Reaching your writing zone is a process.
For the past two entries, I’ve been speaking about how to get “zoned in,” to reach that mental state where your writing time is the most productive and where the quality of your work is at its highest. This is commonly referred to as the writing zone. I spoke about the importance of getting rid of all external and internal distractions, and I suggested that you need to move into your writing zone slowly, often by performing writing exercises. Now comes the third step:
Step 3: Play.
Shakespeare once said “The play is the thing.” I think that he understood that playing with words, with ideas, with characters in opposition, was the key to writing well.
In Chick’s performance that I mentioned, Chick explored a number of different themes, sometimes running with one melody, sometimes another, perhaps discarding one after only a minute or two. He was like a writer trying to find his story.
Let me explain it: when you’re writing, you very often have a bunch of characters in conflict, but as you begin to write, you find that one of them feels more fascinating to you, more genuine and real than the others.
New writers will often complain at this point that a secondary character has taken over the story, yet I sometimes wonder if they haven’t really just found the true story, the one that feels deepest and most important to them. Many times the author in such cases is writing about a heroic character that is larger than life. The protagonist feels hokey and shallow. But when the writer begins exploring a minor character the tale comes to life.
(If this ever happens to you, consider whether to create a secondary story line with your secondary character, or restructure the novel from the beginning so that the secondary character does become your lead protagonist.)
As you play with the ideas for your story, you begin to discover the story that you most want to tell. Characters come alive, and you find yourself envisioning scenes that you never intended to include in your tale. Fresh new themes suggest themselves, and that requires even further departure from your original plans.
In short, it is not until we begin “playing” in the woods of our subconscious that we can find ourselves lost in them.
Many writers get this on some level, I think. A few years ago, a friend of mine was asked to critique a manuscript from an award-winning author that I admire. After a day or two, my friend came to me in frustration and said, “I don’t know how to critique this!” He showed me the manuscript, and I found that it consisted of about fifty “starts”—all opening scenes in different settings told from the point of view of different characters. I read the author’s note to my friend, and he simply asked, “Can you tell me which of these intrigues you the most?” So the author had well over a hundred pages that he spent just trying to find the start of his novel. In short, he was playing on the fringes of his own personal forest, struggling to find a path in.
Do you see how by allowing yourself to play, you can let your subconscious take over?
The subconscious mind, which resides in the right hemisphere of the brain in most people, spends a great deal of time trying to make sense of emotional issues. It’s constantly trying to help us resolve issues related to frightening images, powerful sexual urges, or unkind words. It tries to alert us to dangers that the conscious mind is too preoccupied to deal with. That’s what happens in humans. We have two brains connected by a little bundle of fibers, and so each of the brains works somewhat independently.
As artists, we’re trying to tap into the reservoir of wisdom locked in the creative part of our mind. But that can’t happen if we’re feeling stressed, if our subconscious is trying to deal with other issues. If it’s already working overtime, you’re not going to be able to get much out of it.
Now, I should mention that many writers find that they need some stress to get them working. Too many of us wait until after a deadline to really get involved in the writing process. That’s because at that point, the subconscious mind is ready to say, “Oh writing must be my priority now. Well, I’d better get to it.”
That works fine for us writers who are under contract for novels, but back when I was trying to break in, I found that deadlines weren’t particularly helpful. Still, some writers seem to accomplish more if they set goals for themselves. They might say, “I must finish this chapter by Saturday, or my life will have been wasted!” Or, “I must write twenty pages today, or I’ll never get this done.” Or “NaNoWriMo is here!”
So in order to avoid missing deadlines, I’m going to suggest that you begin your writing playfully, seeking to enjoy the process rather than to write only out of fear.
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
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