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How to Become a Focused Writer – C. Hope Clark

Today we welcome a guest post from C. Hope Clark. She’s celebrating the release of her eighth mystery, Newberry Sin. Hope is a writer I admire and I’ve learned so much from her over the past few years. I began following her when I first began freelancing and discovered her weekly newsletter, Funds For Writers. Her book, The Shy Writer Reborn, soon joined my other writing books on my bookshelf – and is the one that’s most marked up, dog-eared, and highlighted.

Join us today as she shares her wisdom about becoming a focused writer. Then, hop on over and check out her mysteries. They’re excellent too!

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How to Become a Focused Writer

By C. Hope Clark

The faster this world revolves with the advent of technology, the more choices we have in everything we face. The speed of that information, and the resulting demands on our time due to all these opportunities thrown in front of us, the less we feel in control of our time.

For a writer, all that noise, tugging, and temptation takes a toll on concentration. So how is this writer supposed to pay attention to deadlines, much less the intricacies of storytelling, when hit from all sides with the busy-ness of life?

  1. Create Structure. Think of a child with autism or ADHD. One of the first suggestions to help them cope is to establish structure to their days. These children become flustered with too much stimulation, unable to process it all. Sound familiar? Same logic applies to a writer. Set a time and place to write if it does not come natural to you. When that time comes, and when you enter that space, your mind will ultimately adhere to the routine and kick into writing mode. If you cannot guarantee a place, at least adhere to the time wherever you are. Disorganization = enemy of focus.
  2. Have a Plan. What do you want to write? You cannot get into a car without a strong sense of where you’re going. Short stories? Poems? A novella? Make it practical because saying you want to become a writer then starting with a novel is like asking a new attorney fresh out of law school to represent a serial killer. It’s paralyzing. But if you are sure you want to tackle a book, then have a plan for the stages you’ll write it so that the project isn’t intimidating. Intimidation = enemy of focus.
  3. Have a Fun Backup Plan. You delve into your main plan, and you can’t make the words happen. Have three backup plans. First, write something short and fun. This might be all it takes to unclog things by making you enjoy putting words on paper. Second, write a letter to someone who has deserved it for a long time. Write it longhand, since this form of writing will tap a different part of your brain, giving the obstinate side a rest. . . maybe a chance to shake loose and want to go back to work again. Third, journal about your day. This exercise lets you fall naturally into a subject matter, freeing your writing, Do NOT let a sluggish attempt at writing give you permission to redirect to email, social media, or games. Distraction = enemy of focus.
  4. Keep Showing Up. The worst of days, when you hate the idea of sitting at the computer, are the days you need to show up most. That’s because you are demonstrating to your obstinate, pig-headed (maybe lazy) self that your writing is meaningful and important. Athletes hit the track. Swimmers hit the pool. Show up until the very act itself is as inherent as brushing your teeth. Irregularity = enemy of focus.
  5. Inform Family and Friends. Do not allow interruption. When you are in your place, in your time, you are at work no differently than if you’d commuted downtown, parked your car, and sat behind a desk with a boss looking over your shoulder. Once you give interruptions (and the interrupters) a palms-up stop-sign reaction, they’ll think twice about whether the interruption is necessary. Or they’ll leave a voice mail. Or they’ll come back later. Interruption = enemy of focus. Interruption = enemy of focus.
  6. See the End. How will you imagine the day you type the last word of the last chapter? How will it feel to send off the manuscript? Have a legitimate plan for a celebration or establish a reward system. No goals = the enemy of focus.
  7. Be the Writer First and Foremost. When your mind wanders, and you find the writing difficult, you do not have permission to start searching for editors, publishers, agents, or indie presses. This is a VERY COMMON tangent writers take when they cannot focus. They justify switching gears to the publishing side of the house with the argument that they need to understand how to publish so they can prepare. And the book never gets written. It’s easier to read blog posts, participate in discussion groups, and watch educational videos about publishing than it is to write. You have to become a habitual writer before you even think about publishing. Ignoring Craft = the enemy of focus.

We forget the elementary, basic fact that we are just trying to write. Nothing more, nothing less. When we allow the obtrusive racket of people and Internet to interfere, and when we attempt to write without much thought to the direction, we have already decided not to focus.

Focus isn’t out of your control, on the contrary. But there isn’t a magic formula to put your fingers on the keys and type words on the screen, either.  We wish it were easier, but focus is self-imposed, and it’s so much simpler when infused with structure, planning, goals, and dedication.

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BIO: C. Hope Clark has just released her eighth mystery, titled Newberry Sin. She is also a freelancer and founder of FundsforWriters.com, and a frequent conference speaker, and podcast presenter for Writer’s Digest. She lives on the banks of Lake Murray in central South Carolina with her dachshunds and federal agent husband. www.chopeclark.com

 

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Guest Blog: Defending My Genre, Carmen Welsh

Carmen Welsh, a multi-talented writer and artist, is a guest blogger today at Writer’s Zen. This post originally ran on Trisha Faye and we’re reposting today at Writer’s Zen. Join her as she tells about an experience she had during her MFA program. Defending your genre may be an issue that other writers encounter. See how she handled the dilemma facing her and how she defended her genre with strength and professionalism.

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Defending My Genre

In the MFA program, before each semester, we must submit a 25-page manuscript. The reason for this is so we can, during the then days on the university campus, workshop that particular piece.

In the entire MFA student body, all three genres are usually represented: fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Many come from other states as well as other nations. Most of the student body stayed in hotels or university-sanctioned inns during the ten days. Our workshop classes consisted of four to six students on average. Each class taught by a mentor according to the workshop students’ genre.

In this third semester, we were all female, including our mentor. As somebody who started out in childhood with mostly male friends, because many female peers weren’t into comics, video games, and/or drawing super-heroes/super-sheroes if one was in art class. I remember classmates during grade school who often acted mean to me or any girl that did not fit a certain mold.

However, as an adult, I have since ended up with friends nearly split down the middle, gender-wise. I went along with the sisterhood hype of my graduate school friends and workshop buddies.

Perhaps it would be a good thing for once to be in an all-female group, I thought the first week.

The first few days involved discussing what we each had written/submitted by email and feedback we received from each classmate. Most of my feedback made sense, sounded intuitive, and, during the feedback sessions when the writer must remain silent, I took a lot of notes. I made many changes to the writing.

It was probably by the second week I began to get a sense the mentor wasn’t exactly on board with my story. Not with its ideas, just the overall existence of it. I can’t say what those social cues were because they ran as an undercurrent within her feedback and constructive criticism.

One of my classmates, who didn’t know me well at the time, seemed to side with the mentor. Two of my classmates that did know me and knew my writing beforehand because they both read my blog, defended the draft.

Each day in workshop, I began to feel more and more uncomfortable. It wasn’t even the nervousness of work-shopping my prose baby, it was an inkling of disapproval. As if I shouldn’t be using such a literary device.

Eventually, I didn’t feel confident in approaching the mentor. I seemed to receive a sense she wouldn’t listen even if I wanted to discuss my concerns. I panicked because I was in my third term, a pun-intended critical time as this would be when all third-semester students worked on a Critical Essay, a precursor to writing one’s thesis. I wondered if I might have to drop out this term. I couldn’t picture this mentor assisting me on such a crucial paper, not with the way she reacted to what would become my Master Thesis. My confidence in the mentor fell each time her comments about my draft meant more on changing it completely rather than fixing it. I wondered if I might have to take an extra term to graduate.

I went to the program director and asked if I could speak with him. At the end of the day, back in my hotel room, I emailed him a professional rant. The next day, right after morning seminar, I approached the director and he took me aside. He explained that he must get the mentor’s side of the story, which was fair. He also explained that because we were all writers (the entire faculty are professional authors in different genres), we tended to overreact when it came to criticism. His friendly and teasing manner put me at ease but I still worried about the mentor’s reaction.

During workshop, my insides felt in knots and crumbled pieces. When workshop finished for lunch, the mentor asked me to stay behind. My friend from our first semester together, looked back at me with worry. I thought, and I think she did too, that this felt a lot like detention. I made sure I remained as calm as I could.

The mentor lit into me. She was annoyed I actually ‘went behind her back to speak to the director when I should have come to her first’. I was angered. I am almost forty. I was done being talked down to. She continued her tirade that if I couldn’t handle constructive criticism, how far would I go as a writer? That’s when I stopped her and explained that I have a number of publications to my belt and have attended writing workshops since the late 90’s. I understood the model, how it worked, and that many of those classes had taught me plenty about the business of writing.

Those early ideas to take my writing seriously were given to me first by a caring English professor who directed me to my first Creative Writing professor. I never thought it could become a career choice. I didn’t even know that “furry” was a genre!

The mentor wanted me to change everyone in my story to human, including my male protagonist, but to keep only my female protagonist as a canine! She also explained that from the dog’s POV, she could observe human behavior from a distance. I told the mentor that wouldn’t work because there was supposed t\ be a romantic involvement between both protagonists and how would that look if she remained a dog and he was now a human? I told her I didn’t write those things and I didn’t want to be known as THAT kind of writer.

“But you won’t find an audience unless you change it! People will think this story is for children!”
“Not true. I thought of my stories as a hobby. But a professor changed my thinking when she encouraged me to continue to write these kinds of stories and to find the markets for it.”

“And did you find that market?” she asked.

“I did! Because rejection after rejection, I finally found my first publisher in September 1999.”

I told the mentor that once I began to navigate freelance writing did I learn there was a market, a genre called “Anthro” or Furry. Because of this market, I found a fandom that would embrace my writings. That would respond to my art work.

“There is an adult audience for this genre!” I said. “And I’ve worked with editors. I know how to take criticism. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be published!”

“But I just wanted you to change the premise to science fiction!”

“I love SF and Fantasy. I love the film The Secret of NIMH and read the book it’s based on: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I also watched several versions of The Island of Dr. Moreau. I tried having humans and dogs coexist within this story and though that might work for my other stories, it didn’t work in this one. Believe me, that was the first draft! I tried and the story just wouldn’t work. Once I removed the humans is when the story hit its stride for the first time.”

I gave her the abridged version about this novel as an idea I came up with back in sixth grade summer school. If after all those years, I have been working on this project on and off, don’t you think I have tried different ways and writing styles to tell this story? The more the mentor asked questions and the more I explained my position did I see her expression change from anger to disappointment to realization to understanding.

I also told the mentor that not only did I learn about a genre and fandom I didn’t know existed, but, I also joined a writer’s guild where all the members write in this genre (Shameless plug for the Furry Writers’ Guild) and that I have been a member for almost five years.

“You’re part of a guild?” she asked.

“Yep.”

Her face changed. “Every writer needs a community.”

“And I found mine.” I said.

Lunchtime was an hour and my mentor now showed a renewed interest in my story. We went to lunch together. The more I explained why I wanted my story in the historical genre is when she began to ask me the right questions and give me the right feedback. We discussed what book lists I should annotate.

The program director later told me in private, “I see you two made up. See? You were overreacting.”

When I presented my idea for a critical essay about Aesop influencing anthropomorphism, the mentor approved the topic.

But when friends in the program (many I later graduated with in 2015) asked what happened, they became angrier than I felt. They understood the mentor’s earlier ideas would have undone the entire premise for my thesis. My family was also angry, as well as coworkers and my supervisor, all of whom had read chapters here and there from the fledgling draft and were familiar with my body of work.

Upon finishing the ten days and returning to my job, my supervisor wanted me to tell her the whole story. Her expression agog, she said, “I don’t think I could’ve been as calm as you. Oh my G*d, you went Julia Sugarbaker on her!” I laughed at the Designing Women reference.

UPDATE: A chapter from the manuscript has been published as the short story “Night Sounds” in the literary journal Prick of the Spindle Issue # 9. It’s available not only on its official website but on Amazon.com in print and as an e-book. Carmen Welsh plans to polish the completed manuscript this year.

Carmen Welsh holds an AA in Art Education, a BSc in Web Design, and a MFA in Creative Writing. She’s published short stories, illustrations, essays, and articles in fanzines, e-zines, online journals, and in print journals. She’s an official member of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) as well as the Furry Writers’ Guild. Four out-of-print stories became podcasts or reprinted. Her latest short story is “Night Sounds” published in Prick of the Spindle.

Her official website is http://TabbertheRed.com. Carmen’s publication’s list is on http://TheAngryGoblin.wordpress.com. Her art portfolio is “CopperSphinx” on DeviantArt.

Prick of the Spindle – Kindle edition

Prick of the Spindle – print edition

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