing this. Most of the time it leads to results. Sometimes it feels a bit slow, even futile, but I rarely accomplish less than a paragraph or two, which is better than nothing.

9. Write Something. Anything.

If you're completely stuck, find something that you can write. Maybe you start that new travel blog you've been thinking about. Maybe you start a short story or jot down an outline for a future chapter for which you do have a solid idea. Maybe you work on the first pages of that other idea you've been mulling over in the background.

If you're travelling, keep yourself in the habit by writing a daily journal entry about your experiences. If you read a book, watch a movie or a tv series take down a few notes about it. What did you like? What didn't you like? What would you do differently? What ideas or themes could you use yourself? If something good, bad, funny or interesting happens to you that day, jot down a short anecdote.

If you've published before, maybe spend some time promoting. If you haven't published before maybe spend some time writing query letters.

The important thing is to keep yourself in the habit of writing. If you give yourself permission to skip just this once, you break that habit. If you're anything like me, do this once or twice and pretty soon you'll be finding all sorts of reasons not to write "just this once."

Sure, there are legitimate reasons why you might have to skip occasionally, but try to save those passes for the times when you really really need them.

Write even if it's garbage. Don't worry about editing. There might be something salvageable, there might not. Worst case scenario, you've figured out what you don't want in your story. At the very least, you've practiced your craft a bit.

8. Prepare a Soundtrack.

Carefully select a playlist of music that fits the mood of your story and put it on. Make sure it's long enough to last at least a couple of hours.

I find that instrumental music is most effective at setting the tone of a scene while still allowing me to focus on writing. Sometimes music with lyrics can be a bit too distracting. I'll often choose one of my favourite tracks from the playlist and just sit for the entire track before I start writing.

One word of caution: this is a focusing effort. Don't use that track to flick through Facebook one last time. Shut everything else out and just listen. Spend those four or five minutes setting yourself up to write; getting yourself into your own head.

Another word of caution: the reason I said "Carefully select a playlist" is because you want to be very deliberate in your choices. If there's a song that's going to break you out of your zone, take it off the playlist. You don't want to be flipping back to iTunes every three minutes to skip songs or choose the next track. Set it once and then write.

7. Dramatic Reading.

I often find that it helps to do a dramatic reading of a couple of pages leading up to where I'm starting my writing for the session. Think about how the characters would sound. What sort of emotion would be in their voices? What would the narrator sound like? Would it be dark and low? Upbeat? High energy and fast-paced? Read it that way to yourself.

One benefit of this is that you end up doing some editing of your previous work, but make sure you don't fully put your editor hat on. You're reading to get yourself in the mood to write. You aren't reading to re-think your choices or to catch all of your mistakes.

I typically find that while this process works if you read in your head, it works even better if you read aloud, even if you're just whispering to yourself. Sure you look a bit strange but maybe people will buy your book just to find out what you've been whispering about this whole time.

After a few lines of reading in my character's/narrator's voice, I'm usually sucked in and ready to carry the story forward.

6. Tell Yourself the Story.

This is a similar strategy to #7, except this time put the computer away and tell yourself the story as though you're telling it around a campfire or to a child. Tell yourself what happens next out loud and with no written prompts. 

Oral storytelling is a far older mode than written storytelling and every culture I know of has some form of oral storytelling built deeply into its tradition. Books may be the medium of communication, but stories, even written ones, are still inherently oral and should feel that way. Although we read books now, what we are really doing is still just telling ourselves a story. We say the story, even if only in our heads.

Oral storytelling is a great way to get past nitpicking the vocabulary on the page in order to focus on the plot points, character development and dialogue.

Before I even begin to write a novel (actually, before I even outline a novel), I've usually told myself the story in various ways hundreds of times. I tell myself the story as I'm driving to work or laying in bed. I tell myself the story as I'm going for a walk. Not only does this help to establish the story's structure, it also helps me memorize events, characters, setting and plot since oral storytelling relies on repetition and memory.

5. Go Analogue

Every once in a while I like to close up the laptop and pull out a notebook. Sometimes it's because I find myself flipping absently through the internet when I'm supposed to be writing. If after three or four restarts I can't stop myself from opening new browser windows, I like to switch to good ol' fashioned paper and pen.

There are far fewer distractions and you can leave every piece of technology, including the phone, switched off and in another room while you do it.

Jot down point form notes, sketch out a map or outline, or write whole chapters this way. Typing them up later becomes an easy way to get back into writing mode and offers another editing opportunity.

I've often done this to get over writer's block and some of my favourite chapters were written down on paper first.

Additionally, this is a great way to ensure you don't miss your scheduled writing time even if you don't have technology or wifi handy. 

When I'm travelling, I'll often get nothing done on a story, but I always write several pages a day in a travel journal. These experiences have become blog posts, memories and sometimes even turned into chapter ideas.

4. Get Some Exercise.

This might seem like an avoidance tactic (and you certainly have to be careful not to let it turn into one) but multiple medical studies have proven that exercise helps boost creativity. A recent study in the Netherlands found that people who exercised regularly typically outperformed those who were sedentary on a range of cognitive tests. 

Anecdotally, these findings have been supported by the creative processes of dozens of famous authors. Charles Dickens was known to walk more than ten kilometres before his writing sessions. Henry Thoreau famously stated that thoughts began to flow "the moment my legs began to move."

Tolkien, as well, developed so much of the imagery, setting and place names for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings through wandering the English country side.

Get out and walk, run, cycle, practice yoga, get in the boxing ring... anything to get the blood flowing, as long as you get back to writing when you're done.

3. Allow Yourself Time to Enjoy Other Stories.

Sometimes the best way to refocus yourself and get back on the right track is to take inspiration from others. Give yourself permission to read something in a similar style or with a similar setting to what you're writing.

This isn't time off, though. During your writing time, don't just read for pleasure. Take notes. Analyze how the author describes certain details or characters. Analyze the author's dialogue choices. Jot down what you liked or didn't like. How did the story make you feel and how did the author achieve that effect?

I often find that short stories are the best resource for this since they take as little time as possible away from writing while still offering a great source of learning and inspiration.

Another option is turning on an audiobook with the sleep timer function enabled. Listen for a bit and once the timer cuts off, get back to writing.

2. Get Out.

I know how this is going to sound. I am painfully aware of all the jokes about the hipsters who sit in Starbucks just wanting to be seen while they pretend to work on a screenplay and drink expensive coffee. I used to feel self-conscious about it, but I got over it. Because it works really well.

If it helps, I usually order black tea, which is fairly cheap and way less pretentious sounding when you make your order.

Seriously though, I get probably 90% of my work done while I'm out of the house. There are fewer things to distract me. I'm sitting there staring at a computer screen so I might as well write. There are no books to read, there's no tv, no Xbox, no cleaning to do.

The only potential distraction is people watching, but even this can be a good exercise to get you writing something. Write a few paragraphs about someone you see. Make up a backstory for them. Maybe they'll even end up in your novel.

If you do this regularly it becomes routine. You're at a workplace. You're at a second office. These days, I just order my usual, sit down, and get straight to writing. I get more done because I haven't gone home yet and started to unwind or noticed the dirty dishes in the sink. It's also nice because when I do go home, I can be completely done for the day and the rest of my time is for my wife and I.

Sometimes instead of a coffee shop, I like to find a reasonably quiet bar and work over a pint or glass of wine. This is usually my first choice when I'm travelling.

1. Do Something Mind/Mood Altering

I'm not talking hallucinogenics here (although if that's your thing, go for it... safely...). I'm talking about experiencing something new and different. The more things you live, the better you can accurately describe a variety of experiences.

Go somewhere completely silent and try writing there. Go for a hike and stop at the quietest, emptiest part of the trail you can find. Describe the experience.

Go bungie jumping and use the adrenaline rush to write something fast-paced.

Visit the dimmest, dirtiest bar you can find and write about the characters you find there for a while (again, keep your safety in mind...).

Drive down the highway and stop somewhere you've never stopped before.

Go for a walk at midnight or sunrise instead of evening.

Go on a photo exercise. Nothing gets me thinking about detail and perspective better than trying to find something interesting to photograph.

Take in some live music.

Get out and travel.

Learn a new language.

Just do something, either simple or elaborate, that gets you out of your current mindset and gives you a new experience.

This, to me, is the best fuel for writing. The more diverse experiences you have to draw upon, the better and more full your writing will be.

So that's my list on how to refocus and write!

Agree? Disagree? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!

What's your favourite strategy to refocus yourself?