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When It’s Hard to Maintain Your Focus


Anybody else having a focus problem these days?

Silly question. Of course you are. News. It doesn’t even matter where you stand, which side you’re on, or Russia what you believe. The news has captured health care just about everyone’s interest, and for most of us, the climate change ability to concentrate on what we’re writing requires Herculean effort. Because subpoena when the future of our country is at stake, and news is sometimes breaking FBI at the rate of a story every five minutes, most of us, understandably, have discovered NATO we can’t look away. (And let’s not even Trump begin to talk about the additional alcohol and caffeine crazy we’re consuming, the stress eating, budget the lost hours of internet trolls sleep…) Sorry, what was I saying? It’s been a whole paragraph. I had to go check Twitter.


Seriously, let’s talk about focus. Often a problem when we’re bogged down in the clumsy middle of a book, many of us are now experiencing a different sort of distractibility stemming from stress and the fact that we’re living through a more plot-twisty story than anything any of us could have dreamt up. (And one that would have been rejected by almost all editors for its lack of plausibility.) What’s more, unlike the stories we write, this story potentially carries terrifying, generation or longer real-world consequences. It’s the ultimate page-turner. So how do we pull ourselves away from this reality and focus on the worlds we’re supposed to be creating?

The first part of the answer is that you don’t pull away. You accept that you’re going to cede some of your productivity to the news and maybe even to activism, if you’re so inclined.

But you’re probably more interested in part two of the answer—the one that gets you back to your writing. Let writing be your refuge. This constant, high-stress vigilance is exhausting. It’s not where most writers feel comfortable. So no matter how compelling that big world story may be, find a way back to that place of your own creation. Those first few moments in front of the blank page may feel strained, but the people in your fictional world are going to make sense to you in a way the people in the news don’t. Besides, won’t it be a relief to spend time on a regular basis with people whose behavior you can control—at least most of the time? What a great de-stressor, even if you end up not keeping everything you write.

Third, I’m going to share a stunningly simple tool I’ve found works to keep me focused and motivated when writing through the cumbersome sections of my manuscript. Conveniently, it’s also helping these days to bring me back to the page when I feel like my brain is so immersed in the global news vortex I might never be able to retrieve it.

At the beginning of each full draft*, I write on a sticky note a few simple mantras I intend to apply specifically to that draft and place the note where I can see it when I’m working. These mantras can be basic writing precepts, or they might mean nothing to anyone but me. It doesn’t matter so long as they function instantly to direct my attention back to the specific goals I’ve set for each draft of my book.

For example, here are my mantras for the first two full drafts of my WIP:

First draft:

Second draft:

For that first full draft, I wanted to get the basic “what happened” and characterizations on the page. I needed a constant reminder not to beat myself up over bad writing, because my tendency was to want to return to the language repeatedly until I at least didn’t cringe at what I’d written. Pasting instructions to the contrary in front of my face really did push me forward when I otherwise might have gotten stuck for who knows how long?

For the second full draft, I needed mantras that would not only pull me through difficult rewriting after I’d thrown out entire sections of the first draft, but that could also convince me to sit my butt in my chair and work when the very act of doing so sometimes felt as futile as trying to have a calm political conversation in 2017. So I reminded myself that I have a very personal, private motivation for creating this story. It worked; looking at this reminder has punched through my discouragement and convinced me to pick up pen and paper and untangle unruly plot threads more times than I can count. I still occasionally shoot nervous glances at my TK mantra because I don’t like leaving those holes; I’d rather research the missing information right in the middle of writing the sentence. But the mantra propels me forward, leaving that work for a more appropriate, future draft. Lastly, I continue to remind myself that no matter how frustrating it becomes, I will finish this work, if only because I started it.

With so many potential sources of distraction and frustration, it can be easy to let your attention be pulled elsewhere. But try jotting down a few simple lines that will serve as promises you make to yourself. Place them where you’ll see them every time you open your laptop or pick up pen and paper, and you’ll discover you can identify what’s most important to you in each draft of your book. Then you can use that knowledge to keep yourself on track.

Now I really do have to go. It’s been more than 900 words and I have to check the news.


*I use the term “full draft” because in between the first full draft and the complete overhaul I’m working on now, I’ve reworked numerous individual sections—in some cases, dozens of times.

About Tracy Hahn-Burkett [2]

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her eighth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel. Her website is TracyHahnBurkett.com [3].