5 Tips on How to Stay Focused When Writing a Novel

Man writing in journalSometimes writing is fun, but anyone who writes on a regular basis also knows that it can be difficult, even when we’re excited about our particular writing project.

For me, two of the biggest problems when I’m writing a novel are avoiding boredom and staying focused. The issues are a bit counter intuitive since each requires a different solution. After years if experimenting, I started to pay attention to what specifically worked well for me, and so today I am going to share with you the best tips I know for how to stay focused when writing.

Tip #1: Drink Some Coffee

Blue cup of coffee next to an open journal and penOkay, I will say it: caffeine helps. The two major ways I spend my day are writing and developing websites. Caffeine helps with both, and I have often told colleagues that the Diederich College of Communication would not have a website if it wasn’t for caffeine. The same goes for my creative thesis from graduate school: I would not have been able to get it done if it hadn’t been for strong coffee.

When I was working on my thesis and felt myself growing bored or tired, I would drink some coffee as I worked, and the caffeine somehow helped me grow interested again in my work. It would stimulate me just enough, and I felt a push to probe deeper into the dilemma in my piece and to ask more of my characters.

Tip #2: Join a Writers’ Group

Group of friends writing togetherIf there are meet-up groups where you live, chances are some of them are for writing groups. There are several groups where I live in the Northern Midwest. Some are focused on giving critiques while members of other groups get together to write but don’t necessarily share their work. Whether you are looking on specific feedback on your novel or you just need some motivation and accountability to ensure you put in your time writing, there is likely a writing group to fit your needs.

For those of you who live in rural areas, writers and artists have a way of finding each other. A good friend of mine taught at a community college in a small town in North Dakota, and once the local creatives heard there was a new writer in town, they found her and welcomed her to their community. She took up bird watching with some new friends, and many of these birds found their way in to some of her best poems about nature. I also lived in two different small towns during my adult life and had no trouble finding novel-writing groups. Sometimes it took a little longer to find these groups, but I eventually met people who shared my goals, and we engaged in productive writing sessions everywhere, from coffee houses to local libraries.

Tip #3: Set a Timer

red circular alarm clockNothing drives writing urgency like a timer. This is a technique that I like to use when I am bored with my novel-in-progress, I am having trouble getting my characters to open up to me, or I am experiencing some fear that is preventing me from getting the words down on the page.

Usually twenty minutes is a good amount of time for most writers, but I will confess that during a particularly bad time, I set my timer for eight minutes, the amount of time it takes for my coffee to steep in my coffee press.

I was attempting to write about an amateur detective (also known as a cozy mystery novel), and I was way out of my comfort zone. Because my fear was so pervasive and preventing me to move forward, I told myself that I only had to write one eight-minute block at a time. The first block of writing always took place while my coffee brewed. Granted, I had to write several of these each day, but that was okay. It didn’t matter as long as I wasn’t allowing fear to keep me from writing. Once I had one 8-minute writing session completed, I was able to move forward with additional sessions.

Tip #4: Change Up Your Writing Routine

Man typing at typewriterAll writers have different times when they are productive, and the odd thing is that they may not correspond to your preference to sleep in or rise before the sun comes up. I am definitely a night owl, and given the choice, I sleep from midnight to 8 am. Considering my preference, you might think that I write better at night, but I do not. I am far more productive in the mornings, and I start every morning by journaling. Most days, I follow that up with writing a blog post or working on a novel-in-progress. That frees me up to enjoy my evenings, which I usually spend either reading or writing while snuggling with my cat.

This is the routine that works well for me, but if you find that you’re not engaged with your writing, you can try writing at night if you typically write during the mornings or you can write in the mornings if you find that you’re too tired to write at night. Other writers prefer to write during the late morning after they’ve gone for a walk. If you have a flexible schedule, you can continue to experiment until you find the magic writing hour that works best for you.

Tip #5: Change Up Your Writing Environment

Asian woman working at computer with coffeeIf you ordinarily write in cafes or coffee houses and find you’re getting distracted, then you can try writing at home or in the quiet section of a library. If you ordinarily write at home and find your imagination straining to find relevant images, you can try writing at a coffee house and see if the changing clientele helps you better populate your novel with interesting people.

The point is: if one environment isn’t working for you, change it up. Sometimes we think we know ourselves and our preferences well, but the truth is that it can take some time and some experimenting to figure out the writing mix between stimulation and quiet. Some writers are more productive when they are among others, and other writers need to filter out all distractions of any kind in order to remain productive.

Personally, I find that I work best when I am out among other people. I also work well when I am in a non-critique writing group. That is the magic combination for me: writing for one hour each day in a coffee house and writing once each week with a writing group. I tend to do more of my revising by myself at home, but when I need to get some words down on a page, I find I am more productive when I have more stimulation.

The question now is, what works best for you? Are you more productive when you are by yourself, or does the presence of other people help you stay engaged and motivated with your writing? I’d love to know what works for other writers, so be sure to drop me a line in the comments! And if you’re interested in checking out the best courses that have helped me as a writer and blogger, you can check out my Resources page.

2 Replies to “5 Tips on How to Stay Focused When Writing a Novel”

  1. I am not writing a novel but I do write blog posts. I seem to have the same trouble, boredom and focusing. I have to watch my intake with coffee. While at first it gives me great energy to really get writing, after a few cups I have so much energy I am back to not being able to focus.
    My favorite show is Jane the Virgin and Jane is a writer. I have seen her use some of the techniques you mentioned. It always inspires me to write more. A writer’s group is a great tool. I love having people to bounce ideas off of and get pointers.
    Thanks for your great tips. I’m going to go write a new post now!

    1. I totally understand: finding the right amount of caffeine between feeling stimulated and over stimulated can be a tricky balance. Thanks for the recommendation for watching Jane the Virgin. I haven’t seen the show yet but will check it out. Watching an episode of a  favorite tv show is a great motivator for getting your writing done, whether you are a novelist or a blogger.

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