Removing distractions and focusing is key to good writing

With the modern digital age, it’s easy to be distracted because there’s just so much more things you can do on the internet. That’s a fact. It’s especially so if you are at home and have access to high-quality internet connection. Like a fibre broadband.

Then you have a writing project that you need or want to do and it doesn’t even matter if you are making a living with it or not. You just want to write something. So You decided to sit at your desk or lie in your bed with your computer.

But then you remember you got social media. You feel compelled to use. You tell yourself, “I will use it for five minutes and then I will get back to writing.” And if you signed up for a video streaming service like Netflix, you’d rather be watching movies or TV series from it. You tell yourself, “I will write after this movie.”

With that, you went ahead to do the other thing that caught your attention and before you know it, you got sucked into the black hole and couldn’t come out. By the time you realise it, it’s already late and you got other things to take care of. The text processor or editor that you opened was just sitting there, staring back at you with a blank page.

And it doesn’t matter if you are a plotter or a panster.

If you are a plotter, you can have all the outlines in the world done and laid out in front of you, but once your attention is elsewhere, you just killed your own writing.

Panster will have it worse because they don’t plot. They write only when they get an idea and let the story take them where it is. Distractions will actually shut down a panster’s process of getting an idea and writing. I know because it killed mine three times just today. Netflix is more interesting than me doing writings. My video games are more interesting than my writings. Even my bed is more interesting than my writings. I also know it’s not fair to blame technology. Ultimately, it was me who lack the discipline to switch off those distractions and decided to use them instead of doing the actual work.

What one can do is to remove all these distractions. For a start, switch off your home router or WIFI and prevent yourself from going online. Another much easier way to go offline is to install apps that prevent internet access until you restarted your computer once you activate it. The other way is to go to a place outside of your house, preferably one without WIFI, and just sit there to write.

But if you have to go online to do research for your writing, you can do it on a different computer if you have one. Ideally, it should be physically as far away from your “work” area as possible. Otherwise, schedule a day that you can go to a library and use the computer there to do research and write down what you need to know on a paper-based notebook. Alternatively, you can sign out of all your social media and video streaming accounts after you are done. This way, you have to go through an additional step of signing in when you want or feel like using the accounts. It serves as a deterrent.

Signing out of account is something I did. I was hooked on social media and so I signed out of my twitter account. It reached a point where I don’t even bother to use it anymore. But I didn’t sign out of my Netflix or YouTube account. Thus my constant problem of being distracted.

However, removing distraction isn’t enough to help you achieve good writing. Having the ability to focus on just the one thing is equally important. And focus is really all about saying no to something and thereby saying yes to something else that you should be doing.

As writers, chances are you have plenty of ideas floating around your head. You feel compelled to write something with those ideas. If you are writing essays or articles, suddenly you find yourself wanting to write not just one but two or more pieces. If you are writing a book, you find yourself wanting to write a book for each idea. So you end up starting multiple writing projects that you never got to finish. By finish, I don’t even mean published online or submit it somewhere. Instead, I mean those pieces of work that reached their respective conclusion and you can proudly tell yourself, “I completed them”.

For me, I have a bunch of those just sitting in my computer in their respective folders. Those piece of writings never quite get anywhere because I was distracted and couldn’t focus on finishing them. When I finally want to get back to any of those writings, I just couldn’t.

Therefore, it’s important for you to be able to identify what’s a good idea to expend the effort to write and what are those that you should say no. That way you can filter out junk and spend the your energy and time on the right thing. Sometimes, an idea is not even junk and you just knew it deep down you can finish the writing. It’s equally important to be able to put that idea aside and focus on your current piece of work and see it to completion.

And how to tell if it’s a good idea? Well, listen to your gut. You have to trust yourself, the writer, if the idea is good enough to warrant a pursue. Part of the journey to develop this gut feeling comes from having read a lot. By reading, you get to understand and know the kind of writing that sells or people want to read. If not, you can follow the advice that Stephen King himself said and I paraphrase, “The good stuff stays. All the bad ideas will just fall off and be forgotten. Writing down notes of the ideas you get means you end up keeping all the bad stuff.”

How I wrote The Tainted Forbidden Love

As much as I want it, planning out my story with outlines and chronological listings isn’t something I do. To me, it’s really boring.

Instead, what I have is an overarching theme or an idea that I will set my stories in. Then I will have a rough draft of characters who will appear in the story. Along the way, more characters will be invented to create more sub-plots that ultimately join up and conclude the book.

That was what happened at the beginning of The Tainted Forbidden Love. There was a sudden story that appeared in my head when I woke up on a Saturday morning. Like any ideas, if you don’t write it down, it will fade away and then you would feel meh when you try to recall or revisit it.

Below is the notes I wrote after jumping out of bed and picked up my phone.

When the writing started, only one character was named. He’s none other than Dexter. As the writing continued, I introduced the second character, Shane.

After that, I didn’t really stop to think about what I was writing. The words were flowing through my mind and I simply let the story take me along for the ride until chapter 3. Along the way, more characters came along and I created sub-plots without thinking much.

By the time I started writing Chapter 4, the words stopped coming. It was the dreaded writer’s block. And I spent months (March to October) struggling and only managed to put in a few paragraphs here and there. Even had two depressive episodes, each lasting several weeks. I was blaming my day job and my colleagues then for making me so exhausted.

But the ending was already known as I always wanted the story to end that way. To make myself feel like I have achieved something, I wrote that ending first and then work backwards to fill in the blanks during those months.

It was only on Nov 3rd, 2018 that I closed off the last plot thread in that novel as part of my editing process. In hindsight, it definitely looked like I am suffering from a severe case of procrastination with a healthy dose of perfectionism thrown in.

The funny thing is, I won’t have it any other way because it is my process. I own that shit.

And you know what?

Go ahead and read the chapters I have already published and compare it to that screenshot of the notes I’ve written. You will notice that it had diverged. And that’s the thing about being a pantser and not a planner. Sometimes you will create something totally different that could be better than what you have planned. I love it.

I will also include the links to the published chapters below:

  1. Chapter 1
  2. Chapter 2
  3. Chapter 3
  4. Chapter 4
  5. Chapter 5

Write daily to improve (not) – Finding my own writing process

I’m pretty sure you will see this kind of content everywhere. I’m writing it anyway because I want to share my process and how I make my writing work.

The general consensus amongst writers, especially those what we deemed to be high-performers based on metrics like how many views, how many pieces of content they put out, how many claps or likes they get, and the amount of engagement they have, is that you should write daily. As wise people always say, quantity over quality. Keep putting yourself out there and not be paralyze by the fear of not putting out a piece of viral content.

Those advices are not wrong. I tried writing daily and now I can just hit publish without worrying whether my content is good enough. The market will decide by giving me likes or views or comments. And thus far, based on those metrics, my content sucks. Big time. But I digress.

Anyway, there are days when I simply don’t feel like writing because they are dry in terms of things that I have done or learnt or seen. My only excuse is that I live through most of my day following a fix routine => Wake up, go to work, go through my task list, do them, go home. Rinse, rise, repeat. Fixed routines can dramatically drain one’s inspiration but it is also one of those things that keep me sane in an insane world.

I’m neurotic in that sense.

And my day job does make me write a lot. I’m a software developer and so I write codes. Those things, when you do them for eight hours straight, they are bloody draining on one’s mental energy. Then there are those menial tasks like meetings and customer support.

I also do freelance development work for a long-time client. My mind is constantly working and churning.

By the time I get home, I’m already floored. I’m a highly-sensitive person and do need more personal time than the average person to relax and clear the toxins from my body.

Being highly-sensitive is not an excuse. I have also been building up my emotional immunity but there will be days when the balance is off and I didn’t have enough time to tip the scale accordingly. That’s when you will see me spiral out of control, have lots of mood swings.

Well, I don’t want that. It’s bad for my health too. My friends and family don’t want that because I do get extremely grumpy when I don’t rest enough. So I will find ways to shut down my mind for just a little while. Have a massage or something.

I’m also predominantly a fiction writer. Those take a lot of time to write. It’s even worse when you ran out of ideas, and feeling exhausted mentally and physically. Yes, you do see non-fiction writing coming from me but those are out there because I felt the urge to write them. Including this one. I am not specifically looking forward to write them. I don’t even write my daily log or journal daily.

Of course, you can say that there are other fiction writers who can put out daily content without problem.

Yes, I know. I do read content from these writers too. Good for them. They found a writing process that works for them. Some of them are even full-time writers. I’m not them. I have a day job that is equally draining for someone like me. I don’t do micro-fictions. I’m a long form fiction writer. The average length of my short story is anywhere between 2,000 to 4,000 words. Those take a lot of effort on my part to churn out. And need a healthy dose of inspiration. And a rested mind, not a moody one after a long day of work.

So I do spent time playing video games (sometimes for hours non-stop), watch movies, exercise, and read. If I need it, I will nap for four hours straight. This is how I take care of my mental state and health.

Then there will be days I’m feeling it. The inspiration just struck. I will just sit there and write. I could hit up to 9,000 words, maybe even 10,000, if I wanted to. After all, I did that a few times when I want to write a novel.

There was once, I even managed to churn out 14,000 words over three days as I was writing a novel. I was in the zone (or flow state) after being well-rested, full of motivation, and inspiration. That was one of my best records ever.

So yeah, you won’t see me putting out daily content just because it will improve my writing. I do believe in consistent practice but rest is equally important. Play is equally important. Balance is key. So I will put out content when I have the capacity to do so. I have other means and ways to improve my own writing.

Now that’s my writing process.