Being a Better Writer: Getting in the Zone

Welcome back, all, to another Monday! I’ve got to type fast with this post, as I’ve got another shift at my part-time today. This time, it’s in the afternoon rather than the morning, however, so as long as I keep my fingers moving, you’re getting a Monday post! Really quick, however, before I get started: some quick news updates!

Jungle is currently sitting at about 190,000 words (check the “Current Projects” page) and is over 50% done! The only part that saddens me about this is how long it has taken me—now I fully see the effect of working part time and trying to write a book: I just don’t have the same amount of time. I’ve been cutting back personal time, however, and gotten my monthly goals back on a somewhat reduced track … but it still sucks, because I’d really like to finish up Jungle and get started on the editing for Shadow of an Empire so that I can get that out by the end of the year. Granted, I could just stop writing massive epics … but what’s the fun in that?

Discord Day Care, meanwhile, is almost ready to go up. I’m going through the last stages of Beta right now, giving it the final polishing touches. That just leaves me with a cover to find, and to get it all uploaded and ready to post. The publishing schedule for the story, I have decided, will follow the timeline of the story itself. Each chapter will be published as it occurs in the story, in real-time. The only thing that won’t match up will be the dates. I debated back and forth about the best way to do this, but concluded that for Day Care, a publishing schedule like this one should work best. So be excited, it’s almost here at last!

Just a bit more, I promise, then we’ll dive into this week’s topic. First, last month’s Patreon supporter post was a pretty in-depth look back on the origins of my first book, One Drink. It’s something I’ve meant to do for a while now, and yes, for those of you supporting me on Patreon, you can expect in-depth retrospectives on each of my other works to make their way to you as time moves on. Those of you who are not Patreon supporters, it’s only a $1-pledge to become one, and you’ll get access to some behind-the-scenes stuff and previews. Plus, you get the satisfaction that your dollar helps support content like Being a Better Writer!

Now, last, I swear, and then we’ll be on topic: The Rolling Sale. No defined date on this one yet. I’m still working out some details. But the general idea is that it will be a month-long or so event, starting with One Drink and stretching up to Colony. The general idea will be that the first title in the chain will go on sale, alongside an announcement of tiers for the next sale. The more copies go out, the deeper the discount on the next book in the chain. Ditto for when the sale shifts to that title. Kind of a “the more people take advantage of this, the better it gets for everyone” angle.

Right, that’s all the news. Now on to today’s topic: getting in the zone.

So I’m fairly certain that some of you may be scratching your head over this title … and that’s partially my fault. After all, there are a lot of “zones” authors tend to get into when writing. There’s getting in the character’s heads. There’s getting into the world so it feels like we’re living and breathing it. And there’s even just hitting our stride and typing out endless chains of smooth sentences that come together to build the perfect paragraph. Technically, there are a lot of zones in writing.

But today, I’ve going to talk about the most general ones. This is, actually, a requested topic from a reader who wanted a bit of advice on this matter. I don’t recall their exact, word-for-word question, but it went a little something like this: When you sit down in the morning and get ready to write, how do you get yourself into the mindset to write? How do you clear your head? How do you pull yourself away from the rest of the world and immerse yourself in whatever fantastical world you’re putting together?

And … the truth is, this time, that there’s actually a magic bullet.

I know, right? Every time I answer one of these common questions, I always have to say that there’s no “magic bullet.” But in this case, there actually is.

However, that doesn’t mean it should be your first resort. Magic bullet or not, it is a tough pill to swallow for some … and actually does take some skill to use. Okay, so maybe it’s not as magical as we’d hoped. It still is, mind, just not as magical as “This one thing will fix all your porblems, click here!” And yes, that was an intentional typo.

Point being, there are some things one can do to make the magic bullet easier, or maybe even unnecessary. Different tricks and tools you can take advantage of when you sit down to write that will make things easier. These aren’t in any particular order, mind, as some will find different levels of success with each one. But if you’re having trouble getting in the zone, give some of these techniques a shot and see how you do.

Remove Distractions
I know this one almost sounds obvious, but it’s harder than it sounds, especially today. Modern culture, as of the moment I’m writing this, is heavily skewed towards short bursts of frequent entertainment or distraction. Cell phones, internet tabs … We’ve given ourselves almost Pavlov-like conditioning to immediately drop what we’re doing and take a moment to do something else or go browsing the web when we’re bored.

You want to get in the zone? Don’t do this. Because it will break getting in the zone. When you’re sitting down to write, you need to keep your mind on what you’re writing rather than what photo your friend is posting on your facebook wall. Writing out a story involves a tremendous amount of mental effort—there’s a lot of material to keep track of. When you’re writing, you should be juggling word choice with catching any mistakes your fingers or mind might be making, keeping track of what each character in a scene is thinking, how said scene fits into the overall narrative, whether or not you’ve brought up the key points the current scene needs to have, what the audience’s view of everything will be … and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That’s quite a bit of material to keep track of. Now, imagine that you’re trying to get all that in mind so that you can be “in the zone” … and then every two or three minutes you’re clicking away to see if Facebook has updated, or there’s a new post to read on Reddit, or something similar.

This is … harder than it sounds. Even I have to catch myself sometimes, reminding myself that I’m in the middle of a scene, and if I jump away, I’ll lose my momentum and have to rediscover it. I tell myself “You can check the forum when you’re done with this scene” and then I refocus my efforts on the task at hand.

So, are you just starting out for the day and trying to get yourself into the zone? Remove your distractions so that you can focus on the task at hand. One thing I do, for example, is check all my feeds (news, etc) before I start writing for the day. In the morning I get caught up on everything while I have breakfast, and then I get to work. This way, I’m not wondering about what’s going on in the world. I’ve already checked. And, freed from that sense of curiosity, I can focus on the task at hand and let myself get pulled into my world.

Find what works for you. Some authors actually go so far as to disable web-browsers during their writing time, or shut off their phones. But find what pulls your attention away from writing and do what you can to mitigate it. Another example in my case would be my roommates talking. My solution was a very nice set of noise-blocking (not canceling) headphones that are quite effective at masking noise even at low volumes, reducing their conversations to low rumbles my brain won’t try to focus on. I don’t listen to music with lyrics, either, because I find my mind focuses on those rather than the words I’m writing.

Remove your distractions. Find what pulls you away from writing, what you gravitate toward instead of putting fingers to keyboard, and cut yourself off.

Keep a Schedule
This is another, very effective way to get in the zone. I know many professional authors who swear by it, and many amateur as well. But it’s straightforward and simple. First, make a schedule. Second, stick to it!

There. You’re done. Moving on …

Okay, I kid, let’s talk about this for a moment. Remember above where I mentioned Pavlov training making you check your phone or your favorite website? Well, this is using that same level of conditioned response to your benefit.

It works in a pretty simple fashion. Sit down and work out your weekly schedule, and find a time of day, or a day, or something on a set interval that you can set aside for writing and writing only. It can be anything that works for you, but the trick here is that you want it to be regular. Frequent. Daily, if possible, but at the same time each time, or at the same moment (IE, after I finish this daily thing, like lunch, I sit down and start writing). Preferably, if possible, attach a goal to it (like write 500 words before being allowed to stop).

Then stick to it. Even when you don’t want to. Keep the schedule up. Why? So you can make it a habit.

See, once it’s a habit, your body and mind slip into it and will start adapting to it. For example, these BaBW posts are a Monday thing for me, right? That means the first thing I do each Monday morning is start working on another one of these. But for me, it’s become habitual. Sunday night, I don’t have to remind myself that I have a post to make the next morning. My brain is already on it, thinking over the topics, picking one, starting to mentally “get in the zone” … all without me really being conscious about it. Those Mondays where I have a work shift and postpone BaBW? They feel off. Wrong. Because my mind is going “Hey! What are you doing? Aren’t you supposed to be doing something else?”

That? That’s being in the zone. And I’m in it because I’ve made a habit of my work. Which is why if you’re struggling to get “into the zone,” building a set time and schedule to just sit down and write can really help. It may not at first (and you may struggle to keep with it), but as you continue to force yourself to sit down and do it (like say … 500 words before bed), your body will gradually sink into a Pavlov-reflex sort of habit. Not immediately—it may take a few weeks—but it will. And then you’ll find yourself in a situation where you finish whatever it was before writing time, or come to that time of day, and your body and mind will say “Hey! It’s time to write!” And when you listen, you’ll find that you’re ready to go.

Make a schedule, and make it a habit. You’ll find yourself getting in the zone quicker than ever before.

Side note: Other things can help make a writing habit. I, for example, listen to music when I write, and that’s sort of a mental kick of “You’re working now, get to it!” that helps.

Make Some Goals—And Reward Yourself Too!
If there’s one mistake that I could say a lot of young writers make when sitting down and trying to be writers, it’s that they don’t establish goals for themselves.

The reasons vary. Some argue that they feel “pressured” when they set goals for themselves, and they don’t want to feel pressured. Others say that not meeting goals is disheartening, and makes them want to quit. Others that they feel goals like “write X words before stopping” force them only to write words and not care about what they write (cheating, in other words) or that they’ll stop the moment they hit the goal and not go further. Others that they don’t feel like they can reward themselves, so why try?

And I’ve got just one thing to say to this: Suck it up, buttercup, and deal with it. If any of those concerns are legitimately enough to stop you from writing, then writing will never be something you do as a career or even a side job. It will forever remain at most a hobby that you dabble in and touch upon, rather than something demanding effort, time, and consideration.

All those reasons that some people give for as to why they don’t have goals? Those are the same reasons goals work.

Yes, goals provide pressure. They’re an incentive. They invite you to look at what you’ve accomplished and realize “Oh, crud, I could have done better.” They’re there to measure yourself by, to see how you can improve, or even just to push yourself to improve by slowly moving your goals upwards. They’re something you look at throughout your “work period” to get yourself back on track.

This comes with some additional catches, however. When you set out to set goals, you need to keep two things in mind. First, you need to make them measurable. Don’t pick something that you can’t quantify somehow. Second, it needs to be something that is actually an example of your work. I say this because I once knew another writer who’s only goal was “X amount of hours spent a day having ‘writing’ time.” I put ‘writing’ in those little quotes because … Well, it didn’t work. Did they write? Yes. A little. The problem was that their goal was “Have X hours of writing time …” but nowhere in there was an actual number outside of “time” quantified. The result? This individual would spend eight hours ‘writing’ … six of it spent playing games or watching Youtube. They still published … but at a rate so slow about the only author they were keeping ahead of would be GRRM. And, since they bragged about their wordcount, I quickly found that what they accomplished in over a week was generally my wordcount for a day or two.

There were other issues present, sure, but one of the big ones there was that they weren’t actually measuring anything that mattered. All they cared about was the amount of hours their butt was in the seat in front of their computer … and not what they actually did during that time. That wasn’t measured at all. When you set goals, they need to be goals that give you measurable results, results you can look at, understand, and then see how to improve.

You also need to keep goals realistic. Do not sit down and expect yourself to become the next “most prolific” author out there overnight. In order for goals to work, they need to be reachable for you. What you want is goals that you can reach with a little extra effort, and once that extra effort stops being extra, and just normal effort, then you can stretch again until you find your plateau.

For example, when I first started writing as a dedicated, daily thing, I decided to set a word-count goal. Having done a lot of English classes in college, I knew I could pump out at least 2000 words in a day … but I also knew that that was in bursts, not regularly. So I spent a day or two just writing a comfortable amount, looked at it, and started my daily goal at 1000 words.

This lasted about two … maybe three weeks? By that time, I was beating it fairly reliably, so I upped my number, first to 1250, then to 1500. Then I kept upping it.

Eventually I hit 5000 … only to decide after a week or so that it was a little too much, and that 4000 was perfectly fine. I can do 5000 a day … but it mostly depends on conditions. 4000 was much more realistic. I do have a “low quota” of 3000 for days when something’s just not rolling right, but overall, 4000 a day is what I’ve worked my way up to.

Now, if I had not kept the pressure on myself by constantly upping my goals as I exceeded them, would I be where I am now? No. No I would not. I used my goals to push myself further, and I knew I could go further because I had dedicated, measurable methods of tracking my progress and determining how far along that path I was.

Now, I’m not saying you need to adopt my particular goals, or even that they are right for you. But having set goals when you sit down to write is something that can help you get in the zone and stay in it, since you’ll have a tangible reminder of “I need to accomplish this” right there. Something that you can track and measure, that will be just enough of a stretch to motivate you to push forward and do a little more each time.

Now, before I move on, what about those other concerns against goals, such as concerns that they’ll focus too much on the goal, and not enough on the writing, or that they can’t reward themselves and they’ll feel sad about that? Well, for the first who cares? You’ll be writing. And trust me, if you think you’re going to pull some “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” shenanigans to pad your goals, well … you’ll find really fast that that’s incredibly dull. If you’re forcing yourself to write, congrats! You’re writing, rather than staring at a screen daydreaming of that story you’ll write “someday.” And as for the last? Again, suck it up, buttercup. Writing’s not an easy job. Right now, I can’t afford to reward myself very often for meeting my goals. Oh well. I still get the sense of satisfaction for reaching them. As for being sad because you didn’t meet them. Again, suck it up. Writing is full of ups and downs. If you cannot deal with not meeting goals, and that is enough to push you away from writing even if you reanalyze your goals … you are not a writer. You’re a hobbyist. Keep it a hobby.

Set goals. They’ll remind you of the mindset you need to be in, and encourage you to stay in it as you work.

Reread!
Okay, so some of these that we’ve talked about (okay, maybe all of them so far) have been pretty big. Goal setting, forming habits, schedules … that’s stuff that’s pretty impactful on your life. What about something that’s a bit simpler?

Simple. Just reread some of your prior work.

No, I’m not kidding. There are actually quite a few authors that do this as they sit down to work. Sometimes I even do it to get myself back into the swing of things (such as after a weekend, or when writing a complex scene). Just open up what you’re working on, jump a couple of paragraphs, or pages, or whatever, back, and start reading until you’re caught up.

Short. Simple. And surprisingly very effective. It reminds your mind of where you were, what was going on, and hopefully gets you thinking about what’s coming up next.

The Magic Bullet
All right, this is it. We’ve discussed a bunch of options for getting in the zone. Now let’s discuss the most wanted of all, the one that every young author hopes for. The magic bullet. You ready? You want to know what will help get you into the zone more than anything else? The ultimate solution? Well, here it is:

Sit down and write.

What? I didn’t say a bullet wouldn’t hurt. But this is the honest truth.

You see, too often when someone asks this question, the problem isn’t that they’re not in the zone. It’s that they won’t let themselves get into it. They bother themselves with other things. They get distracted. They tell themselves “I’m not in the zone right now, conditions have to be just right” or some other form of nonsense. The truth is that they just need to sit down and start writing and not stop. What’s holding them back is the work itself: They’re not doing it. And if they just sit down and do it … they’ll find that they’ll slip into the zone before long.

There’s the magic bullet. Sitting down and doing rather than thinking on it and wasting time. It’s taking the bull by the horns and realizing that your muse may be on a coffee break until there’s actually something to act upon.

This is what makes the difference between a writer and a hobbyist. The writer sits down and writes. The hobbyist waxes philosophical about the need of putting words on a page, checks Facebook, and then makes lunch. The magic bullet … is work. Plain and simple. The writer spends time at their keyboard writing, and at the end of the day, even if some of it is garbage that’ll be cut during editing, or rewritten, or whatever … They got something done. They’re that many steps closer to success. The writer understands that failure, that a bad chapter, or a section that needs a rewrite—perhaps even a whole draft of a novel—is just part of the job, part of the experience, and something they learn from.

Summary Time!
So, you want to get in the zone? There are a lot of things that can help you with that. Remove your distractions. Set yourself a schedule and keep to it. Set some goals, and keep those too. Go over what you did the day before.

But at the end of the day? Just knuckle down and get to work. Make yourself write. Ignore the excuses. Ignore the distractions. Take the missteps with the proper ones. Grit your teeth and write.

So, what are you waiting for! That next project is waiting. All you need to do is get started on it.

Good luck. Now get writing. See you next week.

 

 

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