Getting into the 'write' zone
Something I often hear among writing friends is, 'I'm not in the right zone/mood to write today.'
It's a struggle for me a lot of the time, so I wondered-how do writers get into the 'zone'?
I asked several author and writer friends how they 'zoned in', and several key themes emerged:
1. Schedule time
The hardest thing for most writers is making time for writing. We're either so busy with other aspects of life that our creative endeavours play second-fiddle, or we find ourselves distracted by far less important things.
The more disciplined among us, or those working in the industry, seem to follow a well-rehearsed routine of scheduling writing time, but what is it?
'I write in the morning once my daily chores are done. Thursday and Friday mornings are best, and I try to keep those days clear. If I haven't written anything by lunchtime, it's game over.' - Me.
'I write first thing in the morning.' - Karen Mc Dermott.
'I have an appointment with myself for writing. I have created deadlines with my mentor so I can't skimp and avoid the appointment with myself.' - Helen Doran-Wu.
'Writing is writing. It's a cancel-all-else activity because I do not have a schedule.' - Rosanne Dingli.
'Write first thing upon waking up before anxiety has time to get its claws in.' - Chloe Higgins.
'I write for 30 minutes without checking the internet etc, then I have a quick break and go again. I do about 3 - 5 of these a day.' - Rachael Johns.
'I have a dedicated day a week.' - Emily Paull.
'My aim is to write five mornings a week. I use an app called 'Forest', which grows trees if I leave my phone alone during the time I set - which is usually 25 minute blocks (based on the Pomorodoro technique). If I give up, the tree dies.' - Melinda Tognini.
'I can only do 30 minutes typing at a time due to pain of Fibromyalgia. It's a disadvantage, but also has its benefits as when I write I know I have a short time to get it done.' - Christine Scuderi.
'Before I was published, I used to write first thing in the morning from 8 - 12. Publishing and editing deadlines change my routine.' - Carolyn Wren.
'5am - 7am and 9am - 11am are supposed to be the times when the brain is most creative. I tried the earlier session last year, but found it too laborious writing when I first got up so instead I get up, do my morning routine, then write 1 - 2 pages of hand written creative writing before sitting down at the computer around 9am. ... I write 5 days a week and have to space out my sessions to no more than 45 minutes because of postural issues'. - A.R.Levett.
So, when it comes to writing time, the main messages seem to be:
Book yourself a 'writing' appointment.
Work in 'bursts' that fit with your concentration period.
Allocate time for procrastination and chores.
Schedule comfort breaks.
Seems so easy! So why doesn't it always work out?
2. Organise your workspace
You've scheduled your writing time, the laptop is on, and ... nothing! What's the problem?
For a fair few, it boils down to workplace organisation (or lack of it) i.e. their writing area doesn't exist, or isn't working well for them.
Is your laptop buried under a pile of letters? Have you got a cuppa nearby? Is the desk too messy, or not messy enough? Is your chair comfortable etc?
One thing's for sure, your work area needs to work for you in order for you to be effective, so that means getting organised.
'I write on my laptop at my kitchen table. I have a perfectly good office, but the kitchen is brighter and the chair is more comfortable. I need coffee and quiet, otherwise I can't concentrate.' - Me.
'Sometimes I write on week nights after work, but I always organise my desk first. Can't write at a messy desk!' - Emily Paull.
'I never eat or drink when writing - or I'd be twice my size by now. ...I can write up to my ears in mess.' - Rosanne Dingli.
'If I'm going to really focus on writing for a while, I need music (usually my 80s and 90s playlist on Spotify) and no interruptions. I'm not really fast at typing, and sometimes to get things moving I need to actually write with pen and paper for a while. I need coffee (or peppermint tea) to get started, but I often let it go cold if I'm in the zone.' - Valerie Goodreid.
'I always have Diet Coke.' - Rachael Johns.
'I usually start after school drop off, and work better in one my two favourite cafes, where the staff know what tea I drink, but I don't have the distractions of home.' - Melinda Tognini.
'I always write with music playing, mostly stuff without lyrics. Finding the right piece of music for a scene is spectacularly helpful for getting into the zone. Videogame and film soundtracks, along with new age and electronica, are my favoured genres for writing to because they create the right mood.' - A.R.Levett.
To help get yourself organised for writing:
Find your perfect writing spot, be it at home, at a cafe, in the park etc.
Have your writing 'tools' nearby e.g. drinks, laptop, pen & paper etc.
Create an ambience in your environment conducive to working e.g. burn essential oils, have music playing in the background, or absolute quiet etc.
3. Limit distractions
This is a huge problem, and not just for writers. What with social media, work, kids, chores etc., how the hell do we stop ourselves from becoming distracted?
'I get distracted by all sorts of crap: Facebook, emails, games, noise etc, and this can last anywhere between 10 minutes and several hours. Frustration and mild panic set in and this is the point where I get organised ... or not. Make or break time.' - Me.
'Okay, so a huge amount of procrastination happens prior to even typing one word! I do a lot of staring at the screen, then decide I should put a load of washing on, then I notice a text message, so I answer that, then I peruse all my social media channels for a while, and then I have to have a little stern word with my 'writerly' self. 'Just write something. Just one word. One word will lead to a sentence and then you are off and racing.' Then, after my pep talk, instead of starting, I re-read everything I've already written, decide I hate it all and think about pursuing floristry instead. Then thinking about floristry gives me an idea and I plant it on the page, and then my fingers and imagination take over and I'm back in the game.' - Tabetha Rogers Beggs.
'Basically I take the kids to school, then faff around for 1-1.5hours on email, Fb, etc and then I reread my last chapter or whatever I wrote the day before to help me get in the zone of the current project, and then I write in sprint slots.' - Rachael Johns.
'I am more likely to faff around and check emails or get sucked into the vortex of social media if I'm at home. ... As a result of realising how much time I lost on social media and other distractions, including other people’s demands and requests, I now block the time out in my diary, so I can’t make other appointments (thanks for the idea, Tabetha Rogers Beggs). ' - Melinda Tognini.
'I tend to get distracted easily if I'm not in the zone, so I have to turn off social media to get started. I will be looking at the apps people have mentioned, they sound cool.' - Valerie Goodreid.
In general, what can we do to limit distractions?
Schedule social media time so it doesn't encroach on writing time.
Get chores out of the way first.
Switch the TV, radio, internet, or anything thing else on or off, as suits.
4. Goals and accountability
So far, so good. Time has been allocated. The desk is uncluttered and WordTM is open on the laptop. The chair has a comfy cushion for support, and your coffee's still steaming. Now what?
Well, what are your writing goals for this period of time? Are you 'chunking' time, or have you got a 1000 word deadline to write to? And who are you accountable to?
If, like me, you have a tendency to drift, there are several things you can do to get yourself on track.
'I read what I wrote yesterday, replace all the commas ... put them all back again ... and sometimes that's all I do. Latching on to my pre-marked passages of research, I seek a jumping-off point, and then it's a matter of placing my fingers over the keyboard. They do the rest.' - Rosanne Dingli.
'I limit my daily word count to 500 or 1,000 words so I have a really clear and manageable target.' - Chloe Higgins.
'If I'm writing every day, I try not to re-read too much of the previous day's stuff before getting started, or I'll spend all of the time editing and rewriting. ...I need deadlines to get things done, so I have to impose them on myself for my own writing. ' - Valerie Goodreid.
'I time my writing bursts around a cycle of the washing machine if I'm not feeling it i.e. I tell myself I only have to write until the laundry is done.' - Emily Paull.
'I start with morning pages and then move on to my current work-in-progress and aim for minimum of 1000 words. I’ve found an accountability buddy to help me stick to that.' - Melinda Tognini.
'I aimed for 2000 words in [those] four hours, and then sent them to my awesome test reader so she could read them in the lunch break of her highly stressful job and give me instant feedback. That system worked brilliantly for 3 years (and a few million words). ...I'm better with a deadline, it forces me to work.' - Carolyn Wren.
'If I have a piece that is being critiqued by my review buddies, then I'm right on it. I'm crap at answering to myself, so having a deadline keeps me on track.' - Me.
Have a goal in mind, and make it SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Driven).
Stick to your allocated time unless you are so 'in the zone' that you can't stop!
Find a writing buddy/group so you have some accountability.
'Chunk' your work into manageable blocks e.g. 1000 per day.
5. Be good to yourself
Sometimes, no matter how organised you are, no matter what goals you've set yourself, you just can't get 'zoned in'. You may be tired, bored, fed-up, sick etc. So what else can you do to get yourself spiritually, mentally and physically ready?
'The way I do it is to first play my online card games. When my set is complete, I'm relaxed enough to start. ' - Rosanne Dingli.
'Just write something. Just one word. One word will lead to a sentence and then you are off and racing.' - Tabetha Rogers Beggs.
'... I tell myself it's allowed to be shit and people suck at being the judge of their own work so that little nay-sayer in my head doesn't mean a thing.' - Chloe Higgins.
'... For the first 10 mins I write my own writerly warm-up. How I am today, any points of inspiration etc. then I start on the task at hand for about 2 hours. Occasionally, I add coffee and a choc into the mix.' - Helen Doran-Wu.
'Of course, there are still times that all fails to help me, like today when my daughter didn’t go to school. That’s when I need to be a little kind to myself, as long as it doesn’t happen too often...' - Melinda Tognini.
'Today I had a totally off line and no writing day and went to Kings Park to read, draw and walk. I recommend that every now and again. I feel invigorated, and it was such luxury to do whatever I wanted and be outdoors for a few hours.' - Christine Scuderi.
'Sometimes I need to spend time writing repetitive lists to get my mind into the zone. I find it best to do the creative aspects of writing in the morning and the more editorial components in the afternoon. ...I want to reinforce the benefits of walking in nature - I find them extremely inspiring or at least releasing of "real world" toxins.' - A.R.Levett.
'I can't tell you how she [Constance Hall] gets in the zone. As far as I normally see, she finds inspiration in places I'd never expect! I do know though, sometimes she writes a page status update on her phone, puts her phone behind her back, closes her eyes and hits 'post'. So, I think Con would say ... if it's not hurting anyone, just do it!' - Kat from the Constance Hall 'Queen Team'.
Get yourself spiritually, mentally and physically ready to write:
Do what helps you feel calm and relaxed, and gets your creative juices flowing e.g. meditate, go outside, have a coffee, draw etc.
Give yourself permission to write anything, or nothing.
Do what has worked for you before.
And most important of all: don't beat yourself up if you don't write.
For me, the final point is the most important to keep me sane. We all have 'off' days, and when that happens, it'll serve no creative purpose to berate ourselves for failing to write. In those times, going through the ideas presented here may be a fruitless exercise, but don't lose hope because there'll always be another opportunity.
I hope these tips and quotes help, in some way, to get you raring to go!
My sincere thanks to Melinda, Tabetha, Rosanne, Emily, Chloe, Christine, Helen, Andrew, Valerie, Rachael, Carolyn, Karen and Kat for their contributions to this post.
Feel free to let me know how you get into the 'zone' in the comments section below.