Tag Archives: writing problems

Monday Musings: On Being Distracted, As Opposed To Dealing With Distractions

A bit less than two months ago, when our lives still resembled something akin to normal, I wrote a Monday Musings post about getting started at work and overcoming distractions.

Then the coronavirus took over our world and changed the equation, and so today I return to the topic.

First off, I want to draw a distinction between managing distractions and being distracted. [And this is my thinking for the purposes of this post. I am not claiming that this is something inherent in the language.] By “managing distractions,” I mean dealing with the day-to-day chores and intrusions that, not so long ago, were excuses to procrastinate and avoid creative production.

This may seem like semantics, a distinction without meaning, but to my mind, right now, “being distracted” is something else entirely. We are distracted when the world intrudes on our thoughts and routines in ways that deserve and demand our attention, that can’t be put off or ignored. Put another way [and again, this is my distinction for this post] distractions tend toward the trivial, while being distracted is an emotional state.

I am very good at managing distractions. But these days I am distracted. My thoughts are on the virus, the effect it’s having on our society, our economy, our politics. I find it incredibly difficult to concentrate on my work. The second half of last week, I started a new project, and though I am always slow at the beginning of something new, I got a total of 2,600 words written in three days. My usual pace is 2,500 per day.

I am constantly checking my email and social media links for updates, news, word from friends and colleagues. And even when I force myself to stick to the task at hand, my thoughts wander, my creativity flags.

When I wrote about distractions several weeks ago, I had lots of suggestions for how you might hold them at bay. This, though… This is different. I have no answers for myself, much less for others. I can only offer what I am trying to tell myself, day in and day out.

First, this isn’t forever. True, we don’t know how long this crisis will last, but I refuse to accept that somehow this is “the new normal” or some such. (Hate that phrase, by the way: “The new normal.” Yuck. At some point I’m going to do an entire post about all the crappy turns of phrase that make my skin scrawl. Right now, though, that’s just another distraction.) (See what I did there…?) It may take a month, or six, or twelve, but we will get our lives back. I’m convinced of that.

Of course, that doesn’t make me any less distracted right now. So the second thing I’ve tried to do is be accepting of my own limitations. This is an extraordinary time. It’s natural to be distracted, to be fearful or unsettled or even angry at the world. And it follows that we will be less productive, less than our professional best. Which is not to say that all of us are. Some might be reading this thinking, “What the hell is Coe going on about? I’m churning out 5,000 words a day. This is a Godsend. An excuse to stay home and do nothing but write? Love it!” If that’s you, great. I’m happy for you. I’m envious. Because that’s not me right now at all. And, frankly, it’s not really anyone else I know either. But good on you! You go, person!

For the rest of us, it’s all right to be a little less productive, to want to know what the latest is on the current insanity. Give yourself a break and accept that just as the world will adapt and return to even keel, so will you. As with regular, run-of-the-mill distractions, I have tried these past couple of weeks to ration my news-hunting. “500 words, and then I can see what’s trending on Twitter now.” Or something of the sort. I haven’t been all that successful with this so far, but I’m hoping…

But really, my point as I began this post wasn’t to offer advice. Mostly, I’m writing this to say that if you’re struggling right now, you’re not alone. I know many who are. The world has ground to a halt, people are freaked out, and somewhere men and women of, shall we say, odd disposition are doing something bizarre with all those rolls of toilet paper… Be good to yourself and to the people around you. Very few of us are at our best right now. Distractions are easy. Being distracted like this is a struggle.

Wishing you a safe, calm, and, if you want it, productive week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Handling a Plot-Hole Crisis

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

We writers all know the feeling: We’re well into the writing of a novel or story, when we abruptly realize that we have a plot hole wide enough to accommodate an eighteen-wheeler. Sometimes the realization is our own – we happen to glimpse our narrative in a way we haven’t before, and the issue, which had been invisible to us, is suddenly so clear we wonder how we could have missed it. At other times we need an outside reader to show it to us. I hate when it happens that way; I feel like a moron. “How did I not see this?” I ask myself.

I recently faced this problem, although in a slightly different way. I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece for months now, and I had someone read it for me, someone I trust completely. He told me that I had one of my facts wrong – a point of family history that I thought I knew and didn’t. This was something central to the story I’m telling, the very lynchpin of my essay. I felt like a bomb had gone off, blowing a giant hole in my narrative.

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

Here’s a dirty little secret: This happens to me a lot. I’m pretty sure it happens to all of us a lot. Plotting isn’t easy and it’s rare for any of us to get it right the first time. Plus, storylines tend to evolve in the writing, even for those of us who outline ahead of time. (A subject for another post.) And so, yes, plot holes appear with some regularity. The question is, how do we tackle them and move beyond them?

Let’s start with this: Panicking and freaking out is NOT the answer. Relax. Breathe. It’s going to be all right. Your book/story is not irrevocably doomed. Really.

Read that last paragraph again. I’ll wait.

There. Feeling a little better?

Okay, Step 1: Take a moment to remind yourself of what your story is about. In my case, I went back and revisited the basic themes of my essay. And I realized that while this point I had wrong undermined a small section of my story, it didn’t invalidate all of it. Not even close. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that the stories we tell tend to be bigger and more complex than we think. It’s rare that one element of a story is so crucial that its failure renders the rest of the tale useless.

Step 2: With the fundamentals of your story firmly in mind, ask yourself what you have lost with this recent realization. Chances are, it’s not the narrative apocalypse you think it is. If necessary, chart your narrative on paper or on a white board, and pinpoint the place where your plot thread falters. Visualizing your work in this way can do two things: 1) It can offer some perspective on the relative sizes of your overall story and this specific problem. That’s usually reassuring. And 2) It can help you discover paths around the plot hole.

Step 3: Brainstorm. I don’t mean for that to sound simplistic, and I’m not trying to say that these problems are easy to overcome or that somehow they’ll fix themselves. If you’ve spotted an issue big enough to cause you to panic, it’s likely that repairing it will take some work and some time. Don’t expect to find the answer in a matter of minutes or even a couple of hours. It might take several days; it might take a week, or more. That’s all right. No one knows your story as well as you do. The solution to your problem resides in your mind. It might be deep in your hind brain, but it will emerge in time. Be patient, don’t lose hope. You’ll figure this out.

Finally, keep these things in mind: First, writing is hard. The creative process is filled with moments of progress and inspiration, and also with setbacks and even crises. In other words, this is not a breakdown of the process, but rather part of the process. It’s normal. Second, if you have gotten this far with your project it’s because there is a story there. Your creation deserves your faith, your conviction that it is worth saving. Hold on to that. Your belief in your own work will see you through. And finally, remember that it’s okay to walk away from a stubborn narrative for a little while. Don’t give up on it. Never give up on it. But if it’s just not happening at the moment, turn to something else for a time. This piece will still be waiting when you’re ready to face it again.

Best of luck and keep writing!