There are times as a writer which are joyous in the extreme.
In ways which are often hard to describe to a non-writer, the act of writing can take one into a different world - not a fantasy construction like Middle-earth (though that happens too) but a kind of trance in which reality seems not less solid but in some strange way more real. When we are ‘in the zone’ as writers, it is as though we have engaged some other set of perceptions and are able to make connections which, in our more mundane existences, would not only never have occurred to us, they would have perhaps seemed crazy.
That’s at times, though. For much of the rest of the time, writing can seem like a laborious process of connecting dots which we thought at one point would link up to form a cohesive and recognisable shape but which now we sometimes struggle to see any meaning in at all. In fact, a major part of why writers procrastinate so much is because they are not sure how to get ‘into the zone’ and dread the alternative drudge-state of labouring with something apparently meaningless. This is also why the presence ‘the Muse’ has come to be an accepted requirement among many before any kind of worthwhile writing can be accomplished; it’s also why some writers (and other artists) turn to drugs of various kinds. That ‘in the zone’ state can be elusive. It doesn’t seem to be at one’s conscious beck and call. Whether or not we reach its heights seems to depend on luck.
But that isn’t inevitably so.
Bringing out the best in your writing isn't necessarily something you can or should leave to chance.The truth is that there are specific things that can be done to bring the zone closer. They take a certain amount of conscious creativity, but the rewards can be tremendous and long-lasting.
Here are some of them:
1. Observe Your Environment
Writers, perhaps more than some people (due to a lifestyle built around orderly routines which must be kept in place for any writing to get done at all) can become very 'fixed' when it comes to observing the world around them. Objects and places in the house, the street or on journeys to frequently visited spots can develop a sort of 'sheen of sameness' through the prolonged habit of viewing them from the same distance and angles. Writers are often almost literally ‘glued’ to screens or notebooks which are held consistently at the same distance from their faces; the most used sense is vision through the eye; the most regular position is sitting down (though Winston Churchill apparently wrote his vast History of the Second World War standing up at a raised writing table). A writer’s mind, in this sense, is not challenged or re-directed too often and can fall into a kind of cosiness with its environment which does not encourage its imaginative aspects to fire up.
Next time you go out, or even inside the house, consciously observe specific things some distance away or close at hand which you may not have noticed before: a tree on the horizon; the colour of a neighbour’s door; a stain on the road. Watch the clouds and see if you can see shapes in them; look at your shoes and try to find something about them which you haven’t noticed previously.
If you do this for even a small amount of time, you may begin to notice a change in yourself which is initially disguised as a change in your environment.
Similar to the above, pick a patch of garden or outside area of some sort, about a square yard or metre in size.
Observe it closely and see if you can see these things: lines, shapes, different colours and textures, anything moving, anything still, and so forth.
Also, in a period of about five minutes, see how many sounds you can hear and how many smells can you detect.
Apart from heightening your attention to detail, these little drills may reawaken the senses that you hardly ever use as a writer. One additional benefit to this is that, on returning to your story, you may be encouraged to add in sensory experiences for the reader.
You'll probably be amazed at what a square yard of space and ten minutes of time can contain.
3. Adventurise the Mundane
To most children, everything can be an adventure. Even going to the shops can be a voyage to excitement. But you can make your own life much more interesting by framing as much as you can as an 'adventure'. Don’t just ‘go to the shops’, journey on a Grocery Shopping Adventure; instead of regarding the trip to the dentist as a potentially painful inconvenience and interruption, think of it as a quest. Even going upstairs in your home, if remodelled to be a mountain expedition, can have the effect of casting a net of magic over an otherwise ordinary, everyday activity. Regard ‘mundanity’ as a blank page upon which you are going to dramatise a story.
At first this might seem exhausting. ‘Injecting my imagination into ordinary events? I’m already drained by trying to do that in my fiction!’ some might protest. But that’s just a ‘wall’ which you can eventually push through. The reward? Everything mundane can suddenly seem charged with the extraordinary. This has two effects: it can revitalise and re-energise you mentally, but it can also, by a peculiar osmosis, filter into your story-telling. Scenes in your fiction which seemed mundane may now be brought to life in unexpected ways.
Practical advice here, which I’ve given to children in other books: leave reams of blank paper and a copious supply of brightly coloured pens around the house. When you have a thought, scribble it down there and then.
But even more than that, don’t write words: sketch drawings and diagrams. ‘But I can’t draw!’ some may complain. That doesn’t matter - the sketches and lines and circles and scribbles are for you alone. You only have to ‘know how to draw’ if you’re trying to convince someone else that something which you have committed to paper represents something - but here there is only you.
Diagrams and quick sketches can help you work out aspects of your fiction.
You will gain confidence and be happier (as well as potentially developing talents in this field).
5. Ease Off on Criticism
Writers tend to be a highly self-critical lot.
Without even waiting for reviews, or feedback from editors or publishers, a majority of writers will be trawling over their own work finding things that are ‘wrong’ with it even before it is completed.
Try not to jump on any errors you make. Too much criticism, even very little criticism, can result in you feeling blunted and negated rather than in any kind of improvement in your work. Most mistakes that writers make are by accident. Don't make a big deal out of them. That might be easier said than done, but the next step should help.
6. Keep Charts
Word counts, getting ready for editing, getting pages done, accomplishing targets - you can have charts for just about all of them. The trick is to keep the charts short and packed with rewards. Draw up a colourful grid - the more colourful the better- and have four or five columns showing the things you want to accomplish. Word these creatively: instead of ‘2,000 words' try ‘2,000 magical half-telepathic symbol packages’; instead of ‘Complete second draft' try 'Magic away further obstacles to the transmission of my message to readers'. Don't overload the chart - a list of 17 items will rapidly become unworkable. 5 or 6 is better.
Then load the thing up with rewards for yourself for whenever the things get done. Make sure that there are plenty of rewards! You'll soon find that making progress can be fun. Once a chart gets tired, reinvent it, rewording the items accordingly.
7. Build In Time Off
Writers, like children and almost everyone else, respond well to a balanced schedule. By all means plan your writing-related activities in great detail, but make sure you allow some 'recovery time' between them when you can go and do something not writing-related. Free time allows your imagination to recharge and review. Try not to interrupt this free time unless you have to.
Writers tend to spend a lot of time indoors or engaged in particular routines and can easily get bored, resentful and resistive. ‘Writer’s block’ could be said to be an accumulation of smaller blocks, stops, interruptions and impositions until your mind gets 'frozen' like a crashed computer screen.
A short, manageable walk, even if it is to the local shops or around the block, can help to re-orientate your world. You will generally become more cheerful and animated. This can act to clear your mind a little and will usually make you feel stronger and more confident. For some reason, going for a walk also improves communication between you and your imagination, and so makes that imagination easier to persuade when it comes to those things that need doing.
It’s unlikely that you’ll ever find the ‘On/Off’ switch for the ‘zone’, but the above drills should help you at least get more causative over your writing.
There are plenty more things you can do too, but that's enough for now.