Enemies of the Art Part 7–Failure to Focus

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There is one failing that will undermine all our efforts, the inability to focus. Years ago, I was on the debate team. I loved debate and spent hours researching, building cases, writing cases, and learning all I could to be prepared.

Most of my nights were spent researching thick dusty law books in the downtown library. Yet, though this information and preparation helped, there was one tactic that worked every time, a mantra I lived by in competition. This move could take out the best cases from the best teams from the best schools.

If you cannot defeat them, distract them.

If I could redirect my opponent into focusing on non-issues and intellectual bunny-trails, then all I had left was to mop up in my final argument. Sounds pretty ruthless, but how did I learn this? By falling victim to it, myself ;).

Distraction Equals Death

All of us, when we decide to become professional authors, must pass through an apprenticeship phase. This is when we are reading fiction, dissecting craft books, attending conferences, writing, and building our skills. One skill that separates the amateur from the professional is the ability to focus.

Others will try to redirect us down fruitless bunny-trails. They will tell you writing isn’t a real job. They will tempt you with settling for day jobs with steady paychecks and 401Ks. Day jobs are great and so are 401Ks, but they must not be the goal, they must support the goal of being a professional author.

The Importance of Goals

Goals give us a place to focus. They also offer critical information about how to change our approach. My husband is on a military shooting team, and frequently we practice together. Whenever we have a new scope, we have to “sight-in” the rifle.

To do this, we set up paper targets. Fire a couple rounds, see where it hits. Is it high? Low? To the left? The right? By seeing where we are NOT hitting, we can then use that information to adjust.


This past weekend, my husband set up small metal targets so I could practice with the pistol (and I haven’t shot in months). I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn when normally I am very accurate. At first, I didn’t understand what was going wrong. Then I realized that I always warm up using a paper target.

Though I can see without glasses, I have just enough of a stigmatism that what I “see” isn’t quite true. When I shoot a paper target, I can adjust right or left, high or low. I have enough information to know how my vision is deceiving me.

Yet, with the tiny metal target, I couldn’t see where I was hitting (or, rather not hitting), so it was just a lot of wasted ammo. I was extremely frustrated because I didn’t have enough information to do any better than I was doing (which wasn’t well at all).

Goals help us be able to see where we are hitting, but more importantly, where we are not hitting. We can glean vital information that can get us back on target.

Goals Must Be Specific, Actionable, Accountable and Have Deadlines

Years ago, I took Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writers seminar (the class inspired the name of this blog). Bob, being a former Green Beret is all about goals. He asked us to write down our big writing goal. Being the classic overachiever, I wrote.

I will be a New York Times Best-Selling Author.

Sounds good, right? Um, best-selling author in what? Origami cookbooks? See how broad this target is? There is no focus. No genre. No place. Was I content to “make the list” or did I want to be in the top 20? Top 10? Or even number 1? A goal like that was better than no goal, but…eh, not much. How long did I have to accomplish this? Five years? TWENTY?

Write your big goal, then write as many subgoals as you can, each a step toward that main goal. Put your goals where you can see them. Give them deadlines, then share them with friends who will keep you accountable.

Learn to Ignore the Ants

Ants are all around us. They look like laundry in need of folding, kids who need entertaining, dishes that need to be put away.

Ants always bring friends.

When shooting long-range you have to lie on your belly in the dirt, rock and grass. This is a sign to every fire ant in Texas to build a condo in your boots, but you have to learn to ignore it. Keep looking at the target.

Ignore the bee that is suddenly in love with your hat.

When I first started writing, I believed I needed a quiet, private office with just the right light and the perfect computer to be a productive writer. Now? Life has trained me to be stronger than that. Learn to write with the toddler on your head and the cat who wants to nest on your keyboard.

Not distracting AT ALL....

Can you spot the Attention Whore?

Focus, keep pressing.

View those kids that interrupt you ever three minutes as training. Life will rarely hand us the perfect conditions for premium productivity, so train yourself to work in less-than-ideal situations.

The writer who can focus no matter what else is going on around him is the writer who will succeed long-term. There will always be pets, kids, family, friends, bills, deaths, illness, and drama. We need to learn to work no matter what.

A great way to focus? Get the best information and the most effective methods from experts. Yeah, yeah shameless plug but you have no clue how many experts I had to stalk to make this conference happen. Help me make it worth the restraining orders :D.

Please check out the new Worldwide WANACon. This conference will equip you to pursue any writing dream with laser focus and expert tactics. This is an affordable, on-line conference with some of the top talent in the industry delivered to you right in the comfort of home. No travel, no pile of extra expenses, ALL AWESOME. We even have AGENT PITCH SESSIONS!

What are your thoughts? Do you find it hard to focus? Do you feel guilty for writing? Do you have methods you use to help you keep your eyes on the prize? Please share!

I LOVE hearing from you…

To prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of February I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.


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  1. Okay, I can’t concentrate unless I am in a quiet room. But I am super productive there, so I just alter my day and get up before the cocks crow. {Yes, I said cocks.} I just finished the second draft of my WIP. It is so much better than the first draft, but it needs more of this and less of that. But it is moving in the right direction. The main goal I have set for myself is finishing it. In 2013. You know that for me THAT is a big deal, in and of itself. I have to set this one free so that I can open myself up to other projects that are bubbling up in my skull.

    But a little more tinkering first.

  2. Although, having a head & chest cold right now, I can safely say distraction definitely ramps up. “ooh, look at the pretty shiny thing” as I stand there for 30 minutes with a blank stare…

    • TLJeffcoat on February 12, 2013 at 9:47 am
    • Reply

    Focus is hard. I do need to work on dealing with distractions. I don’t have a quiet place to focus and write. I use this as an excuse not to write too often. Sometimes I think you are posting these just for me, but now I’m not the only one with kids climbing all over me while writing. I need to stop making excuses.

  3. I love the statement about writing down more specific goals. I’m going to do that today.

    • Lanette Kauten on February 12, 2013 at 9:56 am
    • Reply

    As a home school mom, I have trained myself to focus when kids are talking to me, the tv is on, and the cat and dog decide to use me as the neutral zone. My distraction is computer games. When the frustration of teaching algebra to a 16yo artist has me at a point of mental breakdown, computer games are my way of hiding from the world.

    • Rachel Thompson on February 12, 2013 at 10:03 am
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    I was a long time officer and conference chair in a big writers group, I could write a book on how to organizes a writer’s conference, but I won’t because that book isn’t my goal. I learned what I could from the board positions and moved away from leadership rolls as it tipped from a learning platform to a distraction. Knowing when to move along is key. Others in my group did the same and went on to publish and the more they publish the less the group sees them. It is as it should be. Other longstanding group members are in exactly the same place as when they first began. One talented friend, with great potential, recently retired and I’ve never seen so many Facebook posts from one person before. She is published, too, but her books could be great and not merely “good enough.”

  4. This is something I very much need to work on. I’m good at writing despite distractions(noise, children, etc.), but I need to set some goals so I know where I’m aiming. I think another thing I do is get distracted from writing projects, by not focusing enough on a particular writing project than several sporadically.

  5. Haha…quiet office…we should have added that to our dreams of motherhood.

    I find the older I get, 45, the less distracted I am. Hmm..maybe that’s the fear of running out of time or early onset of senility.

    Seriously tho, for me, its about wanting to write more then what ‘being a writer’ looks like.

    • Kim on February 12, 2013 at 10:50 am
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    This was a timely post for me. I’m so distracted by my job, my kid (who is home sick from school), my martial arts training, my work for the dojo, blah, blah, blah, that I often neglect the sitting down and writing part of my day! I need to take time to set some goals.

  6. This was posted at the perfect time. I have a gluten intolerance and one of my symptoms is lack of focus. Along with the belly pain and exhaustion, I tend to forget things more than ever. I’ve managed to keep away from gluten for the last 4 months, but last Friday, it came from somewhere in my kitchen. It takes less than a crumb to make me sick for a month. I usually give up writing during these times.

    But to be honest, it’s just another distraction. I think what I’ll do this time, is to make my next blog post to define my writing goals while I’m sick. I’d like to see how much I can get done while I feel lousy and maybe blogging will be a way to hold myself accountable. If I can get at least some done, then I think it will make my other excuses not such a big deal. 😀

    Thanks for the inspiration Kristen!

    • Renee on February 12, 2013 at 11:13 am
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    Kristen, this is starting to get scary. I feel like you occupy a part of my brain and vocalize every issue. It’s like the time I read Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” when she said that fiction writing made her feel mentally ill. (I’m not doing her humor justice)

    Your writing is so personal and engaging, and I’m always pulled in.

    I’ve long struggled with attention deficit and when I worked for corporations, learned to get around my messy desk and disorganization. As an independent consultant, I could juggle five major projects for clients. How did I do this, I wonder, and I can’t focus on my fiction?

    Another heaping dose of distractions follows. I make comparisons, envisioning other writers frolicking around their laptops, tossing out bon mots galore. There’s some wounded troll in me who limps while others race. Other writers don’t seem to despair, pound their fists next to their mouses, go to the dark places Hemingway did.

    As I’ve aged, my attention deficit is worsening. Distractions bounce in front of my eyes like pesky fireflies. Engines revving, I plunge into a new novel. I start to write it, and 70 pages in, I’m thinking of a new novel. A new one that I think might sell faster. I jump on that one and then think of a third. That might sell better, engage agents and editors better. Another 70 pages on an eighth novel. Not finishing the novels, jumping onto projects I think will sell faster. The publishing pie continues to dwindle, I’ve got to act fast, now, or forever hold my peace. Or is that piece?

    Interruptions pull me away from the trusty laptop. Pooch barks to be let out, a kid is hungry, husband yells he’s watching a fascinating History Channel segment and knows I’ll love it. A telemarketer calls, asking for donations to the Children’s Hospital. Guilt compiles. I’m a mom first, a writer second. I do the mom stuff first.

    Or I allow myself to get distracted with things I can’t control, like squabbles (imagined or real) at the RWA chapter that make my stomach ache. Some people will never like you, no matter how hard you try, and they won’t talk out a misunderstanding.

    But one guy imbued me with some hope. My sons’ pediatrician confessed he struggled with severe attention deficit as a child. He attended Catholic grade school and the nuns would wave their arms in front of him, tell him to focus. This was long before “attention deficit” was pervasive and medications were available. Likewise, when I was a kid, my teachers would re-direct me. “Stop daydreaming.”

    Listening to the doctor, I started to feel hope. That you can be smart and seriously distracted, but it doesn’t have to conquer you. Maybe the key is finding out what your best work process is. What works for a super-organized, take-charge woman would be a disaster for a middle-aged mom who scratches down dialogue on fast-food napkins. Plus, often I feel “judged” by other women because I can’t get my act together.

    Hearing the good doctor talk, though, about his real struggles as a kid, and to choose a profession where the ADD would be a serious disadvantage – filled me with hope.

    And the fact that he’s a nice guy, makes it all the more wonderful. He’s probably humble because he struggled and things didn’t come easy. He’s not arrogant or full of himself. He’s a mensch, so he has it all, a thriving practice, he’s a great, gentle doctor and inspired his son to pursue medicine as a career. And his son is ADD, too.

    Thanks for your post, Kristen, my apologies this is so long. Maybe there is hope for a jittery brained person like me

    1. I have ADD as well, but a lot of ADD can be exacerbated by fear and people-pleasing. We are “too nice” and we feel guilty for delegating. To rise to the professional level, you will have to face this and it will suck. I have been there. I still struggle every day. This is why goals are so vital. Let go of fear and feelings and do the hard stuff first. Make lists, set timers and even use the Swiss-cheese approach to productivity which is ideal for ADD people who tend to think globally instead of linearly. Make a list of five major things YOU MUST GET ACCOMPLISHED and keep taking bites. Move from item to item but keep pressing. You can do it ;).

        • Renee on February 14, 2013 at 8:27 am
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        Thanks, Kristen. I’m ancient, older than you, and haven’t mastered this people-pleasing thing yet. I let other women intimidate me into volunteering and if I don’t do it, I feel rotten, and if I do volunteer, it’s never up to their exacting standards and I’m criticized. I’ve got friggin’ gray hairs and still dealing with high school dynamics. Oy vey, I gotta grow past this.

  7. Yes, focus is important, as is preparation. miss either and you get the same effect.
    You almost make me believe I could be a writer.

  8. We are a family of five, living in a rather demure home with four animals and a homeschooled teenager that isn’t happy unless his TV is blaring and he has at least four friends over. Mathair, being the kicka$$ mother that she is, has found a way to focus. I, on the other hand, end up losing my mind and crawling into a hole. Hopefully with a bit of experience, I can get to that point. Until then, I cherish my tiny bedroom and the secure lock on my door.

  9. Lack of focus happens to be one of my biggest obstacles to steady writing. My parents, bills, worrisome thoughts of the future, and more–all invade my space for writing, and I stop because, yes, I feel a little guilty about writing. I feel I should be doing something more meaningful or helpful for my family. However, writing IS meaningful, and I just need to keep reminding myself that. Thanks Kristen!

    • Thomas Linehan on February 12, 2013 at 12:37 pm
    • Reply

    I am the youngest of 15. Growing up in central New York on a farm it was very hard to focus on my schooling. In the 50’s we had no heat upstairs and only a couple of stoves down stairs, no running water.. Our study area was a table with a TV blaring 20 feet away. My grades showed it, but I kept on trying to make up for it all, and did a pretty good job. I retired at 56 and decided that it was time to finish all the stories that I wrote over the past 40 years. Today I write with music, tv, talk show and noise all around me, but I have learned to ignore it all. Getting ready to publish my first novel (99,000 words). You do what you have to and focus.
    Great post as always . Keep up the good work.

  10. I feel like you are talking right to me with these blogs!!! Stop peeking in my window! No, wait! Don’t! Because your advice is spot on!!!! Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  11. All very true Kristen. I find myself distracted at times with exactly those domestic issues and have to force myself to just sit and write!

    Great post 🙂

  12. I learned to write a long time ago with a baby on each hip knee and one rocking in a bouncer at my feet. During baseball practice, swim lessons, and on long trips in the car. It’s funny though, I can’t write when there’s music playing. I want to listen to the music and forget what I’m writing. LOL..
    Great points Kristen.

    1. LOL I am the SAME WAY! I can have The Spawn hanging off my leg…but NO MUSIC. Ha ha ha ha ha.

    • Susan Fawy on February 12, 2013 at 5:04 pm
    • Reply

    I have had a home office since 1994 for a big corporation… my first laptop was PRE WINDOWS! Yeah… I am old… but I did marry and divorce twice and have raised 3 children while still managing to focus on my job and produce as i was required. Now, approaching my 20th anniversary with this company, I have honed to a razer sharp edge the ability to focus on my work, while three phones ring, the fax machine goes off, the door bell rings, the dog starts barking, a kid runs by hollering and the dryer buzzes that it is finished.

    I can tune out babies crying, cats yeowling, lawnmowers buzzing, backfiring cars and the occasional military jet buzzing the house.

    Its about time I dedicated my next 10 years to writing as I have always wanted to write… and hopefully my name is pulled in your contest 🙂 If not, maybe a submission down the road! Thanks for the pep talk. Do what she says, focus is the key to completing any worthwhile task!

    Sorry, no website or blog yet, I’m just getting started!

    • Lara on February 12, 2013 at 5:25 pm
    • Reply

    The only thing I positively have to have to get some writing done is caffeine. Preferably coffee. I plug in my headphones, play one game of solitaire, then my brain understands it’s time to be creative now. My little sister the nurse says I’ve probably got adult ADD. Possibly. Probably.

  13. I think the primary drain on my focusing is fear of failure, as one author related it; “once you finish that first work, you may find out how wretched you are at doing this”; as long as its in the future, the dream is exciting. Prayer actually has been my source of prodding to get to work and go forward, as (like you indicated yesterday), we’re writing for others, not ourselves in the long run, to have an impact. Looking forward to WANACon’s advice and direction. First conference of any kind for me, so it’s exciting.

    1. So honored to be your first conference. Our goal is to set the bar hopelessly high 😀

      1. I think I’m up for it. That’s what I need: scary challenges and crazy dreams! Thanks for all you do.

  14. The Ford Focus Electric might save America from high gasoline prices, but I agree that a writer must focus on the narrow road ahead. One almost needs tunnel vision to succeed. I have to help take care of my elderly parents. My father is 79 and my mother is 75. I told my mother a long time ago 1998 or so that I do not mind. But I have to be able to continue writing or I will go crazy doing nothing except to be at their beckon call. A good example was typing out a comment and discussing how Veda Boyd Jones taught me how to write mysteries with BUBBLE GUM in the hair. I did not read over it and I did not use the spell checker before running to see what my mother wanted. I just pointed and clicked at Post Comment, and my point was that Veda is a stickler for perfect English Grammar to succeed. Focus also means to take your time in making sure it is what you want to send. I just read over a synopsis with plenty of mistakes already in the hands of an editor so hopefully it will be corrected for the next one. If you make mistakes on English Grammar of only 500 words or less, you are not really focused. NaNoWriMo and JANO Writers helped me write the 50K beyond novella writing; it is the perfect English Grammar, which I need to focus on. I can make the time to write the words. – Daniel

  15. I’m really loving this series you’re doing, Kristen. Sometimes having a name for something, learning others are dealing with it too, really helps us combat the pitfalls we’re having. I’m definitely in a rut of several of these enemy lines, but I’m working on some concrete changes. Thank you for sharing your journey and connecting with us so many others.

    *Crossing my fingers my boss will let me take off for at least one day of WANAcon!*

  16. To paraphrase virginia woolf, a woman must have (FOCUS), money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

  17. i love this topic. As I’m new to writing a blog, trying to get started is tough. I have been saying I was going to start for over a year! And finally, what is working: a to do list. writing down goals. sometimes going to my old office downstairs, where it isn’t pretty and fun, but it’s quiet and the distractions from the rest of the house are minimal. I didn’t read all the comments but saw some of those addressed about ADD. I have a young son who has AS and I have been working with him on goals and schedules and timers and find what I’m learning for him helps me as well. Some of this stuff is so simple; I wish I had thought about it sooner….thanks for your writing. I have to catch up on some old posts….

  18. Focus indeed. I’ve found that a lot of people have so much on their plate that they fall into the “jack of all trades, master of none” trap. One of the best things I’ve learned to do in the last few years is say NO. “No, I cannot take that on.” “No, that is not my job.” “No, I will not read your 1,000 novel and line-edit it for free by next Tuesday.” I am quite a bit more diplomatic in the delivery, but I don’t get as sidetracked as I used to.

    1. I think Kristen also mentioned this in another post. It’s definitely very important to say no. (Two years ago I said no to myself indulging in so many hobbies. It was just too much with school and friends.)
      However, sometimes it can give to take on a bit more. Reading people’s works can be an investment, if you’re reading the works of a good critic who will later take on your own texts.

  19. So THAT’S why I can’t hit a small metal target either. Perhaps setting the paper target just behind the small metal one … Or, I can visit the eye doctor and get glasses. 😉

    I have serious interruptitis going on in my house (two kids, dog, dishes, laundry, all the usual suspects). I even bought a small whiteboard to put next to my desk so I can set my daily goals. Only problem is, I haven’t used it yet. Today, I downloaded Klok time keeping software to see what’s eating up all my time (besides the kids, dog, dishes, laundry, etc).

    I guess setting the goals is like plotting a book, I need an overarching goal and then break that up into smaller goals that will act as stepping stones to get to the grander one.

    Thanks for the great article. I don’t know how you have time to write all the great blog posts you do AND organize WANA conferences and all the other things life throws at writers and moms, but I appreciate all you do that keeps me plodding on.

    1. I don’t have the time. I just keep pressing, LOL. I tend to write long, so that helps with blogging daily. I say what I want to say then break it into pieces. That’s the way to tackle anything overwhelming, I suppose :D.

  20. I had a brilliant comment prepared but it slipped away…

  21. This post saved my day today! Your discussion about focus helped me to realize I was out of focus on the chapter I’m currently working on and got me back on track. Thank you!


  22. Thank you for this particular post. It made it very clear that you are not against achieving things in a different career, as long as it’s not the goal itself. It’s sort of like how money should never be a goal in itself, but a means to a goal.
    Great post.
    Hey Kristen, couldn’t you make a post with all the writing books you recommend?

    1. I can do that. And yes, it’s just a matter of gaining proper perspective. Money is great. So is a steady income and health benefits, but if we are artists at heart, those should FUEL the goal of writing, NOT be the goal or it can be truly soul-sucking.

  23. I drove a school bus for a while. Give me 49 vociferous youngsters any day. Learning the the zen of tuning out clamour in order not to kill us all on the highway was a great lesson.

    What I find is that I can’t sit for long in front of the keyboard and actually seem to need to pace and wander around quite a bit to let thoughts clarify and shape in my mind so that I can get the words down. Maybe that’s just how I work but I wonder if it’s slowing me down?

    I write all day at work in communications but it is very structured and “soul-sucking” to be sure. I literally started a blog last night to stave off going crazy. A creative person in a boxy institution. ACK!!!! I realized I need an outlet and hopefully visiting blogs like yours will help too. Happy to have found you.

    1. Happy you’re here. I am really ADD as well, so accountability and writing partners help. If you don’t have one, hop over to WANA Tribe and I am sure you can find some.

  24. Very inspiring! I need to schedule a goal setting meeting with myself.

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