Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Art of Concentration

Concentration is a big thing for writers - if you can't concentrate on your novel (or whatever you're writing), you either can't write at all or what you write feels slight or forced. There are two types of concentration, as well - one is the total focus on the characters and storyline as you write, and the other is the general thinking/dreaming/imagining you do every day to develop the story and characters and "nut out" what it's all about and where it's going.

Often we think of concentrating on our writing as just the first option - I must find time to write, I must sit down and totally focus, I must write 1000 words, etc. It's a little different for everyone. Some full-time writers spend all day writing, and I always think that inside that day must come both the physical writing and the imagining and dreaming. But for most of us, we have a limited time, maybe an hour or three, and what we struggle with is concentrating 100% for that span.

Some days it will be no problem at all, and the hours will fly. But on many days, it will be a struggle. If we haven't written for a while, we have to read and think our way back into the story. Then we have to have a sense of what might come next (or if we have an outline, we know but still need to make it happen). And then we have to write. If you've ever spent two hours trying to squeeze out one page, you'll know that feeling of frustration and despair.

For me, half-hour bursts work best. Knowing I have 30 minutes, I am able to focus totally and get a lot done. Then in a short break, I can stretch, make coffee, and return for the next 30 minutes ready to go. Part of it is, I think, a mental attitude and you can train yourself into working this way in a very short time.

But the other kind of concentration is harder. This is where I do envy full-time writers, not for the amount of physical writing time, but for the dreaming and imagining. It's as if a part of your brain is always focused on your novel, and as you get more and more ideas and learn more about your characters, you can create a denser, deeper, more intense story. Without the daily grind of a job, your brain is free to concentrate in a different way.

I know some part-time writers who are able to work this way, regardless of their day job. They are so fully immersed in their stories and characters that the outside world always takes second place! But for most of us, we have to juggle the two kinds of writer's concentration and still endeavour to make our novels emerge the way we envisage them.
How do you balance concentration and the outside world?


Kirstie said...

Back when I did the 40+ hour work week I used to dream on the drive to work. I kept a notebook and pen in the little comparment in the drivers door and when stopped at traffic lights I'd scribble down what I could before the lights went green. Also after I became proficent enough at some of my more menial jobs I could dream while my hands did the work.

Now I'm a (mostly) stay at home mum I don't have quite as many opportunities, but I find whenever I'm used to doing a task (like sweeping or loading the dishwasher) if my son isn't pulling on my leg I can weave some ideas into existence.

Sherryl said...

Sounds like you have the dreaming and imagining part working! If you want to, you could try planning for a half-hour burst of writing once a day and see what happens.

chris hoskins said...

Nice article and useful info but do you have any advice regarding self doubt? What if you manage to write and at that time it seems to go well but when you re-read you tend to be over critical and dislike the material, basically losing confidence in your ability, any tips?

Sherryl said...

That's a big issue, isn't it? Thanks for the question - it's a great topic for a new post.
But the short answer from my own experience is to keep writing. Convince yourself that a first draft is only that - just words to work with. I used to have a desktop pic on my computer that said "You can do it". A bit corny but I knew it meant - you can keep going and finish.
Anne Lamott calls it the shitty first draft! I figure no matter how messy it is, at least it's complete and ready for the next round.
I think when you start writing you have to find ways to just keep at it. Later, with experience, there might be things you recognise are going nowhere and you should dump it and start again (but there won't be many).