Focus Hocus-Pocus

Oftentimes, I have trouble staying focused. For example, I was cleaning up the kids’ play room today and went downstairs to return a few cups to the kitchen. I wasn’t finished cleaning their play room, but a large stack of “stuff” littering the kitchen counter distracted me. So, play room forgotten, I started sifting through everything, making neat piles of mail, receipts, old newspapers, things-to-go-upstairs, things-to-go-outside, and God-knows-what-else in an effort to clean off the counters. In short order, I had a stack of “office things,” so I grabbed the stack and made my way to the office, where…you guessed it…I got distracted by a mess there and promptly forgot about the kitchen. Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand I can wave to finish cleaning the rooms I abandon, so I have to backtrack, and it often seems I’m never finishing anything.

The same thing can happen to me in my writing. I will sit down to work on a scene, having a fairly good idea of what I need to write beforehand. But pretty soon, I get distracted and start meandering. I don’t just meander, either. I get lost on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere at night with no street signs or mailboxes or full moon and even my iPhone with Google Maps can’t find me. In other words, I lose my focus on what needs to happen in terms of action, tension, escalation, character arc, etc. I end up with a lot of unnecessary (or irrelevant) action, overly loquacious dialogue, and “sittin’ ‘n thinkin’,” and after 1,000+ words, I realize I haven’t moved the story forward at all. (Insert *groan* here.)

So I thought about what I might do to help me stay focused and I came up with a form I call “In This Scene.” I fill it out prior to writing a scene and it’s working like magic! Now before writing, I spec out the following:

  • Date — today’s date. More for my own information than anything else; I hole-punch each “In This Scene” and keep them in a binder with other stuff related to my book.
  • Scene Summary — a one-sentence summary of what’s going on in the scene. This matches the name I give the scene in Scrivener.
  • Characters — whoever will make an appearance, no matter how big or small a role they play.
  • POV — who’s telling the story in this scene? This helps me remember who’s head to stay in and has done a great job preventing me from head-hopping.
  • Conflict — what’s the problem in the scene? Where’s the conflict? Listing this here makes sure it stays front and center while I write.
  • Beginning Stakes — what’s the situation for the POV or other main character at the beginning of the scene?
  • Ending Stakes — what’s changed over the course of the scene that moves the character, plot, or tension forward?
  • Summary — a “Cliff Notes” version of what will happen. It’s essentially a 30,000 foot view of the scene. There is no dialogue and no details, unless they’re significant to the plot (for example, it doesn’t matter what color my heroine’s dress is unless that color is significant to the plot later on). It’s essentially a quick description of the setting, people moving, highlights of what they’ll say, their actions/reactions, and where the scene should end. It’s for my information only and it’s to help keep me focused as I write.

Here’s an example of one I did for my last scene (as you can see, POV is something I forgot when I created the form the first time around…I haven’t printed another batch of these forms yet, but POV will be included when I do):

In this scene pg 1     In this scene pg 2

You’re probably looking at this and saying, “Yeah, seen this before…it’s like the Snowflake Method.” You’re probably right. Randy Ingermanson’s method for writing is great for us plotters. However, I don’t plot out my entire story from beginning to end before I start writing. I have a pretty good idea of where my story is going to go, but I don’t know every scene. So while there are parts of the Snowflake Method that may work for me, there are other parts that don’t. And even if I did know every scene, it doesn’t mean that I am thinking of “what needs to happen next” when I’m in the middle of writing a scene. I get distracted by the exciting things I’m making my character do and say while writing, forgetting that my character has an agenda (my plot) and that he or she (er, I) need to stay focused. I need a map, a plan…and that’s what “In This Scene” is for me.

When I wrote the scene I showed you here, it came in at about 700 words, which is fewer words than if I had played “pantster” and winged it. (When I do a scene off-the-cuff, I average about 1,500 words and the story doesn’t go anywhere.) Naturally, those 700 words are just a first draft and there’s still detail I have to layer in, anachronistic phrases I have to change (I’m horrible about that in a first draft), and other little things here and there I must tweak, but the bones are there. Most importantly, I have the conflict between the main characters front and center, I’m in the same POV the entire scene, and it ends in the right place, upping the stakes for both my hero and heroine and moving the plot forward. It’s a little like magic the way this works for me and it’s made the process of writing my book a lot easier.

So, to you, kind reader…what magical tricks do you use to help you stay on track when you write?

4 thoughts on “Focus Hocus-Pocus

  1. Jennifer

    Hi Justine – Great post. I have major focus issues and I think I’m going to try this method out. When I write, I try to plot things out, but I’m also impatient so I end up trying to wing it. That method has ended up in rambling prose that goes nowhere.

    Right now I’m working on the first chapter of my first novel. The scene is a mess. I keep writing, deleting, writing some more, deleting some more. I’m going to step back and plan out the scene using your form. Having some kind of direction will prove to be more productive.

    1. Justine Post author

      Good luck! I wouldn’t worry too much about the first scene. It’s the hardest, I think. Sometimes I fill out two or three of these forms at the same time so I know where the story is going, then actually write them later (sometimes out of order, too). You might try that to get over the first scene hump.

  2. Pingback: Justine: Sometimes A Writer Must Jump the Tracks | Eight Ladies Writing

  3. Pingback: Justine: The Critical Nature of Doing vs. Reacting | Eight Ladies Writing

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