Monday, September 4, 2017

Staying Focused as a Creative, and When You Maybe Shouldn't

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

I hear it all the time when I'm around writers: "I have so many story ideas that it's hard for me to focus on just one. I try, but I get distracted really easily by new ideas."

We've talked a lot on the blog about how if you eventually want to be a published author, you need to train yourself to write complete manuscripts. To start at the beginning and grind through to the very end. To not let yourself succumb to shiny object syndrome, where you chase other book ideas not because they're better than the one you're currently working on, but rather because they're new.

This is all good advice that I stand by, but I've also recently realized that sometimes I benefit from my tendency to chase shiny objects. Here is when this desire helps us as writers:

When you have to give up on a story.

After I wrote The Lost Girl of Astor StreetI started working on another 1920s era story. Many historical writers specialize in an era, and I thought that would be the expectation for me.

So I wrote and edited a 1920s heist story that I love very much. As I worked on the third draft of it, my editor asked, "Do you have any WWII era story ideas?"

Oddly, I did. Just a few weeks before that, I had listened to a two-part podcast about Executive Order 9066, which permitted the U.S. government to send Japanese and Japanese-Americans living on the west coast to concentration camps. I was fascinated (and horrified) by what I learned, and I thought, "I want to write a story about a Caucasian girl who's in love with a Japanese-American boy."

I jotted the idea down, but I assumed that it would be years before I could leave the 1920s and explore that story idea more. Only to my surprise, I was being handed the opportunity to do it now.

This meant pivoting away from the 1920s story that I love and have poured about a year of work into. You would think this would feel like a defeat or a failure, but actually I was so excited by my WWII story that I didn't even care about putting my 1920s heist novel on hold.

While it helps me to know that closing the door on my 1920s story now doesn't mean closing it forever, I was also reaping the benefit of loving shiny objects. For once, I was given permission to go chase it. (You can read details about Within These Lines on my author website.)

When you have to hit pause on a story.

Here's another situation that crops up frequently if you're a contracted author: being asked to juggle multiple stories at once.

Let's close our eyes and pretend that you've been contracted for a three-book series from your dream publisher. Ah, bliss.

You turn in book one on schedule (you probably had it written when you signed your contract) and you're cruising along with the first draft of book two. You and the story are doing great when you get an email from your editor with your first round of edits on book one. They're due in two weeks.

So you pause the first draft of book two, buckle down on edits for book one, and then after you turn those in, you resume your focus on book two.

But a few weeks later, you receive an email from the copy editor saying he needs you to read over book one and turn in any additional changes next week.

Yet again, you pause your draft to edit book one.

And just wait until you're writing book three. Not only will you be getting emails about your edits on book two, but you'll be promoting book one as it releases. This might also be the time when your literary agent taps your shoulder and says, "Why don't you put together some thoughts on what your next series could look like, and I'll send it over to your editor?"

This kind of schedule isn't an exaggeration by any stretch. This is what life looks like for authors who have books coming out every six to nine months.

So the next time you're tempted to jump projects or work on multiple books at the same time, don't think of it as an inability to focus, but rather training for when you sign your multi-book contract.


This is where I'm currently capitalizing on my shiny object chasing tendencies. I wrote the first draft of Within These Lines between April and July. As always, I gave myself a break where I didn't peek at the manuscript and tried to not even think about it.

Then, a few days ago, with much anticipation, I opened up my manuscript and started reading. Within a few hours, I knew I had extensive rewrites in my future.

This led to me texting Roseanna, "My book is stupid and I hate it. #editing"

She texted back something sensitive and inspiring like, "Ha ha ha!"

This is because we've been critique partners for just shy of ten years now, and she knows this is part of my process. That first I get all depressed because my book is seriously flawed and needs work because it's a first draft. Then I spend a day brainstorming all the changes, and get SO EXCITED and remember, "Oh, right! Editing is my favorite!"

If I didn't have that excitement over all the fun changes I get to make, I would instead wallow in how many words I'm about to cut and how much time I "wasted" writing them. Which one of these attitudes is more productive?

Yes, we need discipline and to ignore shiny objects if we're ever going to finish a book, but take heart that your energy for chasing something new and fun will also help you get your book to completion.

If you're looking for ideas on staying focused long enough to finish a first draft or edits, here are some past posts that might help you out:

5 Tips for Finishing Your First Draft
Writing Advice Examined: Should you finish your book?
The Five Step Rebel-utionary Plan For Writing Your Novel
Writing a Good Story is Hard Work: How To Push Through And Find Your Next Step

Can you relate to being a shiny object chaser? What's a time when it worked to your benefit to follow your creative energy and run after something new and exciting?


  1. I relate to this so much. Plot bunnies are always attacking me left and right. But, there was a time it came to my benefit. I was working on a project and a princess who's kingdom was taken over by an evil witch. (So original.) I had a conversation with my dad that gave me a new idea and I began working on it. That was three years ago. Now, I'm working on getting my Alpha to read it and recruiting betas. My goal is to be self-published by around this time next year! Its exciting and nerve wracking all at once.

    Though I've taken breaks and fallen away from the idea, I know that its time to begin this process.

    Wonderful post! Have an awesome day!


    1. Ivie, that's a long time to stick with one idea! How amazing. Can't wait to read it!

    2. That's great how your story has come along, Ivie! Have you had any trouble recruiting alpha and beta readers?

  2. I'm so glad to know I'm not the only one with a self-pitying editing process. I always spend a day bemoaning the changes...until I start working. Then I'm asking myself WHY in the WORLD I didn't stop complaining earlier so I could get to work, because I absolutely love the changes I'm making! This was a fantastic article, Stephanie! I'm SOOO excited for your new book.

    1. Thank you, Taylor! I think it's a natural part of the creating process. Jill Williamson has told me before that she always cries when she gets edits, but that it's because she knows that it's going to be so much work. There's comfort in knowing your own patterns!

    2. The macro edits are really fun, I agree. The thing that upsets me most about editing is that it is never, ever good enough! The edits and changes go on forever! Shiny little distractions are sometimes what I need to forget about all the bad in my book and remember why it's worth slaving on.

  3. I love chasing new ideas, but I'm proud to say that I've finally started buckling down to work on one project at a time. Good luck with your new project, Mrs. Morrill!

    1. Good for you, Florid Sword! That's a milestone in a writer's journey.

  4. I definitely need to get back in the groove of actually writing and actually sticking with a project. But this post was really helpful for showing me when it's all right to follow my butterfly-like mind as it flits from idea to idea. And your new book sounds so cool - I would definitely read it once it's published!

    1. Thank you, Vera!

      Yes, it's important that we eventually stick with a project to completion. But I also felt strangely relieved to see how my tendency to be easily distracted helped me at times.

  5. This actually just happened to me last month! I'd been rewriting and editing a book for a year straight, and realized it was in need of another book surgery. I knew I needed to grind through and finish it, but a new idea was too distracting. I changed WIPs, and found that I'm more motivated for this new one.

    I haven't read many novels in the historical genre, but I seriously love your new book idea!

    audrey caylin

    1. Another situation I could have mentioned in this post is pet projects that we really just need to cut ties with. (Not that you need to cut ties forever with your first WIP.) I know I've had manuscripts that I love, but I also finally had to admit that they didn't work like I wanted them to, or that they weren't right for being published. It's so hard! I'm glad to hear your new WIP is going well.

  6. This is so good, Stephanie. I love that you got to pursue the next book dream (which I for one cannot WAIT to read!).