Focus–Or wax on, wax off

So, the holidays bring a slew of time management how-to posts for writers, usually some variation of staying productive in the face of the emotional roller coaster of stress-shopping, uncomfortable parties, and that one family member that never got the memo about not discussing politics at the dinner table.

But few posts bother talking about focus and its relationship to time management. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess I’m not the only writer who has lost hours days on Pinterest and Twitter. It’s easy to sink into a chair or hop behind that standing desk, spend hours on vaguely writerly tasks—and get no writing done.

True, publishing is a complicated, constantly evolving industry, and yes, the smart writer keeps up with the industry rags and gossip. Dozens of writing related tasks compete for our attention; monthly #MSWL updates, following agents and publishers on Twitter, creating a shiny blog or Pinterest board for that newest WIP, and all the winter contests (I love me a good writing contest). I think it’s common to look around the glittering, fast-moving digital world and have FOMO moment.

I get it. Plus, all those online distractions are better than staring at a story that seems broken thirty thousand words in, or chasing after a muse that took the Red Eye to Rio for the winter. I mean, updating your blog looks productive. But those things? They’re the authorial version of putting the cart before the horse.

That old saw “talking about writing isn’t writing” is true, and focusing on market trends, publicity, agents, and writing forum water coolers is just another version of talking instead of writing—it takes a newer writer’s attention and energy and feels like accomplishing something, but it isn’t really writing.

Here’s my theory. Writers spend so many hours/days/months alone inside their heads. Writers spend even longer waiting on other people’s timetables, be it their muse (if that’s your thing), beta readers, crit partners, agents, or editors.

The immediate gratification of online involvement is seductive–and addictive. But like most addictions, it’s not your friend.

Look, I’m offering this advice as a baby writer who was in that same boat about 5 minutes ago, and is still in the query trenches. When someone decides to pursue publication, it seems like a daunting amount of information to process, and process right now. The immediacy of social media jumps to the forefront, and there are multiple huge communities out there, from FB, Amazon, and Absolute Write forums to Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter cliques. Complete transparency here—I’d be lost without my 2014 Pitch Wars and Roaring Writers groups, and miss a ton of opportunities without my writer-centric Twitter feed.

But concentrating on those pretty-shinies won’t get you into magazines, anthologies, bookstores, or Amazon’s digital shelves. I’ve watched writers who came into the writing world at the same time I did stall out and never progress to finishing a project or never leveling up from the quality of the first story they wrote, much less finding publication. Or watched peers leave from a combination of exhaustion and confusion over why they weren’t making professional strides.

The answer almost always comes down to focusing on and mastering the basics.

Yep, wax on/wax off.

The quiet, boring, often tedious behind the scenes work. Learning how to plot and spot plot holes. Learning what’s considered a cliché and how to avoid them. The Holy Grail of developing voice. The slog of mastering grammar, story structure, pacing, and genre expectations.

For what it’s worth, my best, hard earned advice is to narrow your focus for now. Keep the online stuff to finding and exploiting resources that concentrate on the nitty-gritty of writing the words.

Write, finish, revise, and repeat.

For me, switching gears made sense once I could spot issues in my own writing, and then when I understood how to correct the problem. That’s when I was ready to move on to Twitter contests, stalking agents’ feeds to glean what they preferred in a submission, and worrying about my online presence.

Go check out the Million Words Resources page and subscribe to those how-to blogs. Give yourself a limit on your daily or weekly social media futzing. And quit stressing about missing out.

Plot out a sound foundation for your writing career, one that will hold up the marble countertops and pretty interior design that comes later.

Oh, and learn the joy of mixing metaphors at will.

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