A cluttered artist's room surrounded by stars

Writing Essentials: Organizing Your Mind

This is the first in a six-week blog tour series for the Northwest Independent Writers’ Association.

We live in a time where overwhelming amounts of information on anything are immediately available from a multitude of sources. The demands for our attention can be paralyzing. Our minds have to ward off so many interruptions, demands, and distractions. 

We need to be continually evaluating, discerning, critiquing, and sifting it all the time. Is this information true? Does that headline matter? Should I focus on this or that? Is it urgent, important, dangerous? Will my current needs or wishes be met in some way by something if I decide to notice it?

And that is just the passive side of things. We also have plans, make decisions, and look for tools that will help us act, impact, and shape the world around us. 

We are active agents in the reality we live in. 

Every human being is.

Writing and the cluttered mind

Picture Grand Central Station in New York, filled with people walking every which way. If there were a reason to organize everyone, how would you go about it? Standing on the stairs and yelling wouldn’t be very effective, and even announcing something over the loudspeaker would fail to grab the attention of many who are lost in their own world. What does it take to direct the flow of traffic? Maybe signs, posting staff, multiple messages, possibly some training to reign in the people enough to be able to organize them. It would be tough.

Our minds weren’t meant to be a sea of surging thoughts, each on their own track, each going their own way. Writers, in particular, need to be able to organize their thoughts in ways that free them up to work.

Nothing happens until our mind has a semblance of order. 

Downsizing your brain clutter

If I am too stressed by a multitude of things, I need to find a way to set them aside during my writing time. Lists are one of the ways I do that, meaning, I write down things that are nagging at my mind in a “Deal with it later” list. Company tasks in one place, health in another, family in another, marketing and promo tasks in another. Sometimes the list itself becomes a burden and I need to put that in a ‘later’ category. 

In each of the different eras I need to address in my life, I ask the question. What is the one thing I really need to accomplish today? If I break it down into something smaller: what is the key part of the one thing I need to do today? Some are obvious and non-negotiable. I always start the day with morning coffee and quiet time.

For example, today it could be:

  • One blog or at least the graphic for the blog.
  • One load of laundry.
  • One FaceTime with a family member (which has gained importance in the covid-19 era).
  • One hour of writing.

I come up with several key tasks, then organize and target them one at a time. I’ll get through what I get through, and it’s ok, because I’ve clarified my thinking enough to be satisfied with what I accomplished.

You may have noticed I didn’t mention shutting out distractions. We all know about that and there is a lot of advice out there on the topic. Here’s one that seems complementary to this post.

Now you’re ready to organize your mind for writing.

Organizing your mind for writing

~Making Lists

Some of us love lists and some of us flee them like the plague. The point is NOT to make a list, but to sort information. However you do that most comfortably is the right way.

Before you can work on your plot or character development or edits, you need to organize your mind for the writing process. 

Here are some ideas for a range of writers. 

  • You can make great lists in a spreadsheet with categories, stats, highlighting, and all kinds of nerdy tools that make the process a delight. 
  • Or you can open Notes on an iPad and freeform your thoughts with an apple pencil, selecting and moving things as needed, adding drawings, doodles, and question marks. (I also like using Concepts for this.)
  • Maybe a piece of paper is better because the feel of pen on paper stimulates your mind.
  • Sticky notes work well if you can’t stand putting your items in order because they don’t logically have an order. 
  • What about using objects like colored blocks or cards to represent things in your mental list? Maybe writing it all down is too much of a hassle and doesn’t help your mind anyway. You actually prefer picking up the red block and saying, “You are the obstinate AI standing in the hero’s way… None of these other blocks can move until you are dealt with…”
  • A hodge-podge of methods. Sometimes the only way I can make a workable list is by filling out a bunch of 3×5 cards with what seems like miscellaneous data and playing with it until I see the structure I need.

When things are on a list, we can ignore them until it’s time to deal with them. That frees up your mind to focus on the present need.

TIP: Have a place for both writing and non-writing tasks to be stored until you’re ready to deal with them. 

~Author Space

What is your preferred workspace like? What environment is the most conducive to focusing and getting things accomplished? 

Maybe it’s a sleek laptop with a polished screen on a clean desktop… Or a bench in the park with a hat over your head and the sound of bird song in your ears… Or curling up in a cushy chair with legs tucked into a warm blanket… 

It could be driving in the rain dictating your story to an app… A library… A noisy train station… A beach with the roar of the ocean…

Consider how we gather information from the world around us through sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch. Build your workspace around each one of these aspects. 

What makes your writing space work? There are probably a few key components that make all the difference. I like to have the sound of the ocean in my ears, a latte or something to drink, a place where I can sit on my feet and lean against a sturdy chair-back, and my laptop. In fact, the sound track I use is reserved only for writing and as soon as I hear it, it takes me into the writing zone. Wherever I am becomes my workspace. I can put in the earbuds, listen to the ocean waves, and write.

Avoid trying to make your spot too perfect which in itself becomes a distraction. 

TIP: Make your writing place part of your writing routine; at least one thing should be unique and predictable.

~Assigning Priorities

Your approach to writing should streamline the process as much as possible. Painting a scene creatively while the image is clear in your head is not the time to analyze whether your grammar and punctuation are perfect or decide where the scene fits into the overall plot. Interrupting your train of thought for checks and questions can sabotage the flow. 

Here’s a simple rule that will serve you well: Focus on one process at a time.

Your list of tasks shouldn’t overlap. Organizing your mind for writing means you will prioritize each step of the process at the appropriate time. This list is malleable. The priority changes based on the stage you’re in.

Here’s an example:

  1. Write something new. Stay in the process till you’ve completed a section or a chapter.
  2. First run-through edits, looking for typos, grammar, punctuation, etc.
  3. Restructuring your plot, fitting scenes into the flow and identifying holes that need bridges or new scenes; this should happen after you have quite a bit of it laid out or written.
  4. Scanning through your writing to make sure plot threads aren’t dropped, characters stay in character, looking for other issues you care about.
  5. Rewrites, patching holes, fixing characters.

Once I’ve tapped my “new stuff” creativity, it is reassigned a lower priority and “first run-through edits” rises to the top. I won’t scan for plot holes until I’ve cleaned this up and am reasonably satisfied with it. And the overall analysis of my plot will not rise to the top of my priority list until I’ve got a ton written.

That’s my process. 

TIP: Make your best way of working a guide to setting your writing priorities.

~Adaptability

Your approach to organizing your writing has got to be flexible because it has to work. When a list becomes a noose, drop it. When a pile of sticky notes turns into chaos, make a list. When your workspace becomes stagnant—try something new. We may have found the perfect routine, but life changes and we have to change with it—our writing routines need to adapt.

A homebody with an office can write while traveling.

A roaming adventurer can think creatively while confined at home.  

TIP: Never think of your system as essential to your writing. Be flexible and willing to write when situations are less than ideal. 

Final thoughts

You aren’t your mind. You aren’t just a helpless victim of its spasms. The mind is a part of you that can be shaped, trained, and brought into submission (at least partially) to your goals. You could even say that to excel at anything, a person must first govern their own mind.

That begs the question: how do we reconcile training our minds with the day-dreaming that’s essential for writing? 

Still working on that.

While playing a game.

~~~<>~~~

Graphic made with photos by NASA Hubble and Joseph Morris on Unsplash.

You can read the second installment in this series, “Writing Essentials: Organizing Your Time”, on Thomas Gondolfi’s Blog when it comes out next week.

~~~<>~~~

Suzanne Hagelin

USA Today bestselling author of hard science fiction, Suzanne Hagelin, lives in the Seattle area where she runs a small press, Varida P&R, and teaches language on the side.

Her Books. The Silvarian Trilogy Book 1, “Body Suit” is available for 99c in April only and the audiobook is Downpour’s current Editor’s Pick at $4.95. Book 2 “Nebulus” just released on audio, and Book 3, “The Denser Plane” is in the writing stage. The Severance begins with “Cascade” and will be followed by “Eclipse”.

LINKS—Suzannehagelin.comNewsletterTwitterFaceBookMedium

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