Getting Into the Writing Zone

News Flash!  This Saturday (11/21/15) I’m doing a book event for Curiosities at Page One Books here in Albuquerque.  Hope to see some of you there!

November is NaNoWriMo.   I don’t participate, but one thing I’ve noticed is that by mid-month many of those who do are feeling the pressure of trying to write a substantial amount every day.  After two weeks plus, with nearly as much time left to go, they’re wondering how to get into their writing zone, each day, every day.

The Writing Zone

The Writing Zone

Even people who aren’t formally participating in NaNoWriMo often feel the pressure to produce.  Write more. Write faster.  After all, they’re seeing that other people are doing so and wondering if they’re slackers.

(For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the short version is that NaNoWriMo encourages people to write a 50,000-word novel in a month.  Want to know more?  Here’s a link.)

I’m not going to talk about NaNoWriMo today.

What I’m interested in is chatting about how to get into your writing zone on a regular basis.  There are as many ways as there are writers, but I’ll share a couple.  I’d be interested in hearing what tricks you use to find your way into your creative space.

Instead of waiting for the Muse to come whisper in your ear, consider ways that you might invite her.  Environmental stimuli are often good.  Remember: Humans can be programmed for stimulus and response.  Don’t believe me?  Think about the last time you tried to break a habit.  Doing so takes more than simply giving up cigarettes or coffee or a favorite food.  Breaking a habit often means giving up or adapting those things you associated with that habit as well.

So, if you always have chocolate with your morning coffee, and are trying to give up chocolate, then you’re going to miss chocolate more when you sit down with the morning coffee.

When you’re trying to break a habit, the stimulus trigger is a horrible burden.  However, when you’re trying to acquire a habit – like writing every day – the same quirk of human nature can work in your favor.

I’ve known writers who create musical playlists to go with whatever story they’re working on.   When they want to get into the zone for that story, they queue up the songs.  In time, the playlist becomes the opening theme…  They hear the music and slip into the zone where the story lives.

I’ve never systematically used the music trick but, when I’m restless and unwilling to settle down, I’ll put on music that for one reason or another I associate with the piece.  Often there is no thematic relationship between the story and the songs.  When I started Artemis Awakening, I’d recently seen the film Velvet Goldmine.  I’d also picked up the soundtrack and listened to it quite a bit.  Although the works have nothing in common – Velvet Goldmine is set in England and deals with glam rock; Artemis  Awakening is set on a fictional planet and has absolutely nothing to do with music or glam or rocks – something in my brain linked the one with the other.

When I started writing Artemis Invaded, the sequel to Artemis Awakening, a certain amount of time had passed.  I’d written another novel in the middle.  However, I found that putting on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack put me back into the “Artemis” zone.

Other little rituals can help you find that zone.  I know one author who uses the solitaire game on her computer as a form of self-hypnosis.  She only plays the game before writing, so playing a game becomes a signal to her brain that she’s about to write.

Other writers use items of clothing, locations, or time of day to put them in the right mindset to write.

Of course, there’s a danger associated with any of these rituals.  If you become too dependent on them, you may be unable to find your zone without them.  I know one writer who absolutely had to write first thing in the morning or she would not write that day.  She might write for ten minutes, then go do something else, but if she didn’t get that early start, she had lost the day.

Determined to write and unable or unwilling to break that habit, she decided that she had to find a way around it.  Her solution for those days when she could not get to her computer was to grab a piece of paper and write longhand.  Later, transcribing that material would become a bridge that would take her back into the zone.

Interacting with prose can become a ritual of its own.  I know one prolific writer who begins his writing day by reviewing what he wrote the previous day.  He tightens and edits as he goes along.  This then takes him smoothly and naturally into new material.  It has the added benefit of polishing the prose, so when he finishes the piece, his rough draft is a bit less rough.

One thing I feel is important to remember is that NaNoWriMo – or those lists that encourage people to post how much they wrote that day, or that week, or other such activities that use the sense of belonging to a group to encourage the writer to write – will not work for everyone.

Production requirements are most useful for those people who benefit from the validation of a group or who have a competitive streak. I’ve known excellent writers who produce nothing at all for months, then go on a binge and write an entire novel in a relatively short time.  It wasn’t that these writers weren’t “working” during the time they would have been unable to report any words written.  It’s that their work took a less quantifiable form.

So, there are a few of my thoughts on getting into the zone.  I’d love to hear what tricks, gimmicks, incentives, or whatever you use to find your way into your personal creative zone.

4 Responses to “Getting Into the Writing Zone”

  1. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Great advice! And I’m seeing much more valuable info in your book, “Wanderings on Writing.” Thanks.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Hmm. I’ve learned again to be less worried about amount of text.

    A few years ago, I was all about getting 1,000 to 1,500 words out per day. Now, my chiropractor is my friend and I’ve got a much better writing chair, because I came close to crippling my neck, shoulders, and wrists. It’s worth remembering that humans are not evolved to be keyboard monkeys, and the QWERTY keyboard was designed by an engineer who used the layout to solve a typewriter design problem where the keys kept jamming. His solution was to put all the most-used keys around the edges of the board, so that even if they were struck simultaneously, they wouldn’t jam each other. The result is carpal tunnel syndrome if you’re not careful, or learning how to use a Dvorak keyboard (which is a nuisance, because it’s not easy to switch back and forth between layouts). I could rant on endlessly, but if you’re going to try to optimize yourself for word output, pay a lot of attention minimizing the stresses on your body. You want to be able to do this five years from now, too.

    As for writing, I can tell when I don’t have anything coherent to say, and I’ve learned not to push too hard trying write in that condition.

  3. Chris Krohn Says:

    That would be 11/21, not 10/21. This Saturday.

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