Focus like a Cougar to Finish Your Book

Writing a book is an in­tense, chal­len­ging and re­ward­ing pro­cess. But if you’re work­ing on a big pro­ject and the dead­line is loom­ing, the in­tense and chal­len­ging as­pect can be overwhelming.

That’s how I felt last fall as I struggled to fin­ish The Cougar: Beautiful, Wild and Dangerous. I had so much fas­cin­at­ing in­form­a­tion! How could I pos­sibly con­dense it into suit­able ma­nu­script length by March 31?

Then I read an art­icle about ac­com­plish­ing goals in the Mayo Clinic news­let­ter. The three main points were:

1. Clarity of fo­cus. The best nev­er lose sight of the goal. The event is circled on the cal­en­dar. As the count­down be­gins, all activ­it­ies are dir­ec­ted to­ward that date.

2. Tunnel vis­ion. This means hav­ing the cour­age not to ac­cept an en­gage­ment or even re­spond to an email that doesn’t ad­vance the goal.

3. Intense com­mit­ment. Distractions must be elim­in­ated. That in­cludes cut­ting back on non­es­sen­tial ob­lig­a­tions. It also means hav­ing the dis­cip­line to walk away from people who are neg­at­ive and un­sup­port­ive.

I prin­ted those guidelines out and put them on my desk where I would see them every day. In or­der to ac­com­plish what I needed to do with­in the time avail­able, I cre­ated monthly, weekly and daily goals. It might sound scary, but it kept me on track!

Taking my com­mit­ment one step fur­ther, I set up my laptop in an up­stairs bed­room. That way I wasn’t dis­trac­ted by Rick, the dog or the ringing of the phone. And I didn’t have ac­cess to the in­ter­net and email un­less I used my PC down­stairs. It’s amaz­ing how much time that saved!

Some de­cisions were dif­fi­cult. I lim­ited get to­geth­ers with friends and, even though Bailey got a walk every day, there weren’t as many of the long, off leash romps on the beach that we both en­joy. Of course, none of this would have been pos­sible without an un­der­stand­ing and sup­port­ive partner.

A cougar focuses on its prey with intense concentration, never shifting its gaze even when circling around or changing position.
A cou­gar fo­cuses on its prey with in­tense con­cen­tra­tion, nev­er shift­ing its gaze even when circ­ling around or chan­ging position.

Cougars are known for their in­tense fo­cus so every day I told my­self to “fo­cus like a cou­gar.” I of­ten asked my­self, “Does this have any­thing to do with cou­gars?” If the an­swer was no, I made a note to deal with it after I sent the ma­nu­script in.

And yes! I made my dead­line, right on March 31. The Cougar will be in stores near the end of Sept.

Will I use the Mayo Clinic guidelines again? You bet! They’re ex­cel­lent strategies for fin­ish­ing a book, art­icle or thes­is. Or whatever else your goal is, be it train­ing for a mara­thon, los­ing ten pounds in two months or be­com­ing a millionaire.





Writing the first sentence of a book

Eighteen months ago I shif­ted my fo­cus to cou­gars, the sub­ject of my next book. After a peri­od of in­tense re­search, I began or­gan­iz­ing all the in­form­a­tion I’d gathered.

It was an im­mense job that in­volved sort­ing through a Bankers Box full of files and an equally massive amount of in­form­a­tion saved on my hard drive. And then one day it was done.

What now?” I wondered. Then it hit me: it was time to start writ­ing the book.

But how? I knew what I wanted to say but what about that all im­port­ant first sen­tence? I searched my mind. All I found was an im­age of the Sahara desert, a totally empty land­scape stretch­ing into in­fin­ity. Just like the blank screen on my computer.

A knot of pan­ic formed in my chest. Breaking the house­hold rule of not in­ter­rupt­ing each oth­er when we’re writ­ing, I rushed into Rick’s of­fice. “It’s time to start writ­ing my book and I don’t know what to do,” I announced. 

It hap­pens to me every time I write an art­icle,” he replied then con­tin­ued tap­ping away on his keyboard.

I trudged back up­stairs and shuffled some pa­pers around on my desk. I called my mom. I made a cup of tea. I changed the wa­ter in the dog’s bowl. And then I laughed. I was em­ploy­ing the old­est writ­ing trick in the world – procrastination.

My brain is sharpest in the morn­ing and by then it was late af­ter­noon so I let my­self off the hook for the day. The next was filled with er­rands down­town but the day after that…I had to start the book.

I wondered how I’d ever found the elu­sive first sen­tences of my oth­er books. To be per­fectly hon­est, at that mo­ment, I had no idea. The whole concept of writ­ing the first sen­tence of a book seemed daunt­ing, per­haps impossible.

People new to the craft of writ­ing of­ten ask me for ad­vice. So I asked my­self what I’d tell them about start­ing a book. At least that was a ques­tion I could an­swer. “Just jump in and do it,” I’d say. “Don’t worry about it too much, you can al­ways change it later. Something will come to you eventually.”

And the next morn­ing, while I was walk­ing the dog, it did.

Heavily fall­ing snow covered our boot prints al­most as soon as we made them. The fat white flakes, the forest around us and the ar­rival of twi­light meant vis­ib­il­ity was fad­ing fast. And right in front of us, filling with snow as we stared, were the large foot­prints of a cougar….

It might not be per­fect and would prob­ably change over time. But, at last, I had a way in. I could start the book.

Making your book dream a reality


Sometimes it seems like every­one I talk to wants to write a book. I’ve lost count of the num­ber of people who’ve told me they have a great idea; all they need is the time, mo­tiv­a­tion, a new laptop or some oth­er little thing that will al­low them to cre­ate the next best­selling nov­el or the defin­it­ive world history.

And, you know, some of the ideas I hear would make good books. So why haven’t they been writ­ten? Motivation is a primary reas­on, I’m sure. It’s hard to get up an hour early or to skip your fa­vour­ite TV pro­gram to work on a ma­nu­script. But some people do it. What gives them the will to park them­selves in front of their key­board and write in­stead of just talk­ing or dream­ing about it?

For most folks there’s a de­fin­ing mo­ment when they de­cide to go for it and do their best to be­come a pub­lished au­thor. A couple of years ago Chevy Stevens (the pen name of Rene Unischewski) was work­ing as a real es­tate agent in Nanaimo. But she wanted to write a book. 

I figured if I was go­ing to do it, now would be the time,” she said in an in­ter­view with the Nanaimo Daily News. “It’s a lot harder years later, es­pe­cially if you’re mar­ried and have children.”

So Chevy quit her job, sold her house and lived off her sav­ings for two years. When she’d writ­ten the best nov­el she could, she hired a pro­fes­sion­al ed­it­or to help her make it even better.

Stevens was will­ing to take some big risks but they res­ul­ted in an agent, a con­tract and a book that made the New York Times Bestseller List and is cur­rently op­tioned for a movie.

For Comox Valley res­id­ent, Harold Macy, it was dif­fer­ent. He’s writ­ten scores of short stor­ies and won nu­mer­ous awards for them. But he wanted to write a book.

About six years ago he began a fiction/​nonfiction hy­brid based on his ex­per­i­ences as a for­est­er. He’d write and re­write and, on oc­ca­sion, take his ma­nu­script to work­shops to get feed­back and hone his craft.

Eventually Harold knew his ma­nu­script was as ready as it would ever be. He also knew he’d be 65 soon and wanted his book pub­lished soon­er rather than later. So he in­vest­ig­ated his op­tions and de­cided to self-pub­lish. The Four Storey Forest, which in­cludes a dust jack­et blurb from award-win­ning au­thor Jack Hodgins, is sched­uled for re­lease this May.

I met Harold 25 years ago at a writ­ing re­treat at Strathcona Park Lodge. That was my wa­ter­shed mo­ment. I’d had a few arti­cles pub­lished but, like every­one else, I wanted to write a book.

Getting away from the ob­lig­a­tions and dis­trac­tions of daily life and spend­ing time with like-minded people opened my mind to the pos­sib­il­it­ies of what I could do — if I was pre­pared to work at it. And re­ceiv­ing feed­back from pub­lished au­thor, Bill Valgardson, was invaluable.

What did you do – or what will it take for you — to make your book dream a reality?