I just spoke to Kevin T Johns about writing fiction that sells and asked him for some tips on actually finishing a book – plenty of authors never finish and need more help – he delivered with this epic post!
Writing a novel, especially a first novel, is a massive and complex project. The sheer amount of work involved can be totally overwhelming to many aspiring authors, and simply sticking with a full-length manuscript through to completion can be especially challenging. Distractions abound, second guessing runs rampant, and sometimes it feels like the whole world wants to steal your time, attention, and energy away from your writing.
Developing and implementing systems and hacks to keep yourself on track and locked-in to your writing project isn’t just a good idea, it’s practically essential if you want to maintain the type of focus required to successfully write a publishable novel in a reasonable amount of time.
What follows are ten hacks you can start using today to stay focused while “running the marathon” that is drafting a full-length manuscript.
You get out of bed and go to your day job each day, even though you hate it, because you’ll be fired if you don’t show up for work. There are clear consequences to not doing the work, which means there are stakes involved.
Many people struggle to stay focused on passion projects like writing a novel because, unlike their day job, there are no real stakes at play. Nothing happens if you don’t do the work you said you were going to do. This is where public accountability can be extremely helpful.
Accountability can come in the form of accountability buddies, family and friends, online forums, critique groups, and writing coaches like myself. We’re all great at making excuses to ourselves as to why we didn’t do something, but it’s an entirely difference experience to try to feed one of those flimsy excuses to someone invested in our success.
There are many ways to make connections with people who believe in you and want to help you achieve your writing goals, so seek them out and ensure there are consequences to not doing the writing you know you should do.
Create Deadlines and Track Progress
A wonderful thing about writing a novel is we can estimate exactly how long it will take to write based on the targeted total word count goal (say 70,000 words) and a firmly stated deadline (say six months from today). Once you’ve chosen your deadline and word count goal, you can use the following equation to determine your daily word count requirements and then track progress on a regular basis:
A / B = X
A is your total targeted word count, B is the total number of days to deadline, and X equals the number of words you need to write per day. Using this equation, you’ll always know if you’re on track to meeting your deadline.
With deadlines in place and word count goals established, it’s easy to know when things are working and when things are going wrong. If you find yourself falling behind your established schedule, it means it’s either time to make changes to how you’re approaching your writing, or simply that your deadline wasn’t realistic in the first place.
Create Visual Representation of Success
Writing a novel is a long process with significantly delayed gratification. We aren’t like actors in a play getting applause at the end of each performance, or a rock band getting cheered after every tune in a 14-song set. You’ll likely be working on your book for months before you receive any feedback at all, so it’s important to find ways to celebrate the small successes along the way all on your own.
One of the best ways to do this is recording your daily writing on a calendar. Put the calendar on a wall you see often, and record your daily word count, cross the days off with an x or a check mark, or add a sticker when you get your writing done. Every time you mark off the calendar you’ll get an endorphin rush, and when you miss a day you’ll be all the more eager to get back on track. Visual representation of success don’t just allow you to celebrate wins, but actually serve as motivation to push through the difficult times.
Another great way to celebrate your success are Derek’s awesome ‘Merit Badge Awards’ for writers. Learn all about them here.
Use TV and Movies as a Reward
I’m not going to tell you to stop watching television and movies. As storytelling mediums, both can be nearly as useful a novels when it comes to studying the craft and providing inspiration for your own storytelling.
Unfortunately, TV and movies are also a massive time suck and a major source of distraction for writers. TV and movies make it far too easy to become a consumer of art, rather than a producer of it.
If there is a television series you just can’t live without, or a movie it would kill you to miss, that’s perfectly fine. Watch them, but do so as a form of reward. Only watch the show or hit the theater once you’ve achieved your daily writing goal. In doing so, you’ll turn what would otherwise be a major distraction into a source of motivation for your writing.
Gamify Your Writing
As much as we might like to romanticize the life of the writer, the reality is a lot of the time the work of a writer feels like, well, work. If you’re the type of person who grows tired with the day-to-day drudgery of in-the-trenches writing, look for ways to gamify the writing process.
Derek has done just that with his awesome website WriterSprints.com, which allows writers to race up to 50 other writers in real time!
Forest is another gamification app that rewards you for staying focused on your project by allowing you to plant a virtual tree and then grow the tree based on the amount of time you spend focused on your work. Click away from your writing to check Facebook and your tree will start to wither away. Keep pounding out those words and it will grow tall and strong.
Track your Time
If you feel like you never have enough time to get your writing done, you need to start doing some time-tracking. It’s impossible to find the time to write if you don’t know where your time is going in the first place.
Apps like Toggl and RescueTime are excellent tools for tracking time and then viewing reports, but a good old fashioned paper and pen time journal will also do the trick.
The point is to be extremely mindful of how you spend your time. After at least a week of tracking your time, you’ll have a much better understand of where your time is going, where it’s being wasted, and where you might be able to fit in more writing sessions.
Understanding exactly how much time you have available to dedicate to your writing is a major part of becoming a productive writer.
If you’ve tracked your time, or at the very least spent some time focusing on how you’re spending it, you should have an understanding of what consistently distracts you and takes your focus away from the drafting of your novel.
For many writers, social media, email, and the internet are among the most common distractions. If you find the red notification dot impossible to ignore, you’ll want to use a tool that’ll do what your self-control can’t.
Here are some options:
Freedom – Blocks access to websites, apps, or the entire internet for a set period of time.
Inbox Pause – Puts new emails on hold so they don’t appear in your inbox until you are ready for them.
News Feed Eradicator – This Chrome plugin replaces your entire Facebook news feed with an inspiring quote. Update your status without getting sucked into the black hole of the news feed!
Ommwriter – A distraction free writing app with backgrounds designed to hold your attention, audio tracks to focus your mind, and keyboard sounds to support typing.
Remind Yourself of the Consequences of Not Shipping
You want to write a book because you believe it will bring value to the world. Whether you’re interested in sharing information, entertaining readers with a gripping narrative, creating emotional resonance, or just giving your readers a good laugh, you believe the story is valuable; you would never do something as crazy as try to write a novel if you didn’t. Refusing to share the value you’re able to offer the world is a profoundly selfish act.
In one of the all-time great blog posts, “Polishing Perfect”, Seth Godin argues, “Any project that’s held up in revisions and meetings and general fear-based polishing is the victim of a crime. It’s a crime because you’re stealing that perfect work from a customer who will benefit from it. You’re holding back the good stuff from the people who need it, afraid of what the people who don’t will say.”
The next time you find yourself losing focus on your writing, remind yourself of the “crime” you are committing by withholding your art from the world.
Seek Out Mentors
Influencers in the industry, writing coaches, experienced editors, and veteran authors who’ve all been where you are now can be of great help when you’re confused, have questions, or can’t keep on track.
When you read a helpful blog post or watch an enlightening Youtube video, take note of who created it. There are many, many individuals experienced in the world of writing and publishing who are more than willing to share their knowledge with you, and often for free.
Don’t fall for the myth of the solitary writer. No one in this world succeeds at anything alone. We all need help along the way to achieving our goals, so find the people who can help you stay on track and keep focused on your writing. (You’re on Derek Murphy’s website, so you’re already off to a good start!)
Armed with these tips, tools, and systems, you’ll be ready to stay focused on your writing straight through to completion of your manuscript!
Want even more hacks to help you stay on-track while drafting your manuscript? Visit www.kevintjohns.com/focus for 10 more focus tips!
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.