How Not To Write A Novel – Or 4 Ways To Drop The Ball

As I’ve mentioned multiple times here in the past, I am working on writing a novel. Truthfully, there is enough material in the universe of this novel for three or four full length novels.

I started with the ideas in late 2002, and have progressively and consistently dropped the ball day after day since then. I have found that there are no less than four things that have played into my failure in finishing the novel(s) that I have been working on over the past few years.

1. Distraction

Time Sink

Time Sink

I put this one at the top of the list because it is the most featured in my everyday life. The modern age in which we live provides us with thousands upon thousands of ways to become distracted. Cell phones, instant messaging, the world wide web, RSS feeds, Digg, Stack Overflow, TV Shows, movies; the list could go on for months.

Brains work in different ways for different people. Some people are able to easily shut out these things, and actually sit down in front of the computer with a purpose, and simply leave the computer once the objective has been completed.

Being an adult suffering from ADD (which has never been addressed or medicated in my life), I tend to sit down with a purpose, forget said purpose, and end up wasting time doing nothing productive. There are some television programs that I watch that my wife doesn’t enjoy, so there’s 2.5 hours a week wasted. I have a Facebook and Myspace account, so there’s yet more time wasted. Digg, Stack Overflow and Google Reader all suck even more time from my productive periods.

The best thing to do if you are suffering from these distractions is to unplug. I have a problem doing this because I have become a Jack of all trades. I host, develop and support websites, am going to school, and have an internship which all require me to be constantly available to the people who rely on me. This really is no excuse, but certainly this is a major factor in my distraction issue.

The web is a wonderful place to cross reference and research the topics in your novel, but this should be viewed as an afterthought. Checking to see when the British people first widely adopted indoor plumbing can lead to a day’s worth of browsing Wikipedia for interesting facts that, in your mind, “can be useful to your novel.” I think this modified classic adage holds true when dealing with “unplugging” to avoid distractions:

Write first and ask questions later.

2. Goal Setting
I have a very hard time setting goals and sticking to them. Setting goals is easy, but motivating yourself to actually complete the goal that you have set for yourself is the hard part.

In my experience, the best thing to do is to make your goals public. Making your goals public, telling people you know (or maybe people you don’t) creates the notion of accountability. You set a release date for the first chapter of a novel, and people respond that they are eager, and you create a new fire to light under yourself to get you to stick to that release date.

Publicizing and meeting your goals can create cascading results that will trickle down and benefit you in the future. If you publicly announce that you are releasing the first chapter of your novel, people in your audience will start to buzz. If you then meet that goal, you have created a bit of trust between your audience and yourself, which will benefit you in the future when your novel is completely released and/or published.

It’s always good practice to deliver on promised goals. Not only does this create trust between yourself and your readers, publicly announcing goals will benefit you in drawing in future fans and readers. The web is a place that is completely timeless. Google crawls anything and everything publicly available, and even caches the information for posterity. You set a goal now and deliver on time, then when future people are searching for information about you and your work, you allow them to see that you are a man of action who is true to his word.

3. Time Management
Time Management is certainly one of the most important factors in getting your novel completed. Distractions surely play into this second category, but I wanted to highlight this notion by itself. What are you doing right this moment to further your goal of completing this novel?

Using a GTD (or other organizational) system to keep track of your goals and tasks is a must. If you don’t have a place to put everything you need to do, then all of those ideas, goals and tasks will be floating around in your head and distracting you, causing you to not actually do anything to further your goals.

We all have things to do, but people who keep track of everything and organize their tasks are the ones who appear to have fewer things on their list to do. Being organized about your tasks frees up your mind to do creative things, causing you to gain perspective on the task at hand without your subconscious attention being split between multiple tasks.

Taking your kids to soccer practice, remembering the milk and wasting time are all things that people do, but you need to keep your mind focused on the task at hand, relying on your organizational system to ensure that you are indeed doing what you are supposed to be, and that there will be time set out for each and every task that you need to complete.

4. Focus
As an adult suffering from ADD I can easily lose focus and forget what I am doing on the drop of a dime. (ooooh, a dime!) Though this sounds like the distraction category at the top of this page, focus deserves its own mention.

Keeping yourself focused on one task at a time is a function of the previous three topics. If you do not have a goal, tasks listed for said goal, and a workspace that pulls you away from the distraction of modern life, you will not be able to focus.

Sometimes the best way to gain focus is to become a shut-in. Now, most writers have many other hats to wear, and are not able to completely shut themselves off from the outside world. What we need to do in this case is create or find a quiet place, designed specifically for removing distractions, and get to work.

The local library is a great place to quietly work. The understood law of not talking in the library does wonders for reducing distractions. Taking along a laptop, shutting the internet connection off and sitting at a research cubicle can successfully sequester you.

It's all about the Pentiums, baby

Its all about the Pentiums, baby

Music helps tremendously when trying to focus. Find out what kind of instrumental music you love and get a whole lot of it. I tend to enjoy listening to Baroque music (Albinoni and Corelli are my favorites), and it’s easy to focus on writing while your ears are distracted with music, effectively shutting out the aural distractions in the world around you. Music without lyrics is especially important in maintaining focus. Sometimes your mind will “sing along” with your favorite Weird Al Yankovich title, keeping at least some small part of your mind out of the realm of your work.

If you are someone who thrives on chaos, or you just enjoy a bit of white noise, find a public place and plop yourself down. This serves another, unexpected function: people watching. When you are writing a novel, it’s important to include believable human interaction when creating dialog. Watching people in their natural element, when they are acting truly themselves, provides you with more perspective than possible when they knew they were being watched.

There is a vast amount of information out here on the web, and you are currently wasting time reading this article, when you could have easily been finishing a few hundred words of your novel. So, close this blog, turn off your network connection, open your editor of choice, and go get something done!

  • Isis

    lol@”ooooh, a dime”

  • Isis

    Wow, you’re much smarter than I give you credit for!

    Seriously though, this article was so very well written; I’m extremely impressed. And to be honest, I never realized how difficult it is for your in that crazy mixed-up head of yours; I don’t really have any of the problems you listed above. That’s amazing, and it’s interesting to get a glimpse into your life.

  • Kathy

    hey Ben. I never really thought about it before, but I think I do a lot of the things you wrote about. I’m consistently doing little silly things that take up a lot of time, while I put off things that I really need to do. So, I’m taking your advice and turning the computer off for the night. see you later this weekend.

  • Wendy Jones

    Wow! We must be related because this article could have been written by me! Did my parents ever worry that I had ADD? Probably, I’ll have to ask (dad, not mom cuz that’s creepy). I am the exact same way although it took me years to realize it. I simply feel that those who are super organized and great multitaskers simply are not as creative as I am!
    This article sounds great! I think it sounds like one I would find in Men’s Health Magazine (yes, I read it). Maybe even Playboy!

  • Jaycen

    As someone who also struggles with many of the same difficulties you’ve listed above, I must say you’re on the money. I’ve found that a lot of the things you’ve touched upon have also worked for me, especially unplugging. I was working full time at a video store, so there was always a pile of low quality flicks to consume instead of working on anything worthwhile. Now I work in a library, and I’m finally getting some wordcount under my belt.
    I think there’s something beautiful in those moments when we realize the nature of our obstacles.They allow us to mount a counter-attack, to finally realize the ideas that have been torturing us as they rattle around in our brains half-incubated.
    Something that I hate to admit about myself is that I often neglect to say exactly what I feel when given the opportunity. Ben, I want you to know how proud I am of you, and how impressed I am not only by this article, but by your intellect, your creativity, your resolve and your strength.I know how hard you’ve worked, and I also know that you have something wonderful to offer in any novel or story you’ll write, and I can’t wait to read them.

  • Pingback: When Do You Know When You’re Done? | Worthless Genius()

  • Evolra

    Very true…but how much time did you waste on this when you could have worked on your novel. lol.

  • sally

    Wow Ben,
    I didn’t realize what a talented writer you are.
    Your article made me think about how easily I get distracted. At least you have started, I’ve thought about writing and that is as far as I have gone with it.
    I can’t wait to read your novel. And, just so you know, I am proud of how far you have come. Keep up the good work. One thing that I know is that you are also a great Father. And to me that is the most important thing you can be!