Are you in the writing zone yet?

I’ve been talking about how to reach that mental state where your work will be most productive. See part 3 here. I’ve suggested that you cut out all of the internal and external stimulus as you begin trying to get zoned. That you begin your writing each day with a writing exercise or two as you warm up, and that when you begin to write, that you do so playfully so that you don’t stress yourself out, thus breaking off communication with your subconscious mind. I introduced a metaphor before that I want to expand upon. I said, “It is not until we begin playing in the woods of our subconscious that we can find ourselves lost in them.” I want to expand upon that. I want to talk about how to live in the woods.

Step 4: Immerse yourself.

Once you have played, once you begin to find the story that most deeply delights or moves you, the job is easy. It often becomes a matter of recognizing the parts of a tale that you want to keep, that you want to build upon and embellish, and then discarding the rest.

For me, it becomes more of a matter of organizing the multitudinous ideas and scenes that begin flashing into my mind than it does struggling to find them. Yet at times I do have to stop and consciously brainstorm a scene, creating a piece of the puzzle that I hadn’t realized that I needed.

In short, I simply find my story and begin to hone it down here, embellish it there, telling it the best way that I know how.

As I do this, as I keep re-entering the forest of my subconscious, the job becomes easier. The reason is simple: if you make writing your priority, the creative half of your mind will begin to work on the task even while you’re sleeping. You see, the right and the left hemispheres of the brain don’t always rest at the same time. You might find that when you wake up in the morning, your subconscious has been working on scenes for you, composing dialog, inventing new plot twists.

When I go on writing retreats, I often track my progress. I’ve done this for the past ten years, and I can show you exactly how it grows. Here’s a ledge from a recent retreat:

Day 1—8 pages
Day 2—10 pages
Day 3—11 pages
Day 4—22 pages
Day 5—23 pages
Day 6—25 pages
Day 7—6 pages
Day 8—38 pages
Day 9—29 pages
Day 10—31 pages
Day 11—22 pages (plus 80 pages of revision)
Day 12—11 pages
Day 13—28 pages
Day 14—22 pages

I’ve noticed over the past several years that it takes a good three days of concentration before I begin really making headway on a new book. Please note that in this case, and in most cases, I go to my retreat with the book somewhat plotted, and often with bits of an outline.

By the end of the third day, I find myself waking up eager to write, and I’ll type as fast as I can to catch those ideas and images and bits of dialog that came to me in my sleep. I’ll also keep a notepad beside me at all times, since very often good ideas will come to me while I’m sleeping, exercising, or eating lunch.

With enough practice you can strike off for the heart of your literary forest with little trouble. By the time that I’ve been focused on a novel for a week, I find it . . . emotionally jarring, painful even, to try to separate from my fictive world.

If you can get into your writing zone, extend your stay for as long as you can. Many new writers have found that by setting November aside as their writing month, they can make the time that they need to write. They can pay bills early, clean the house in October, store up a bunch of t.v. dinners, and prepare to write. By doing so, they give themselves the three or four weeks what it takes to actually compose a novel.

It’s important to block out a large amount of time to write. If you leave the forest of your imagination too long, it seems that new saplings begin to sprout, the brush thickens, and the pathways back into those woods become obscure. For this reason, visit often and stay for as long as you are able.

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”
—E.L. Doctorow