Writing in the Flow

You know the feeling.  Maybe you were playing a sport or a musical instrument; maybe you experienced it at work or in church.  I’m talking about that experience of being in the zone, in the moment.  Runners call it the “second wind.”  Everything’s going well and you’re super-productive, almost flawless, and you’ve lost complete track of time.  How cool, how sweet, is that?

When writers experience it, words come out without effort; there’s a lack of awareness of surroundings and the passage of time; and the prose is better. It’s as if writer and muse are one.  If you’re like me and writing is a part-time hobby, then the precious time available for it needs to be maximized somehow.  It’s desirable to spend as much time in the zone as possible.

According to this Wikipedia article, the psychological term is “flow.”  It was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, and there are ten associated factors (though not all are required):

  1. Clear goals
  2. Concentrating within a limited field of attention
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness
  4. Distorted sense of time
  5. Direct and immediate feedback
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge
  7. A sense of personal control over the activity
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs
  10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself

So how can a writer intentionally bring about this state of mind?  For me, preparation is the key.  I find I can make the flow more likely if (1) I’ve prepared a story outline so I know the general direction I’m heading, and (2) I’ve previously thought about the story during “down time.”  Down time is when I’m doing an activity that doesn’t involve intense concentration, an activity such as commuting to or from work, mowing the lawn, and taking a shower.  It’s during these periods when I think about the scenes, characters, dialogue, and plot.  If I’ve done that, my mind is ready to write when I have time available.  I’m much more likely to get in the flow.

You might be different.  Some writers can induce the flow by playing music, by writing in the same spot and at the same time each day, or even by burning incense or setting out potpourri.

Unfortunately, it’s hit-or-miss getting into the flow, and very easy to get kicked out of it.  One way to get kicked out is to decide, as you’re writing, that you need to do some research.  This is a tempting urge, and can be more enjoyable than writing.  Sadly, it is a huge time sink, and there’s really no need to have it spoil your flow.  In my January 30 blog entry, I suggested something I called “bracket research.”  Just take the question you want to investigate and put it in brackets, or highlight the text yellow, or do something to distinguish it. You can stay in the flow and keep going, then do the research later.

Another dangerous practice that will kick you of the flow is to pause and self-edit too much.  You can do that later.  For now, just let words flow.  I don’t know a really good cure for that, but I suspect participating in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, is one way to cure yourself of that urge.

I hope you can experience and maximize the flow in all your favorite activities.  Good luck!  I suppose I should know something about flow; after all, I’m–

Poseidon’s Scribe

Are Outlines…Out of Line?

Do you outline before you write stories?  If you’re not a fiction writer, do you outline in preparation for any substantial non-fiction you write?  I do, but this won’t be an attempt to persuade you to outline, but rather a description of why and how I do it.  Perhaps you’ll benefit from knowing such things.

I’m sure many writers don’t use outlines.  Too much of a bother, they’d say.  Too confining, others believe.  Still others would profess that time spent outlining is time not spent writing.  For some, their outline is in their head, and that’s enough.

More power to them.  I can’t imagine writing without an outline.  For me, it’s not a bother, but rather a way to ensure my story stays on track, stays true to its intended purpose.  I suppose outlines can be confining, but I think if them as flexible guidelines, every bit as subject to editing and rewriting as the story itself.  I rarely adhere entirely to my outline anyway.  It’s true—the process of outlining takes time that could be spent writing.  However, the time I spend outlining is worth far more to me than time wasted writing a story that lacks direction or purposeful flow.  As for keeping an outline in my head, I’m too afraid I’ll forget something important.

How do I outline, you ask?  I always start with a mind map.  If only my teachers had covered mind maps in elementary school!  Instead, I first heard about them in my thirties.  What a marvelous note-taking and brain-storming method!  I recommend reading Use Both Sides of Your Brain, by Tony Buzan, but you can also learn about the technique through internet searches.  I use mind maps initially to form ideas for my story, letting my mind free-stream, and organizing my thoughts on the mind map.  Later I might refine or redraw the mind map as things clarify.

More often I use the mind map to create a document called “Notes for ___” where the blank is either the title of the story, or the initial idea for the story.  This Notes document will eventually contain the research I’ve done, as well as the outline fleshed out from the mind map.

That outline basically consists of: (1) a list of the characters, along with character traits and motivations, (2) a description of the setting, along with any research I’ve done about the setting, (3) some notes about the conflict(s) to be resolved (both external and internal), and (4) the listed series of events making up the plot.

I know—seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it?  But I write short stories, so my lists of characters are short, the settings and conflicts are few, and the plots are not too involved.  As important as outlines are for my short stories, I imagine they’ll be even more necessary when I take the leap into writing novels.  For me, there’s little danger of getting snared in the trap of forever planning the story and never writing it.  Every moment I’m outlining, my bored muse is screaming at me to stop that tedious business and get writing!

As I write the story, I keep the Notes at the ready and refer to them often.  In almost every case, I reach a point where the story wants to deviate from the outline.  This can occur when a minor character starts taking center stage more than intended, or when my outlined plot requires a character to do something he or she just would not do, or many other reasons.  Here I must decide whether to detour from the outline or edit the story to match the existing outline.  Most often I abandon the outline, but I’ve done both.

My process has evolved to this and will likely continue to change.  Perhaps the next time I address outlining in a blog, my method will have altered again.  The process you choose will be different and uniquely you; it may not involve outlines at all.  It’s my hope you enjoy your writing adventure as much as…

Poseidon’s Scribe