Some tips for getting in the zone
Quick, hide your phone
My biggest concern when I first started writing and publishing serials online was the commitment. Every previous project I’d ever attempted had fallen by the wayside at some point, as I’d either lost interest, been distracted by something new and shiny, or had simply drifted away. That’s why I’d had novels floating around on my hard drive in various incomplete states for decades. It’s also why I never used to feel comfortable describing myself as ‘a writer’.
A consequence of committing to an on-going, live serial (which you write and publish chapter-by-chapter as you go along) is that you’re no longer writing on your own. You’re making a promise to your readers, who are there with you every step of the way. This changes the equation significantly, in a way I found extremely helpful. But you do have to be disciplined and unwavering in your dedication to the writing. If you miss even just one writing session, it’s going to kick off an avalanche of delays and stress and prevarication. You can’t afford to let those dominoes start falling.
It doesn’t matter if you’re ill. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a rubbish day at work. If the toddler refuses to go to sleep until 10pm that’s not an excuse. Going on holiday doesn’t mean you get time off from your book. By all means build up a buffer before you start publishing, so that you have some wiggle room should life really deal you a bad hand. Once you publish that first chapter, though, it’s on and you’d better bring your A-game. I mean, do it healthily, of course - if you know you’ve got a busy week coming up, put in a bit more time the previous week.
The trick is to not make this a stressful experience. It should be a motivator, not a panic-inducer. The whole point of setting your expectations up front and identifying your minimum writing time is so that you don’t get into trouble once you start publishing. If you get that balance right it should mean that you’re not inconveniencing anybody else in your family, or neglecting something else you ought be doing, or giving yourself a heart attack. You can keep your promises to your readers and to yourself and to everyone around you.
Simon K Jones writes is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This means that you need to carve out a space, both physically and mentally. You need a place you go to where you won’t be disturbed or distracted - writing in the middle of the living room while others are watching TV probably isn’t going to work. If you’ve got a study or an unused room, great - go there. If not, get some headphones which will shut out the world and hunker down. You might prefer to head out to a café or a park, where you’ll be surrounded by the quiet buzz of strangers. You might need to wait until everyone else has gone to bed, or get up early while the house is still dark and quiet.
It can be incredibly challenging to stay focused on your writing given the countless digital and non-digital distractions we’re surrounded by in the 21st century. I strongly recommend switching the phone to silent for everything except emergency contacts. Use the wellbeing options built into modern phones to automatically shut down social media and chat apps. If you’re not convinced that any of this is necessary, try installing a time tracker like RescueTime for a while - you might be surprised at how much time you spend on idle browsing. I know I was.
If you’re really struggling with concentration, you could try the Pomodoro Technique. When working to the Pomodoro Technique you break your tasks down into 25 minute chunks. You decide on a task, work on it solidly for 25 minutes, then take a built-in 5 minute break. You then start your next 25 minute task. Repeat that four times, then take a 15 minute break, and carry on. If you happen to complete a task before the 25 minutes are up, you use the remaining time to ‘overlearn’, which in the context of writing could be time dedicated to proofing and editing.
It’s very simple but can make a big difference. The trick is that by reducing each session down to a 25 minute concentrated burst, it feels far more manageable, and makes it easier to block out those distractions. Rather than having an entire evening of frustration ahead, all you have to do is get through the next 25 minutes. Easy! It’s also much easier to avoid distractions you know there’s a break coming up soon. It’s the time equivalent of what I spoke about in an earlier chapter about breaking the monolithic novel down into smaller pieces:
Over time you will build up a habit and find it easier to get down to writing. It’s always hardest when you’re starting out. I’ve found that serialisation has helped me immensely in developing a regular writing routine, where writing in other forms never did. The built-in deadlines of a long-running serial serve to train your mind in a way that more relaxed and lower commitment forms of writing do not. That was my experience, at least.
As a final tip, Antony Johnston wrote a great book called The Organised Writer. It’s aimed primarily at freelancers but is useful for any writer who wants to get more organised and more productive. I interviewed Antony on the Writing Life podcast a while back, so do give it a listen.
If you’re reading this before the end of February don’t miss the book giveaway I’m part of. It’s called Heed the Call and is packed full of science fiction and fantasy books, including an optimistic post-apocalyptic YA novel by me called No Adults Allowed. Check it out here.
Thanks. See you back here on Friday for more Triverse.
That first paragraph sounds SO familiar. Will he taking some of the advice!
Thank you for your story No Adults Allowed. I enjoyed it very much. Many years ago there was a story also about children alone called “Lord of the Flies” . Chilling! AB