I wrote most of this blog post in August 2021 and forgot to post it. Now here it is and it’s just as relevant!
In the age of social media, constant rolling news, and a shorter attention span, it can be hard to focus on the task in hand. This is especially true if you’re working alone. Whether you’re a self-employed business owner or a writer, you need to develop good concentration skills.
That fear of missing out when you switch off social media keeps you checking back on the slightest pretext. Because that is what social media companies want. They want you addicted.
As for rolling 24-hour news, that also generates a fear of missing out on what’s happening. The news agenda is driven by ratings as much as anything. The problem with news is that it’s often distressing and something you can do absolutely nothing about.
But it gets into your head and even when you’ve switched off the news, it’s still replaying on a loop. Making it hard to focus.
If you’re someone who enjoys interacting online and following news, it can be hard to switch off. But if you want to do your best writing or other work, you absolutely must conquer any distractions.
Checking in on Twitter every five minutes isn’t going to help you write a great novel. It will prevent you from becoming immersed in your characters’ world, which could lead to a surface-level story. Not something that will hook readers.
I’ve tried a few different options when it comes to increasing productivity and decreasing distractions:
Temporary deletion of a Twitter account – you have up to 30 days to switch it back on
Avoiding social media earlier in the day to focus on more important tasks
Social media blockers – for hours, days, or longer
White noise apps – including rain sounds, cafe sounds
Plugging myself into headphones to cut off the outside world
Using a Pomodoro timer to pace tasks and blocks of time
Making a list of things to do and working my way through them
Task batching – setting aside a block of time to work on the same kinds of tasks
Task batching can be used to schedule social media posts before logging out for the day
There’s also reading other writers’ work – I call it fuelling the tank because after enough reading, the motivation can be topped up to the point where you absolutelymust get to your desk and work on your own story
You can also use music to get you into the mood – by finding tracks that fit the theme or scenes of your book. Like your very own soundtrack album. Used enough, these can quickly get you into the right frame of mind
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that taking an extended break from social media frees up more mental space. You can even block it for most of the day and only allow yourself a short break to engage with people you know there. Then hit the block again!
I mostly use Rainy Mood as a white noise app – I turn it up high to block out background sounds, include talk, and plug in my headphones. As an editor, I find this just helps me concentrate more. It’s just me, the manuscript, and the rain!
A Pomodoro timer allows for targeted break times. Then you can grab a drink, go to the loo, stretch, or just chill out for a few minutes before the next block of work.
Having a list of things to do at the beginning of the day is also incredibly useful. It allows me to use my time more strategically, ticking things off as I go along. I tried this a lot more in the last week or so, and finally tackled tasks I’d been putting off for ages.
Task batching is not something I’ve used so much as yet. If you don’t know what it is, it means putting the same tasks together into a batch rather than jumping around between very different tasks. So, if you have an editing business, you might put aside an admin day rather than try to fit in bits of admin around your editing hours.
Because jumping from one task to another one that is quite different can be less efficient. You’re pretty much all over the place instead of focusing on the same kind of thing.
While all of that helps with focus and avoiding distractions, you still have the problem of getting down to do some writing. Procrastination can be a terrible thing. Writers often sabotage themselves.
However, it can also take some time to build up your writing muscles. I personally found keeping a daily word count very useful while working on some writing of my own.
I originally wrote a draft of this post in August 2021. It’s now July 2022. I forgot to finish the post and found it while searching for another unpublished post.
Since I’ve written about social media, distractions, and apps that help a few times on this blog, it’s clearly something that concerns me! But when I was doing research recently on social media companies hiring attention engineers, I discovered just how disturbing these apps really are.
When I temporarily deleted my Twitter account recently, I suddenly found I had a lot more time on my hands.
People often despair that they struggle to find time to write.
But the truth is that often you need to claw that time back from social media and the 24-hour news cycle. The time is there, but you can’t see it. You’re on a hamster wheel of endless scrolling or checking your notifications.
An app like Insight by Freedom will tell you exactly how much time you’ve spent on various sites. It’s worth considering how much of that time could have been spent on writing or other things.
Otherwise, if you’re a fiction or memoir writer who is looking for feedback on your manuscript, you can check out my services page or contact me directly to discuss your project. You will find me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Novels with famous first lines. You’ve seen them, even read some of them, or pored over their opening pages. Famous first lines you can repeat from memory.
Ursula Le Guin says in her essay, The Fisherwoman’s Daughter, that:
First sentences are doors to worlds.
She’s right. A great first sentence can hook the reader and reel them in.
Of course, you can’t build the success or fate of a novel on a first sentence alone. If you have a great first sentence or first paragraph, and the writing that follows doesn’t live up to its promise, the reader will bail.
In another blog post, I’ll deal with the conversion sequence that starts with the cover art and that moves through to the opening of the book.
But to summarise, there’s a sequence of hooks that are meant to draw a reader in. The cover image might help a book stand out in a bookshop against the competition. The cover can be seen from across a store. You can’t see a blurb from that far, and you won’t get anywhere near the opening lines until you are tempted to pick the book up in the first place.
The power of the opening sentence hook comes at the end of a sequence of hooks that lead up to it.
Getting a potential reader or book buyer to check out the book in the first place is a challenge. The book market is already saturated and it’s easy to get depressed when you walk into a large bookshop and check out the sheer wealth of competition.
You need all the help you can get – which is why great and genre-appropriate cover art is so important.
A decent blurb is also important.
But readers browse the opening pages of far more books than they’ll ever buy or read. They are engaging in a filtering process – filtering out what doesn’t appeal fast as they search for something that hooks their attention, and makes them curious to read more.
That’s why the opening lines and pages of your book matter.
Your opening lines need to draw a reader in. They can do this in different ways. Sometimes it’s dropping the reader straight into some action – there are Hollywood films that also use this type of hook.
There are also opening lines that raise a question in the reader’s mind – leading to a curiosity to find the answer(s). Some opening lines cast a spell over the reader, urging them to read on.
One of the things readers remember most about a book is how it made them feel. They won’t necessarily remember all the plot details years down the line, but they will likely remember the impact a book had on them, the mood of the book, its atmosphere, and how it made them feel.
Sometimes this is also related to the writer’s voice, and voice is something that can show up in the very first line.
An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
Among his own books, his favourite opening line is from Needful Things. Four simple words printed in 20-point on a page: You’ve been here before. King sees this as an invitation to keep reading and that it suggests a familiar story.
King works on his openings while he lies in bed before going to sleep. He composes them in his head and will rework them over the coming days, weeks, and even years. Once he’s happy with the opening, he knows he can write the book.
There are many famous opening lines in fiction:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca
The opening sentence of Rebecca is a particularly famous example. Perhaps one of the most famous – in part thanks to the Hitchcock adaptation where Joan Fontaine narrates the opening sentences of the novel.
But many people know it from the book alone. It’s a line that throws up questions in the mind of a new reader. Who is the narrator – we never find out her true name. She is simply the second Mrs. de Winter. And what is Manderley?
The sentences that follow the first line fill in some of the details. Rebecca opens on a mystery – the mystery of Manderley, abandoned, ruined, and overgrown, and why the narrator can never go back.
Here’s another famous example:
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
LP Hartley – The Go-Between
The Go-Between is a classic English novel set against the backdrop of the end of the Victorian era. Specifically, the summer of 1900. It is a novel in which an older man is reflecting on the time he spent as a young boy at a school friend’s estate – a period he has blanked out from his memory until he finds his old diary and pieces things together.
In an interview Hartley said:
I wanted to evoke the feeling of that summer [in 1900], the long stretch of fine weather, and also the confidence in life, the belief that all’s well with the world, which everyone seemed to enjoy before the First World War…
The first line of the book links to the changes the character has seen in the world since 1900. He’s remembering the past from the 1950s. Two world wars have passed, with what in 1900 would have been unimaginable casualties and horrors. The aristocratic late Victorian society that young Leo samples in his visit to the estate has long passed away. The past is indeed a foreign country and things were different then.
Speaking of long summers in 1900, there is also Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I wrote about in another blog post. Here is the opening sentence:
Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.
Lindsay wrote the novel after a series of dreams about a picnic at the Rock. She wrote it in winter, but when she woke from the dreams she could still feel the summer heat. The novel’s opening sentences capture the mood and season of the dreams. But the central event of the novel, the picnic at Hanging Rock, is also referenced from the very first line.
Staying on the theme of summer there is this opening line:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
In a few short words, the novel’s opening sets the season, the talking point of the time (the Rosenbergs, which also anchors the opening in a particular year), and the location.
Or how about the opening to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
The opening line of the prologue gets to the heart of the story, yet a new reader will only have questions rather than answers at this point. Who is Bunny? Why is he dead? And why does the narrator mean by the gravity of our situation?
Of course, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know the answer. The first half of the novel leads up to the events that cause Bunny’s death. The second half deals with the fallout. The opening sentence doesn’t deal with the lead-up to the death – but it shows that there will likely be consequences. And that the novel deals with this in some way.
The opening of 1984 immediately indicates that there is something not quite right about the society in this book. The clocks are striking thirteen. This famous novel deals with a dystopian society and acts as a political warning.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell – 1984
Zora Neale Hurston was part of the Harlem Renaissance but she never really got the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. Her fame really came after her death. The opening line of her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a standout line. It’s more than just an opening hook that draws the reader into her story. It’s a handy saying too.
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God
William Gibson’s Neuromancer has a particularly striking image in the opening sentence:
The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Meanwhile, the opening sentence to JG Ballard’s High-Rise raises all sorts of questions in the reader’s mind:
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.
The opening of Andy Weir’s The Martian gets straight to the seriousness of the narrator’s situation:
I’m pretty much fucked.
And he is. Well and truly. The rest of the novel follows him as he figures out how to survive on Mars when the rest of his crew have left him for dead. Nobody on Earth or even his old crew know yet that he is still alive. So, help isn’t arriving anytime soon.
Or how about Iain Banks’ unforgettable first line in his contemporary Scots novel, The Crow Road:
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
Apart from the unexpected image, there are all sorts of questions like why and how she exploded.
The novel isn’t actually about the whys of her eventful cremation, but the mystery of why the narrator’s Uncle Rory went missing. This is woven around a story about family and growing up.
But that first line is a hook that gets the reader to read on. Hooks that raise questions in the reader’s mind can be answered early in the book providing there are bigger questions being raised that pull the reader on to finish the story.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned Stephen King’s approach to first lines – he really tries to nail the first line before tackling the rest of the book. However, if you spend too much time trying to nail that first line, you can lose your confidence and motivation when it comes to the rest of the book.
It’s far more important to get your early drafts down so that you have a story to work with, and characters to flesh out.
It’s not unusual for writers to start the earlier drafts of their novel with a different scene or at a different stage in the narrative. And this is perfectly fine. A lot of writers need some warmup prose to get them into their story. Much of this can be discarded later.
Once you have at least one full draft down, you can start to think about the right starting point. But even that isn’t about exactly the right first line.
You can actually leave your opening line or lines until the very end of your writing process. During the earlier drafts and rewrites, you can note down ideas for opening lines. But this fine-tuning of the opening can be something you can postpone until later.
After all, you don’t want to waste your burst of enthusiasm for your story on working and reworking the same lines over and over. Plunge into your story. Worry about the details later.
You might be someone who often has a good first line in mind – if so, that’s great. But it’s not necessary when you’re first sitting down to write. Especially if you want a line that will really hook the reader.
Of course, it’s not just your opening line that matters, but your opening paragraphs, pages, chapters etc.
If you want feedback on your opening chapters, I offer an opening chapters developmental edit. The relevant service page mentions 15,000 words, but I also do custom word counts for those who want a shorter opening assessed.
The edit looks at opening hooks, characterisation, point of view, and much more. You get an editorial letter and a copy of your manuscript with track commenting in the margins.
Are you a writer or editor spending too much time on social media and feeling bad about it? Is it eating into your writing time, your editing time, your work hours, your free time, etc?
Social media as slot machine
Did you know that social media companies employ ‘attention engineers’ who use Las Vegas casino gambling techniques to keep you hooked? And all so they can make a profit at your expense.
Dr. Cal Newport has described having social media as like having a slot machine on your phone. The companies have invested tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to keep you on their sites.
If you look at their sites a lot, they track user minutes and it increases their stock value.
Even something as seemingly innocent as the like button is a result of attention engineering. Let’s face it, people love getting ‘likes’ because it indicates social approval.
And humans love social approval.
Also, there’s a dopamine hit when you get liked, retweeted, and so on, and that can get addictive.
Social media is designed to take up your attention – and as much of it as possible.
Social media steals your life, motivations, and goals
But what are you giving up when you spend hours on Facebook or Twitter?
You are losing time you can’t get back. Time you could have spent on other things.
Like writing a book, or finishing the book you’re currently working on. Or writing more books. Or going for walks, swimming, or cycling, or you could read more books.
And at least as importantly, you could have spent more time with your family and other loved ones.
And if you’ve spent a very long time on social media, that time wasted can clock up to years of your life.
What else could you have been doing with that time? Do you still read as much as you used to, or watch as many films? Do you socialise with others in the real world as much as you once did?
Social media destroys your focus
On top of all that, social media is not just a massive time sink, it’s also destroying your ability to focus. If you want to write, or you’re editing, you need to concentrate and immerse yourself in that project.
However, social media has trained users to become more fragmented in their attention. Notifications break your concentration as you rush to check what’s happening online.
You might intend to only check in for a moment or two, but even if you resist the temptation to stay longer, it will take you longer to focus again on your project.
So, you’ve actually lost even more time.
Is social media harming the writing community?
I often worry about the potential harm caused to writers by online writing communities on social media. Because even if the communities have helpful information, the platforms they use are designed to be addictive.
Like a slot machine.
We’re told that the Twitter writing community is helpful and supportive. Yet, someone going in to ask the community a quick question might find they’re still on Twitter an hour or so later.
That’s time lost to writing, and even if you go back to focus on your work, it’s unlikely you can just immediately concentrate again.
So, how much are these online communities actually draining writers of time, energy, and focus?
How much are they actually preventing you from fulfilling your writing dream?
So, is social media harming the writing community?
It doesn’t help that social media provides people with an immediate writing identity. You can put anything in your profile. Once you’re part of the writing community, you get validated, even when you’re posting too much to actually write. You end up with an unearned identity. Which fits with the modern tendency to want things now. Actual writing success takes a long time. Certainly, if you want to have a sustainable career, it will take years.
But on social media, you’ll find people claiming social media is necessary for writers.
It might partly come down to how much you’re able to resist the worst temptations and regulate yourself. I cover useful apps further down this post.
However, there’s another problem, and it’s a serious one…
Toxic politics and censorship
The online writing community can also be dangerously political and censorious. This can lead to self-censoring for fear of being attacked, which can tie your creativity up in knots. There’s far too much herding going on.
Some writers also use their followers to attack rivals and to bombard reviewing sites with negative reviews. This is reputation destruction, and it’s usually presented as righteous and virtuous.
But that’s how censors saw themselves in both left-wing and right-wing totalitarian regimes and theocracies. There were a lot of politically captured artists, writers, filmmakers, editors, and academics in these regimes. They used the prevailing ideology to climb the greasy pole. They took out rivals. Sometimes rivals were actually sent to the gulag or killed.
Social media encourages censorship and extremist ideologies.
Additionally, the algorithms thrive on conflict. But if you can’t compete in the marketplace of ideas without silencing rivals, there’s something wrong with your ideology.
Minority writers living in fear
And if you’re a minority writer who is now afraid to write fiction based on your own group, because your group is heavily policed by an arrogant and self-appointed activist class, social media is the last place you should be.
I’m seeing minority writers genuinely afraid of these online tyrants. The so-called ‘allies’ (who belong to the traditional oppressor groups) drown out the voices of ordinary members of minorities – and this is by design. We can’t have minorities thinking for themselves or just being individuals.
If you’re a writer or any kind of artist or thinker, you can’t let these people get inside your head and block your work.
If you’re a member of a minority or other historically oppressed group – you are not a member of a Borg-like collective, and you are not obliged to write according to the expectations of a grifting middle-class activist class.
The definition of freedom for minorities should include the definition to be yourself and not a footsoldier for the left, the right, or anyone else.
I see a lot of fear in the online writing community – fear of the bullies currently running riot. I see fear in publishing because activists have got themselves into positions of power – deliberately too because this is how ideologues capture organisations. Writers have been cancelled while rivals gloat and industry professionals celebrate on the likes of Twitter.
The more time you spend on social media, the more you’re likely to have these toxic activist voices in your head. They will block your ability to produce your best work. They will prevent you from writing your own truth.
And meanwhile, you are likely anxious about what you post – going back to see if you’ve offended some complete stranger from thousands of miles away. This is another reason why people often break what they’re doing in the real world to check social media. And this leads to anxiety and being trapped on a neverending hamster wheel of social media posting and reading.
Is Twitter worth it?
I’ve blogged before on apps that are useful to help concentration and focus. But while social media’s attention engineering is hugely immoral, even impacting the human brain, the political aspect adds to the toxic mix. To be honest, I’m not sure a social media presence is all that worth it.
I recently temporarily deleted my Twitter account. And I have to say, I didn’t miss it. I used to temp delete previous accounts every so often, until I wondered why I bothered reactivating them. I was no longer getting anything out of them.
Twitter is particularly poor when it comes to engagement. The advice is to engage with other people’s posts – but this then circles back to the problem of how much time you’re willing to spend there.
And even if you are getting engagement as a writer, is it delivering on sales or boosting your readership? Or is your readership primarily other writers who buy your book in exchange for you buying theirs?
That sale might give you a dopamine hit, but how does too much social media actually help you grow readers who are not also writers?
Useful apps that give you back control
It’s not even that you necessarily have to give up social media completely. There may be platforms you find less time-consuming and also less stressful. You can also use apps to control your access.
I recently looked at more apps I hadn’t tried before. I find some of them extremely useful.
The most useful of all is a straight-out social media blocker like Cold Turkey which has both a free and a paid option. I’ve used the free one for years and it’s definitely worthwhile. There are others like Forest, which allows you to grow a virtual tree as an incentive to focus.
There’s also Delayed Gratification. This allows you to customise a list of sites where you can set up a 10-second or 20-second delay before you can access them. So, with Twitter, you could give yourself a 20-second delay that prevents you from immediately getting into the site. When you make things harder for yourself, it helps to break the habit.
There’s also UnDistracted which allows you to control your use of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, and Netflix. There is the option to block each of these sites, but you can also control whether you see the feed, the trending topics, recommended videos or followers, etc. With YouTube, you can force-direct to your subscriptions. Add in removal of the sidebar and recommended videos and you have fewer juicy videos to keep you distracted.
There’s also Insight by Freedom which allows you to track your time on various sites. The bar graphs might truly shock you when you check where you’ve been spending time. Freedom also has a social media blocker, but it’s not free, apart from the trial. Insight by Freedom is free on the Google Play Store as a Chrome extension.
There are many more useful apps. If you need to break your work time down into more manageable segments, you can use a Pomodoro timer.
Will I reinstate Twitter?
I was really in two minds about this. I felt better without it. I considered reinstating briefly and then temp deleting again since you only have up to 30 days before your account is gone forever.
I’ve often had my account locked to exercise control – I prefer using Twitter as a personal space rather than a town square.
But the noise of the town square is always there on my feed.
In the end, I decided to reinstate Twitter (reluctantly) and use the apps above and a blocker. I use these blockers for hours, days, or even weeks. Cold Turkey can’t be switched off. So, I have to be careful which sites I decide to block.
Unlike a lot of people, I don’t bother with social media on my phone. It’s only on my desktop that I have access. Mobile phones are a huge distraction for many people. Switch them off, remove social media from them, or put them in another room when you’re working.
Since I temp deleted Twitter I have read a bunch of books, spent more time in the garden, and bought myself a swimming costume.
However, I wanted to warn of one danger in blocking or deleting your worst sites – you will be tempted to scroll others instead. The real challenge is to take a step back from all scrolling and sites and start living more in the real world. And get more writing done too.
If you want to know more…
There are a lot of interesting videos on YouTube on the subject of ‘Why I quit social media‘.
Of course, being on YouTube means scrolling yet another site!
But you’ll see what people have to say about quitting for months or even a year or more. How their lives changed.
You’ll also see, particularly in the comments below, that many people who quit FB, Twitter, and Instagram choose to stay on YouTube, even though it too is designed to be addictive.
All I can say is, beware of YouTube. It’s another rabbit hole. I think it has a lot of amazing content, which is why so many people justify still using it. But it’s best to use it in a controlled fashion. I find it useful to access YouTube via my TV because then I treat it as an alternative to real television (which I have little to no interest in).
I also recommend checking out any talks Dr. Cal Newport gives on social media addiction. There are also whistleblowers from social media companies who have spoken out about the problems.
Otherwise, I have some openings in my developmental editing calendar. You can opt for an opening chapters edit, a manuscript critique, an advanced beta critique, or a full developmental edit.
Do you ever feel that you spend too much time online? Are you getting as much writing done as you’d like? Do you feel your attention span is suffering? Are your writing sessions fragmented by constantly checking social media?
For that matter, do you ever feel like you could do with a break from both social media and writing?
I’ve been thinking recently about the concept of pressing a reset button. Before social media, there were activities I engaged in regularly that have since fallen by the wayside. And before I joined Twitter, I was getting on with learning new tunes on my wire harp.
Sadly, Twitter put the kibosh on that. In fact, it set me back years. If I’d never gone on Twitter, I would have achieved a lot more. Not just in playing a musical instrument, but in working on my writing, taking rest breaks, and so much more. I used to watch a lot of foreign language films. But after reading stuff online I found I didn’t feel as eager to read subtitles anymore.
When I look back to the 1990s, the distractions of the 21st century just weren’t there.
And it’s not that the internet is completely a bad thing. If you have a hobby you want to take up, there’s loads of useful information. The problem is there’s so much information and options that it can be paralysing.
Social media blockers are great for silencing distractions, but they can also be frustrating in the short term. This is because the pull of social media takes time to resist. I’ve used a three-week blocker in the past – I got a lot more done in that period. Likewise, when I temporarily deleted my Twitter account for nearly 30 days, after the first week it seemed more of a relief than anything.
One thing I decided to try was mentally listing the things I liked doing as a kid. Then I crossed out anything that was no longer feasible or of interest. This took me back to playing a musical instrument, for one thing. It’s not that I want to be a performer. But I do think it’s a great way of switching off the chattier side of the brain. Armed with a wire-strung lyre a relative bought me for Christmas, I’ve been working on the kind of tunes I hope to get back to playing on my harp. The advantage of the lyre is it’s smaller and I keep it beside me when I’m at my desk.
If I want a few minutes break from editing, I pick up the lyre and practise the current tune.
I’m also trying to do more reading for pleasure. Reading fiction is part of my job, which sometimes makes it harder to read books for relaxation.
I’ve returned to daily walks. Sometimes I go out twice a day. There’s nothing like fresh air and exercise. There are other old interests and hobbies I’d like to revisit. But there’s always the same danger of ending up scattered and overloaded.
So, for now, I will pluck the strings of my new lyre and learn some new tunes.
Need a developmental edit or critique?
Otherwise, I am currently coming to the end of two edits, so there’s room in my schedule for new clients. If you fancy an advanced beta read, an opening chapters developmental edit, a full developmental edit, or a manuscript critique, drop me an email at email@example.com. I also edit novel outlines for those who want to plan out their book chapter by chapter before they write out the story in detail.