Question of the Month: Focus

by Susan Henderson on October 7, 2013

How do you keep your focus and momentum on long projects?


This is a picture of how the new book is coming along. (I’m big into bulletin boards!) Each weekday (because I’ve learned to take weekends off), I pick one chapter or theme or knot to tackle. I do many of my edits while hiking, talking my ideas into the voice memo on my phone, because my #1 motivator is getting outside and moving. And no matter whether my edits for the day are great or terrible, I always move on to something new the next day because my #2 motivator is seeing progress.

If this looks especially tidy or easy to you, that’s because I’m sharing only the tiniest glimpse of my writing process. Right now my energy is directed at these book edits. But sometime I’ll share more of the chaotic and nerve-wracking aspects of writing and revising, how some days it’s like untangling necklaces and other days it’s like blowing things up and seeing what survives among the ashes.

Okay, your turn. What tricks and motivators do you use to stay sharp, creative, and productive?

Many thank you’s this month: To Jamie Ford for mentioning my book in the Barnes & Noble Review! I hope you’ll check out his latest, Songs of Willow Frost… #11 in this week’s New York Times Best Seller list. To The Book Blogger and Read A Book for writing nice reviews of the Dutch translation of my book. To Jessica Vealitzek for listing my book as one of her favorites of the year. And to Corey Mesler for placing my blurb of his newest book right under one of my great writing heroes:


Thank you to Cathrine, who took this picture in a Norwegian bookstore:


 And I’ll end with this: My husband’s band, Bad Mary, just released its first video. Now you can see some of the fine people who jam in my basement each week…

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan Henderson October 7, 2013 at 11:25 am

Just posting something here to see if I can catch a glitch. Comments are coming to me as emails rather than appearing here.


Jessica Keener October 7, 2013 at 2:21 pm

A great question, as always, Susan. To keep going, I have found that different stages of writing call for different strategies. When I’m writing first drafts, I set out a 5-day schedule, M-F, 500 words a day kind of thing. That adds up, I find. If I run into a confusing spot (often) I write notes on the draft such as: NEEDS WORK or COME BACK TO THIS or RESEARCH. After the first draft is on the page, which is by far the most fatiguing stage for me–a different kind of fatigue than, say, second, third, fourth and fifth drafts–I begin to look at what I have. I step back and take a lot of notes. I use file cards. I used yellow legal pads to scribble ideas and thoughts about characters. I will still run into roadblocks and tangles, as you put it. Sometimes I keep going by stopping. That sounds contradictory but I believe in giving time for the subconscious to do its work. When working on a novel, there’s so much of it I don’t yet understand and I’ve come to accept that I am an experiential learner when writing something long. I need to draft and redraft to get to the center of things and to see the bigger picture. A few more ways I keep going–encouragement from other writer friends, husband, remembering that I’ve done it before, and believing I can do it again. I use affirmations, too. I also pray a lot.


Susan Henderson October 7, 2013 at 2:32 pm

That’s a brilliant strategy that I only figured out a couple of years ago, putting the little COME BACK TO THIS note in the text so you can move on. Especially if it requires research on the internet because then you get into the slippery slope of losing time and of using your writing time for not-writing.

I also like your idea about stopping. Or rather, breathing and creating the space for your mind to be more creative. For me, walking unlocks my thoughts more than sitting. But sometimes I watch movies or read just to open up bigger ways of seeing the world or simply to remind myself of my love of storytelling.

I’ve also learned that I love how much I don’t know, how much, despite my outlines, I haven’t explored all the layers of my characters. That used to give me anxiety, but now it feels like where the magic happens.


GC Smith October 7, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Ass (or more politely, bottom) in the chair, every day. Write bad stuff. Write good stuff. Edit it all. Tack it together. Take a break, write a poem or something. Get back to the main job. Go over it again, then again.


Susan Henderson October 7, 2013 at 2:47 pm

You are not kidding about the power of writing bad stuff! Bad stuff will become good stuff in later edits. Or it will often help you down a path where you’ll find the good stuff. You can’t be afraid to write choppy, cliched, or incomplete thoughts. Just write.


lucinda kempe October 8, 2013 at 1:08 am

Such good stuff, Susan, Jess, GC: Butt to the chair, fingers to the keys, note cards, outlines and not being afraid to write crap. We also need a community of fellow writers, better writers I say, to read what we’ve written to catch those glitches. I won’t mention rewriting. We know that. I have short pieces (5000 words and under) that I’ve been working on for years, in part because I didn’t know what I was doing when I first wrote them, and partially because I had to process it (memoir.) Some things you have to stick with until they reveal themselves. I love what Larry Fagin says, “Become indifferent to the work.” That means, as suggested here, putting it away and then going back to it with fresh eyes. I also believe those butts have to regularly get off the chair and move as Susan says. In fact, I took a walk today to Sunken Meadow and back this afternoon after reading this post. The wind was terrific. It loosened the cobwebs in my head. Thanks, Susan.


Susan Henderson October 8, 2013 at 1:37 am

Makes me so happy to think of you down at that beautiful beach, especially today with the sky looking so intense. And yes to the writer community, whether you use them for edits or morale, they may be the most important ingredient of all!

Love hearing about those mysterious pieces of writing that have long incubation periods. Makes me think of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and then 20 years later (and worth the wait!), Gilead. If material’s been calling to you and vexing you for a long while, it’s usually pretty potent.


Jennifer Haupt October 8, 2013 at 2:34 am

Such a great question! I find it helps to have several projects of different lengths going. I’ve been working on one novel for going on 8 years, and I also write essays and magazine pieces I can finish in shorter periods of time. That said, there does come a time when I think it’s detrimental to keep plugging away on a project. I put aside my novel for two years because I was just beating my head against a wall. Coming back to it fresh is exciting.


Susan Henderson October 8, 2013 at 11:18 am

I think it’s good to put a project away for a while even when it is working. Also, I think a lot of people think you and a project needing a break from each other is a sign of the project’s failure, but I think of it as an important part of the process. There are times to step away (so we and the project can breathe and grow) and sometimes that shows us new ways to re-engage with it.

I’m with you on keeping the mind engaged in different projects. For me, they don’t have to be writing projects. Sometimes when I’m working on a novel, the best thing in the world for me is to read non-fiction. Or to volunteer at my child’s school. Or to watch a football game. My mind works best when my life is full and varied.


Christopher Lincoln October 8, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Butt in chair is also my preferred method, while also trying to ignore the siren’s call of new projects.


Susan Henderson October 8, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Okay, I’m going to still advocate for getting the butt out of the chair, but we’re talking about the same thing… do your work, write (or, in my case, talk into your voice memo) every day, even when it’s hard, and even when there are Miley Cyrus conversations you could take part in.

BTW, when a new book idea pushes through, I simply voice memo it and then store it in a folder marked with the working title of that new book. That way I don’t lose the good idea but then I get right back on task.


Susan Henderson October 8, 2013 at 3:42 pm

I’ve mentioned a bunch of times here that I often talk my stories into a voice memo rather than keeping my butt in the chair and typing it in. I don’t only do this because I hate to sit (though I do) or because I think better when I’m moving (though I do). The main reason I’ve started doing this is because I find I write better scenes when I don’t see the words. It shuts off my internal editor and engages my natural storytelling voice. You can’t do everything while walking–line edits, for example. But if I’m trying to write or re-write a scene or work through a knot in the plot, I always put my tennis shoes on and get out of my office.


Nathalie (@spacedlaw) October 9, 2013 at 5:25 am

That’s a good one. I pace quite a lot too for ideas, trying to work out a fever of words.


Susan Henderson October 9, 2013 at 11:30 am

I wish I had more of those fevers!


Kimmi Berlin March 3, 2014 at 1:26 pm

This is an amazing and generous post. Thank you so much for writing it. You are my hero as a writer and a mom. As I mentioned in a recent FB post, I want to come live with you. 🙂 Okay, so my short answer to this great question is: I remind myself of what I need to say. If I’m not passionate about the story I’m telling, if I am not compelled from the inside, the project will wither. But if I am moved to understand and communicate an important truth then I won’t stop. I will pull those knots, make them worse, then calm down, open up space, and with a gentle and patient hand, untie myself.


Susan Henderson March 3, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Kimmi, This actually helps me so much, your idea of remembering that original impulse that made you want to write the story to begin with, finding the truth you are moved to understand and communicate. I’m going to paste that message on my desk!

P.S. This comment went under a different topic. If you want to bump it up to the latest post, I’ll move mine too. xo


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