Monday, January 20, 2014

Constellations and Stories: 6 Tips for Focus

        "Why can't they have this in June or something?" I mutter to myself, breath escaping from my scarf and fogging in the October air. It drifts up to join the crescent moon in its wreath of wispy clouds. "Oh, but then it wouldn't be a fall festival, would it? How silly."
I hoist myself onto the back of the hay wagon in my turn. I jostle into a space beside my friend Bonnie, sit – in a crack between bales, of course – and worm my numb toes under the belly of the white dog who lies like a patient ghost in the floor of the wagon. Bonnie and I grin at each other, because the tractor is too loud for talking, and dig our hands into the sides of the bales to steady ourselves as the wagon lurches gracelessly out of the driveway.
The first scattering of songs ends and people sit mostly in silence, laughing once in a while when the tractor pitches into a pothole and makes us lean into each other. Bonnie says something about the group of little faint stars to the east.
I untuck my nose from my scarf long enough to say, “That’s the Pleiades,” with a bitter smile. It might be my favorite constellation, clustered so close as if to keep warm against the vast cold of the black sky, except that I can never look at it directly.
“It’s so hard to see,” Bonnie yells over the tractor. “You can’t look at it straight. But when I look beside it, I can see it.”
“Know why that is?” I shout back, trying to judge the distance from her ear and figure out if I’m hurting her.
I run my tongue over my lips and catch the last spicy traces of sassafras tea. I love sharing this bit of information. “There are two types of cells in your eyes: rod cells and cone cells. One of them is better at absorbing light, and the other kind is better with color – I can never remember which is which. But the ones for color are concentrated at the center of your retina, and the ones for light are thicker near the sides. So when you look directly at something dim, it seems to vanish, because the whatever-cells can’t pick up its light. Then when you look sideways, the other type of cell can see it again.”
“Oh!” she says, as if in epiphany. I doubt she heard half of my explanation, but I’m satisfied. I grin into my coat collar, a little bit warmer as we rumble on into the night.

Ideas are like constellations. Sometimes they’re bright and clear, so compelling that they demand to be stared at. Sometimes they’re obstinate, only looking right if you lean back and squint at them. Sometimes they’re too shy to be seen directly at all, and you have to pretend you’re not looking at them to find out what they are.
But if you stare at something directly for long enough, even something clear and brilliant, you begin to lose focus. You blink, rub your eyes, anything to keep it where it should be. But focus, like starlight, is an elusive thing. You get bored with looking at your constellation. You think it may not be as pretty as you thought it was. And those other constellations start to look awfully appealing.
I like to stargaze. Consequently, I have read several books on stargazing, and I cannot count the times I have been told to use red cellophane over my flashlight while I’m looking at the star maps, so as not to ruin my night vision. I was always just a bit indignant. What if I don’t have red cellophane? What if my flashlight isn’t bright enough? Basically: what if that won’t work for me?
Similarly, I cannot count the number of tips I have read on how to focus on a writing project. Set a schedule. Drink coffee. Outline your book start to finish. Freewrite. Take breaks. Don’t take breaks. Drink more coffee.
But what if that won’t work for me? And what if I don’t like coffee?
This isn’t going to be like all the other posts full of tips on focus. Because I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m going to help you find your own coffee and your own red cellophane.
And now, a list of my best techniques for concentrating, perfected in a trial by fire (aka NaNoWriMo):

1. Move.
A stagnant pool of water isn’t very inspiring, is it? I mean, just look at it. All full of boring muck and slimy pebbles, with flat little bubbles on the top that give a lazy snap when you touch them, almost like it’s too much trouble to pop, but they’ll do it if they have to. Likewise, sitting still in one place for too long can stunt your creativity. Go outside. Run around and remember again how vast the sky is. Remind yourself that in the grand scheme of things, your work is quite small. If you can’t run around the house, do jumping jacks. Run in place. Frolic down the hallway. Ignore the disturbed stares of family and friends. Find the kind of movement that inspires you. Whatever it takes, move.

2. Eat.
Find your ‘brain food’. For me, this is a peculiar combination of cold grapefruit, dark chocolate with blueberries, and hot vanilla chai (no, I don’t consume them all at once). I find that food works best when you reserve a particular type for writing. For instance, there is a bar of dark chocolate with blueberries in the cabinet at all times, but I save it for emergencies. Find a food or drink that you like and ration it out. Only eat it when you’re writing. I find that this gives it a strange quality, almost as if, by virtue of being eaten for inspiration, it gives inspiration. I’m sure it’s an illusion, but sometimes it’s necessary to trick yourself.

3. Rest.
Writing is tough. Anyone who has attempted to write anything longer than a short story knows this. Not only sticking to your motivation when Pinterest and Facebook call, but avoiding burnout when you’ve been too inspired for too long. Try this: turn on the song that best fits your work. Bend over your keyboard. Lace your hands into your hair and listen. Just listen. Think of nothing at all but the music. Notice its intricate details, revel in its ebb and flow. Given a break from work, your brain will likely thank you by providing new ideas, sometimes from a single trumpet flourish or the sound in the center of a particular word. If music isn’t your thing, watch your favorite movie or read a book you love. Everyone needs a break once in a while.

4. Accessorize.
Find an inspiring object. This may be harder for writers of a certain genre, but lately my object has been a blank leather journal I got for $5 at Hobby Lobby. It has a bumpy cover and creamy, rough pages.  It’s inspiring to me because it looks like something one of my fantasy characters would own. I can imagine one of them carrying it in their satchel, jotting down their thoughts inside it. Previously, my object was a picture of Emilia Clarke (who happens to look like my MC) that I cut from a magazine. I find this helps me focus by keeping me in the story world. Find an object and keep it beside you. Pet it if necessary.

5. Schedule.
Oh, here it comes, you’re thinking. She’s going to give me some kind of scientifically proven method of cutting my time into little segments to maximize my creativity. Actually, nope. I hate schedules, which is part of the reason I hate posts like this, because they usually give you one. Now, I’m aware that some of you may thrive on a schedule, which is part of my point. You may have guessed by now that the theme of this post is largely find what works for you. Two things about time management concern creativity: time of day, and time of actual work. Firstly, find the time of day at which your mind is most active – everyone has one. If you can, always write during that time. Secondly, find the use of that time which is most productive for you. I find that twenty or thirty minutes of intense work, interspersed with short breaks, are best for me.

6. Persevere.
If nothing else works, stick it out. (This is a lot harder than it sounds. Actually keeping your butt in the chair and your mind on the task when you don’t want to is one of the hardest things I’ve attempted.) Don’t make excuses. If you know you should be writing, get the heck off the internet and write. Don’t stop looking for inspiration. Don’t give up.

What are your tried-and-true methods of concentration? What has fired you up and what has miserably failed? Let me know and perhaps I’ll add them to my list.


Thank you to Elizabeth for appearing as a guest blogger :) You may remember her post "Intelligence" was listed as one of my October favorites. I highly recommend you visit her blog and keep up with her stories on her Facebook page. 



  1. Great post, Elizabeth L.! ;-) I liked that analogy of the stars... as someone with poor eyesight all my life I can only envy you your childhood of star gazing!
    Oooo... I like the sounds of your writing foods. Totally right up my alley!! :-)
    Good tips! Now I will get off the internet... ;-)
    Elizabeth K.

  2. This was a really cool post! I like your writing style :)
    The food tip and movement ones were my favorites. I LOVE dark chocolate and I like to dance.

  3. Good tips! :) I use some of these myself. Food also breaks up the monotony for me especially with editing. I usually have green apples and Early Grey tea. :)

    Stori Tori's Blog