Into the Zone

Last week, a reader named Shona sent me the following question.

Ogapoge in the Cuteness Zone

“I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.
I’ve had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there.  I do take pleasure in writing.  However, it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Thank you!”

Although I gave Ms. Shona a short answer at the time, I kept thinking about what she’d asked and decided to pursue the matter further.  After all, it’s a rare writer who doesn’t find himself or herself struggling to get into the zone at one time or another.

My short reply ran as follows:  “Sometimes I play a game of solitaire. Sometimes I go back and read the paragraphs leading up to where I plan to start. No one trick!

“Please remember. If you end up starting, then those ten to fifteen minutes aren’t wasted. They’re only wasted if you don’t start writing.”

There are as many rituals writers use to get themselves into the writing zone as there are writers.  Some are purely practical.  Some are almost mystical.  Some writers use one sort, some the other, some blend both types.  I’ll say right off, I fall into the “both” category.

One of the best of the practical “get into the zone” rituals is to go back and re-read what you wrote during your previous session.  This not only reminds you where you were when you stopped, it gives you an opportunity to polish and refine.

Wait!  I hear you say.  What if I haven’t written anything?  What if I’m trying to get started on something new?

Well, I’m going to assume you had an idea for a story or you wouldn’t be writing it.  Since you can’t review, why not try one of a variety of brainstorm exercises?  Freewriting is pretty much what it sounds like.  I prefer to do it on a sheet of paper with a pen, but you can also do it on a computer.  Without any attempt at providing a good opening or clever characterization, take that idea and just start writing.  Feel free to talk to yourself as you do so.

Idea.  Princess knows her sister’s latest suitor has been turned into a frog by an evil sorcerer.  She must save him, which will involve kissing him, because that’s how enchanted frogs are traditionally turned back.  Why her and not her sister?  After all, sister would be a princess, too.  Maybe sister is a coward?  Maybe princess one is better with magic?  Yes.  I like that.  Okay.  Princess one is better with magic.  Her sister is pretty much a waste of air, but she’s the heir apparent, so princess one feels she must help her.   (The previous paragraph owes a cheerful debt to Frogkisser, a novel by Garth Nix.)

A variation on freewriting which doesn’t even require you to write in sentences or sentence fragments is to write down scattered words.  Princess.  Enchanted Frog.   Find and kiss.  Boring.  Been done.  Variation?  De-enchant through magic.  No love.  Duty.

The same tricks can work when you get stuck in the middle of a project, maybe because you can’t find the right name or word or whatever.  Give yourself permission to be less than perfect and just get the ideas down.  Take a break and do the research or world-building you were putting off while the idea was “hot” and you were writing as fast as you could to get the basic bones in place.

All of these are practical suggestions, but since writing is a creative process, many writers need to put themselves into a “creative” zone – a mental space a little bit different from the world of daily concerns, like getting dinner on the table, or cleaning up after the cat, or whatever.

Music is one way to do this.  Some writers – Carrie Vaughn and Charles de Lint both spring immediately to mind – even construct “playlists” for a given book or story.  Playing these in the background puts them into the world of the book.  I don’t do anything as systematic as constructing a playlist, nor do I always listen to music but, sometimes, when I’m feeling slow music is a good way to perk myself up.  If I’m distracted by some concern, music can occupy the part of my brain that otherwise would be fussing, freeing me up to write.

Other times a simple game like solitaire can provide just a few minutes in which to hypnotize yourself out of the daily world, into the world of your story.

What doesn’t help a writer get into the zone is checking e-mail, chatting on social media, or doing other things that pull you out of your creative zone and into the outside world.  Take care that research (which I mentioned above as a possible way to stimulate) doesn’t become an outside activity, rather than one that carries you deeper into the zone.  I’ve heard many writers admit that a quick on-line search for one simple fact led to a wasted hour or more as they followed link to link to link, further and further away from what they actually needed.

I know at least two writers who have a “writing only” computer, unconnected to the net, because they know they need to be saved from temptation.  World-building can be similarly dangerous, especially if you are the type to get drawn into minutia.  I tend to save massive world-building sessions for when I’m feeling stale and overly focused on plot.  This different sort of writing encourages me to remember that a story is more than the plot elements of “this happened and then this and then this…”

So, practical or mystical or a bit of both?  Whatever you choose, remember this: If what you do to get yourself into the zone concludes with actual words being written – whether in the text of your story or something that will contribute to the story – then you haven’t wasted your time.

It’s only when the fine tuning, or the research, or the world-building, or the games of solitaire or choosing the right album, or whatever become what you do instead of writing that your time has been “wasted.”

I know we have a large number of writers who read these Wanderings.  I’m curious.  What do you do to get yourselves into the zone?

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