A Creative Focus for 2021

Continuing the tradition I started several years ago, I have again chosen 12 meaningful words to focus on each month of 2021. I decided that this year I wanted every word to be an active verb. My challenge is to see how I can apply these to my writing life. Why have I done this?

Why I Focus on BIG Words

With so many things to write about, why would a writer benefit from selecting a few words to focus on in a blog? Being a writer is a time-consuming occupation. Writing alone takes up much of my day. But I also need to spend time on promotion and marketing. I have blogs like this one to write. Newsletters to get out every month. Emails to answer. Workshops to give. And an active home life too.

When preparing to write my blog posts, having a specific word to focus on helps me draw my attention to that one word. I can look for relevant quotes and images to inspire me. In my journal I can play with associations I have with the word.

When I get ready to write, I can combine the meaning of the word with my writing path and the thoughts I want to share with other writers, and despite the constraint of the one word focus, be more creative.


“We need to first be limited in order to become limitless,” 

Phi Hansen

Limitation Actually Fosters Creativity

Working within limitations actually forces our brains to solve problems more creatively. Despite the common belief that the best ideas develop in an open, free-wheeling atmosphere, Brent David Russo in his dissertation on Creativity and Constraint found that:

“for creative teams in organizational settings, there can be freedom in constraint; it’s knowing what to do with them when they emerge, finding the right constraints in the right balance, and crafting an environment in which they can be perceived as opportunities rather than obstacles. The well overused cliché about creativity is “thinking outside of the box.” While this metaphor assumes an empty box, my
dissertation research demonstrates that there are valuable tools right within the box that can be used to bolster team creativity if the creators know where to look to find them.”
p. 149


This should not be surprising. Engineers and architects use creative problem solving to build incredible structures within all kinds of limitations from material strengths to preset deadlines.

Photo by Hao Zhang

I personally utilize both paths to creativity. When I am fast drafting I let all outside distractions fall away and focus only on the flow of creative ideas. But when I am revising, I draw on the creative solutions that comes from problem solving within limitations. This is the method I recommend in my new book Revise Your Draft and Make It Shine. (FREE for the next 5 days 1/11/21 to 1/15/21)

My 2021 Words

So I am going to take advantage of the creative push working within limits can give me and limit myself focus to the the following words:.

        • January -Habitualize
        • February – Amaze
        • March – Compose
        • April – Harmonize
        • May – Cherish
        • June – Delight
        • July – Discover
        • August – Free
        • September – Fuel
        • October – Invigorate
        • November – Challenge
        • December – Enlighten

Wordart Bird

Do these words inspire you?

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

How I Learned to Focus

~ Becoming a Focused Writer ~

Being able to focus is always an issue for a creative writer. No one is telling you what story world to invent nor how to get yourself in the seat, start writing, and then keep at it. Somehow, you have to shut out the world around you and zero in on the words boiling up inside and aching to pour out on to the page. That takes FOCUS.

Since my big word for January was FOCUS, I spent the month, thinking about what distracts me from writing, and what methodologies I might use to improve my concentration.

ZARA-West-BIG-Word-FOCUS

How I Write

I have been writing for many, many years. In those years, I have learned that there are some basics that I need in order to write anything. One is a comfortable chair and the computer at the right height. Otherwise, plain physical discomfort will do me in pretty quickly.

Another thing is having everything I need, or think I will need, within arm’s reach. I need my book research a click away – I use OneNote as my digital binder. I need paper and pen for jot notes. I need the little cards that I write my character’s names on and some of their favorite words.

But even with all these practical things in place, focusing on the writing to be done doesn’t always happen. I’d suddenly look at the clock and see that nothing was down on the page or what was there wasn’t what I intended to write. Not to mention, all the times I just wandered off to do something else.

My Writing Distractions

So why, when I am dedicated to what I was writing and highly motivated, does my mind wander? Being of a practical nature, I began by looking at the physical things that distracted me from writing. First, there were the sensory distractions. The ticking clock. The itchy sweater. A cold draft.

So focused on being focused, I set out to remove these sensory distractions. I put the clock in another room. I made sure to wear my most comfortable clothes. I found a blanket to wrap around my legs. These changes were easy to make and did help. But only a little.

Pressing Things First

 I still had “To-Do” distractions. The email I was anxiously awaiting. The blog post I was late posting (uh- like this one). The prep for the courses I teach. Reading an interesting blog post or news article. All those things were right there on the computer and oh so easy to just click over and check. To fix these issues, I first tried doing the pressing things first – this got those done, but then I had no energy or writing time left.

Clearing the Screen

So next I tried a suggestion from Johanna Jast’s book Laser-Sharp Focus. I created a separate login identity on my computer—one that didn’t have access to all the files and emails. The interface was a lot cleaner, and the fact that I had to turn off the computer to sign into my main account was a good preventative against those easy slides into digital distractions.

Note: If you don’t want to mess with the computer, there are also programs that turn your computer into a writing area only. Here is a list of distraction freeing digital writing tools you might want to try. https://lifehacker.com/five-best-distraction-free-writing-tools-5689579

Zara West BIG words - FocusClearing the Desk

In addition, I removed all the distractions littering my desk especially those that shouted at me about things I HAD to do. I removed the wall calendar, I tucked my bullet journal out of sight, and last, removed the standing file full of work waiting to be done. I added a plant and pretty pen holder and a display of my favorite rocks.

Setting the Time

I have been using the timer method as a way to both ignore distractions and get things done. The idea is to set a timer for the length of time you want to write and ignore everything else. I had already explored timers for fast drafting for NaNo. Now I tried to figure out the optimum time for me to write. I thought it would be 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. That’s the time frame I use when sprinting and going through social media.

But I am not sprinting every minute. Most days, I write steadily, but at my own pace, letting the story unfold naturally scene by scene. But with a timer dinging every 15 minutes, it seemed like instead of helping me focus in on the writing, the buzzer was just another annoying distraction pulling me away from moments when the writing was flowing along nicely.

So I tried longer times. Several research studies have indicated that for creative work longer times work better. Nathan Kleitman identified a natural 90 minute rhythm during the day that mirrored the 90 minute sleep cycle. A productivity app found that the highest performing workers focus for an average of 52 minutes and then take about a 17 minute break. I settled on an hour using a physical sand timer that didn’t ding at all.

Those Pesky Writing Problems

So I had a simplified writing site. A distraction-free screen. And a quiet, unobtrusive timer set for an hour. All these changes did help me focus better to the extent that I came back to my writing more quickly. But what I found was the writing issues that stopped me in the first place were still there and still making me lose focus. The more I forced myself to focus on solving a writing problem, the more I became unsettled and distracted. Then off I went to do something else, despite the timer and the distraction free screen and the hidden away task list.

So, I started noting down those times and places I became distracted. There were three main issues that caused me to stop writing.

  1. It was hard to get started on a new scene or chapter or blog post.
  2. I couldn’t think of the perfect word or a way to say what I was thinking or what I was picturing or the right order in which to say it.
  3. My writing was going in the wrong direction for my storyline.

Not Focus…Flow

But how to address these issues? I started searching for more focus tips and I discovered FLOW…

Flow and focus go together. Flow is defined by researchers as a mental state in which time, distractions, and everything around you fall away and all your creative energy is focused on the task. When you are in a state of flow, you are actually using your brain differently. The prefrontal part of the brain that controls critical thinking is deactivated and our sense of self lessens. Instead, norepinephrine and dopamine flood our bodies and time slows, impulse control decreases, and our performance becomes more fluid and creative.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow (1990) characterizes this feeling as a time when you are so engrossed in an activity nothing else matters. My goodness. That sounds exactly how I feel when the writing is going great. (Also when I am doing photography or making a drawing or singing a song). So how do I make that happen all the time?

Csikszentmihalyi says that setting the stage for flow to happen requires:

  1. A clear end goal
  2. Immediate self-feedback that you are moving toward that goal
  3. The task is challenging, but within your capabilities
  4. No worry about failing
  5. You are happy doing it.

Suddenly, my focus problem became clear. I lost focus writing when one of the above five things wasn’t happening.

  1. My end goal (or my character’s end goal) for the scene/chapter/writing piece wasn’t spelled out enough.
  2. I had lost track of what I was writing so I wasn’t getting positive self-feedback that I was doing well.
  3. I didn’t yet have the writing skills need to fix that storyline or paragraph or sentence.
  4. I was on a tight schedule, or I felt my writing had to be perfect so I was afraid of failure.
  5. What I was working on wasn’t what I wanted to be writing at that time. I had another idea or another task to do that I was drawn to more.

Zara West's BIG Words - FocusPutting Flow Into Practice

When I began my investigation into focus at the beginning of January, I thought I would find some simple technique that would increase my ability to write more effectively and smoothly. What I learned is that it is impossible to eliminate all distractions, and that’s okay. When you are in the flow, you can ignore most of them. That when you start to get distracted, re-examine what you were just working on. What can you do to solve the problem?

Here’s what I came up with.

  1. Stuck on a start? Write a place holder sentence at the start of a difficult scene or chapter to be revised later, that simply states who, where and when.
  2. Need positive feedback? Note down what I have accomplished – word count, scenes completed, etc.
  3. Don’t have the skill yet? Make a note to find a writing blog or workshop or critique partner to help me improve my writing and leave that spot a blank or highlighted to come back to.
  4. Face the fact that sometimes the flow just doesn’t happen. Then it is time to go do something else. But the important thing is to come back and dive into that writing again.

PS – I love my new distraction-free writing zone too.

 


I love to hear from my followers. 

What distracts you from writing or some other favorite creative pursuit?

 

Writing Visionary Goals

~ Why I Start with Visionary Goals ~

In my last post, I talked about how I set up my writing journal. In this post I will explain how I set my visionary goals.

Designing Visionary Goals

When designing goals, there are three things we are advised that make a good goal. The first is it should be specific with a clear definition and a recorded start and end time. Second, the goal should be measurable so you know if you achieved it. Third, the goal needs to be achievable i.e. it is something you have the skills or can get the skills to accomplish. A visionary goal is different. It encompasses something we feel deeply about- something that may not be measurable.


Why Visionary Goals?Tips and tricks for keeping a journal by Zara West

As an educator, I have written and been guided by thousands of measurable goals and objectives. So why do I start off my writing journal with my rather nebulous five-year visionary goals?

I do so because while being practical is a sure way to get work done, they do not inspire. And if there is something a writer needs to have tucked into their psyche, it is inspiration.

So this year, I have set myself the following five-year goals.

  1. Write more books and stories from my heart
  2. Discover readers who love my books
  3. Be happy writing and not feel stressed

As you can see these are definitely not measurable objectives nor well-defined. I don’t specify a set number of books and stories. I don’t name the genre or the topics, and five years is pretty broad range in terms of a time-frame.

These are goals that come from my hopes and dreams. I talk about love, heart, and happiness– very general words that we can all argue about. What does it mean for a reader to love a book? What does happiness feel like to a writer? What is a story from the heart?

Working with Visionary Goals

Despite their nebulousness, these are definitely goals I want to attain. What writer doesn’t want to keep writing more and more wonderful books and stories? What writer doesn’t want their stories read by appreciative readers? Why write at all if it makes you feel stressed and unhappy?

However, just because these are visionary, doesn’t mean that we can’t use them to delineate our writing career path.


Turning Visionary Goals into Measurable Ones

So the next step is to take each visionary goal and place it in this sentence, and voila, you will have a nicely packaged measurable goal to guide you – but one that has heart at its core.

In order to _________________ (visionary goal), I will ______________ (your activity) for ____________ (time-frame).

An example:

In order to write more heartfelt books, I will write at least 2 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Now that is definitely something that will keep me on track, but also incorporates my dream of writing more stories from my heart.

I also use my visionary goals to come up with a slogan to hang over my computer. Here is this year’s.

Work hard. Work happy. Work inspired.


From Visionary Goals to Success

Setting goals is key to feeling successful. When you can track your progress, when you can count the number of words or pages written, and the number of stories sent out into the world, you know you have accomplished something. But if that leaves you stressed or you do not love what you have written, then it is all for nothing.

That is why for me starting with visionary goals is more fulfilling and, in the long run, leaves me happier as a writer.


Do you set visionary or practical goals for yourself?

How do you use them?

I welcome your thoughts and comments.


 

Time Management versus Creativity in Writing

Or Why Hitching Creativity to the Clock is Doomed to Failure

alarm clock Zara West SuspenseYikes! Where did the time go? My last post was when – December? So much for keeping a writing journal.

It was such a good idea – writing down what was going on in my writing. So what happened?  Well, now that I am knee-deep – or is it eyeball deep – in my third novel in the Skin Quartet, I think I have discovered something that will make some writers upset, and others cheer. Time management and creative writing do not fit well together.

Now I have to preface this discussion with the fact that I am excellent at managing time. Ask anyone! At one time I had three jobs, a craft business, two young children and a heck of a lot of sheep. I didn’t sleep much, but I got everything done. I had a planner. I had a calendar. I had a time and place for everything.

The writerly tasks require creativity

So what makes writing different? Well, I have a planner. I have a calendar. I have a timer. And I have a beautiful writing studio. First thing every morning, I sit down and write or edit for the requisite number of words or pages. No problem there. It’s my favorite time of day. No timer is set. Rather my goal is a number of words or a number of pages. The creative ideas pour out of me and onto the page.

Then my schedule lists a number of other writerly tasks to accomplish each day.  These are the things that go along with publishing a book and include such checklist items as posting 8-10 daily quips on social media, taking writing classes (you can always improve!), teaching classes, participating in writing and critique groups, designing newsletters, answering email, and writing blog posts.

A while back, I took a terrific time management course for writers called Book Factory by Kerri Nelson. She suggested dividing up all these writerly tasks into manageable 15 minute blocks of time. This makes sense to me as you can at least see progress. And I have tried to do this ever since and to some extent it does work.

The problem is tasks like social media posts and blogging and newletters so on are all creative writing tasks. Often they take way more than 15 minutes to complete.

After doing creative writing all morning, I have to admit my creative juices are on low flow by the time I open my Facebook page and try to come up with some great new content that people will look at and hopefully share. Then I have to move on to Twitter and class assignments, and so on.

Blog posts, like this one, are the worst, because unlike most social media posts, they can’t be 140 characters long. They have to provide meaningful content. They take me a lot longer than 15 minutes. That’s why they are so rare.

So what’s the solution?

Well, I have noticed that the major writers often mention they have PAs (personal assistants) to do all these other tasks. Others hire promotion companies to help out with some of the items. Both of these sound like a dream to me. With one book published, I’m not yet in that league.

A quick search of my writer friends shows me that the ones who are getting a lot of posts out and somehow keep up with regular blogs often have a strong network of friends and take turns sharing content with each other.

The writers like me who are struggling on our own often sink to re-posting content. It’s not a bad compromise. But not very creative, and it starts to get boring for the reader and -I hate to say it- for me.

So here are some ideas that I am going to try in order to blog about my writing more often.

  1. Set aside one day a week – I’m thinking Monday for my writing blog. (But don’t hold me to that.)
  2. On writing blog day, I will repost and do quickie things on social media like share and retweet.
  3. Create a format for the writing blog posts so I can channel my creativity into what I say instead of how it is organized.
  4. Before writing my blog post, I will walk for 15 minutes to stir up those creative juices.

Do you think this plan will work?

Be looking for my next writing journal post to find out.

 

Why NaNoWri fires me up to write faster

NaNoWri or National Novel Writing Month starts on Tuesday. This will be my third year participating. I don’t know why, but somehow tracking words and trying to attain the 50,000 word challenge in 30 days just gets my blood flowing and the creative juices oozing.  So I am getting set for the race to the finish.

NOTE: If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is here’s a brief overview. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. A small group of friends in California got together and challenged each other to write a book in a month and an idea was born. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000 word novel during one of the toughest writing months of the year, November. The thought is–that if you can write a book in November, you can write a book at any time of the year.


Nano is also about a group of people participating in this goal all at the same time! There is so much energy in knowing that people all over the world are typing away, struggling to write their story all at the same time. (Though NaNo has the 50k goal, many people use NaNo as a means to move forward with their writing. Some use it to edit, others use it to write multiple short stories, or finish a story they have been working on.) Check out the website at http://nanowrimo.org

So this is how I’m preparing for this year’s challenge.

  1. I took a course in using journaling to develop characters and used my journal entries to dig into the psyches of my main characters. I have many, many pages of notes and a whole lot of tidbits in my head about the strengths and foibles of my people,. And I do mean people. By this piint they are like a real friends and enemies running around in my head.
  2. I wrote a very sloppy synopsis- kind of like telling the story to a friend. This happens and then that happens and so on.
  3. I pasted the synopsis into my NaNo draft and broke the events/actions into pseudo chapters. I can’t seem to get myself to drop the chapter format. But since I alternate POVs in every chapter it does work out okay. And I don’t number them. I make them HEADERS. That way if the find panel is open you can see the chapter and POV and setting right there.
  4. I write the Goal/Motivation/Conflict and the Dilemma for each “chapter” and make those header 2s. Dilemma is really important. That’s the choice the POV character has to make by the end of the chapter/scene. Like – Will I kiss him or not? Will I hide from the bad guy or attack him? That kind of thing.

And that’s it. On November 1 I will sit down and start hitting the keys as fast as I can. If I go blank or get stuck I stick in 4 XXXXs and move on. Later I can search out those XXXX spots when the thought hits on what to do.

So for now. I am dreaming my story and getting my fingers going by writing this post. I hope you enjoyed it. Let me know by posting a comment.

Are you doing NaNoWri?

How I made a Book Trailer for Beneath the Skin

How I Made a Book Trailer for Beneath the Skin!

Book trailers are the hot new thing in book marketing. With my background in making videos, I just had to try my hand at creating one for Beneath the Skin. It was terrific fun!

How I Made the Book Trailer

This is the first time I have used Windows Live Movie Maker. I have only used iMovie before. In general, the process was very much the same, but the choices for transitions and text features were different so I had fun trying out different combinations. But that all came much later.

To begin the process of making the book trailer for Beneath the Skin, I started out by watching hundreds of book trailers on YouTube. All I did was search on the term Book Trailer. That uncovered a wealth of examples.

The first thing I discovered was that there are tons of book trailers being created by students in schools. What a great take on the book report! Here is a great trailer for Roald Dahl’s The Witches made with PhotoStory 3.

The second thing is that the majority of trailers being made are for Young Adult books and are being produced by the major publishing houses who have created “channels” that will appeal to their readers. An example of this is HarperTeen. These often include interviews with the authors.

The third type are book trailers created by the authors themselves. Since I was making my own, I concentrated on the last, particularly those featuring Romantic Suspense novels like my own. I really loved the wonderful trailers done by bestselling author Casi McLean. You can check out her trailers here on her channel.

I wrote down the common features and what I liked and didn’t like about each one. Next I clicked second by second through several and recorded how long each image was on the screen and what was in each image. Based on that I came up with the following list:

Breakdown of a Romantic Suspense Book Trailer

  1. Most of the book trailers I examined were about 1 to 2 minutes long.
  2. Each one started with a title frame that usually included the author’s name, the book title and perhaps a teaser word or phrase.
  3. Most included a mix of action video and stills. Some also had color photos mixed with black & whites.
  4. The text was brief but hit all the major points: The romantic couple. The problem. What was stopping them, and what would happen if they didn’t solve the problem. At the end, there was usually a clip of where to buy the book and maybe the author’s website.
  5. All of them had music that flowed with the pictures.

Tips for Designing a Book Trailer

The following are a general set of directions for designing a book trailer. They do not cover the actual how-to-technology for movie editing software such as Movie Maker or iMovie. You can find numerous how-to videos on YouTube for these. Rather, these are design tips you may find helpful.

  1. Start with the music. Select a piece of music that matches the theme of your book. Because of copyright issues, I searched through free music offerings and was able to find several sites that had free-downloads. Bensound.com is one such source. Purple-Planet.com and Freeplay.com are others.
  2. Get pics and vids. Next collect a group of photos and video clips you think you might use and put them in a folder on your computer. One good source of copyright free pic and vids is Unsplash.com.
  3. Choose your movie editor. Now open your movie editor and upload the visual “clip” you want for your opening. Choose something that immediately sets the mood of your book.
  4. Title it. Insert your intro caption into the visual. Your name or website name plus “presents” and then your title makes it look professional.
  5. Treat it. Select your text treatment (How you want your text to move or change) and your transition treatment (How you want one clip to change to the next). Note: These are called different things in the different programs.
  6. Unify. To create unity use the same transition and text design (font, color, size, & treatment) through out the whole trailer. Keep the colors close in hue and value too, except when you want to shock. For example, a mystery book trailer might be done in all black and white, except for a splash of red at the very end when the “killer” consequence is named.
  7. Use music as your guide. Now here’s the trick to making it all work. Put in the music track. This will help you place and time the remaining pic/vids and captions so they flow with the rise and fall of the music.
  8. Build your show. Now using the movie software put in each pic/vid, the transition (visual effect), and text effect one by one. Note: 3-4 seconds is the longest any image should play. Longer and it gets boring. Shorter 1 and 2 second clips can be used to make things more exciting.
  9.  Check timing. Adjust the timing of each, and put in your ending “Where to Buy” clip. When you upload on to YouTube you will be able to select a URL the viewer can click on right at the end of the video to take them to your buy page.
  10. End softly. Insert a black clip and fade the music out at the end. Voila! You’re done.

Here’s my very first book trailer. I’d love your comments!