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How Writing Is A Lot Like Fighting – Part 1: Introduction

I recently read The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson and there was a lot to like about it. With this in mind, I’ve been keeping an eye on the numerous guest blogs and interviews that Seth has been doing to promote his book and have found his path to publication both inspiring and food for thought. Check this out:

Reddit User: How do you get the motivation to actually write out your thoughts? So many people, including myself, have a ton of ideas, but just can’t seem to get them anywhere.

Seth Dickinson: I have a store of confidence I’ve built up over years of practice. Just getting better at the basic act of writing makes it easier, in some respects — writing becomes automatic, effortless, so you can just let your thoughts flow.

Full AMA Here.

Upon reading this I was struck by how similar it was to a famous quote by Martial Artist Rickson Gracie about entering ‘the zone’, the sought after place of complete mental focus as you enter into a sanctioned fight:

I take my conscience off completely and enter into a zome of emptiness. My mind stops thinking and I start to live inside my instinct and my training. I do not think about a thing, nobody, I do not hear any noise. There’s just me and my opponent.

MayweatherThe key to both statements is that the speaker’s practice/training has given them a degree of confidence that allows them to enter into a familiar situation (whether opening a word document or stepping into a ring/cage) and allowing their instincts to take over. It is important that you understand here that this isn’t simply ‘willingness’ to do their chosen activity (although that will be the first step), this is instead such a strong grasp of fundamentals that the person can switch their conscious mind off (i.e. ‘enter the zone’).

Here’s another quote for you by another fighter, Don Williams. This time it is a metaphorical description about what it is like to enter into ‘the zone’:

Every day you drive your car without thought, you don’t try to be ‘in the zone’ you just let yourself by free of thought. You drive your car ‘in the zone’ because you have trained it to, through repetition. You have trained your fighting skills through repetitious acts also. Stop thinking and you can fight in the zone!

You could very easily take that quote and replace the word ‘fight’ with the word ‘write’ and enter up with:

You have trained your writing skills through repetitious acts also. Stop thinking and you can write in the zone!

The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of us haven’t put in anywhere near the amount of practice required to allow our training/instincts to take over. Rather, we allow our conscious mind to question what we are doing as we are doing it.

Jab2As a Martial Arts instructor, there is at least a six month period where my new students are over-thinking every movement they do. I show them how to jab (the most common punch in boxing, a straight left), something that feels completely natural to me and something I don’t need to think about, and you can see them thinking about their foot position, their shoulder angle, the height the punch comes out, how much hip rotation to put into the punch, how much of a step with the lead foot, how much of a push with the rear foot. To me, when I’m on a heavy bag or even fighting, I don’t even think about jabs, they just flow from my body in response to a situation. Someone moves close to me: a jab happens. I hand to land a power punch with my right hand: the left hand sets it up to judge distance. To a beginner, not only do they have to think about a jab they have to think about every single part of a jab.

hmmmTo bring it back to writing: people just starting out with writing fiction have to really work at everything they do. When I began my ‘Creative Writing’ University course, I remember really putting effort in and thinking about how to describe every single thing I wanted to describe, what metaphor I thought would work best in the particular certain situation I was writing, whether I was injecting enough personality into my characters, whether I’d detailed enough about my setting and so on. The result of this overthinking leads to the ‘clunky’ sentences, ‘unnatural flow’, ‘unrealistic settings’, ‘poor description’ and ‘flat characters’ that you will find pointed out to new writers in writing groups and on forums offering critiques. A person new to writing is like a person new to boxing – their words, like the boxer’s punches, don’t flow naturally. The beauty in their art isn’t quite there – there’s something noticeable about their transitions from one technique to another, it’s not quite fluid enough.

Authors like Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb are often praised for their writing abilities. I’d argue that the beauty of Martin’s, Rothfuss’s and Hobb’s writing lies within their ability to draw the reader into their worlds and connect them to their characters. I believe that their ability to do this likely comes from entering into ‘the zone’ whilst writing and, therefore, at that moment in time their consciousness is within the world of their characters, living their stories and experiencing their emotions, whilst the words are taking care of themselves – flowing from their finger tips. Essentially: there is minimal conscience mediation between imaginary event and words finding their way onto the page – it just happens*. The result is that when the reader picks the book up they are able to share the experience, they lose awareness that they are reading and the beauty/emotions of the story and circumstance take over.

*Note: Once the conscious mind does get involved (i.e. the editing process), the seamlessness ends and delays can – and do – occur! O:)

The following is a quote from Robin Hobb (again from a Reddit AMA) where, I feel, she is writing indirectly about the effect ‘writing in the zone’ has on her work. Take a look:

In any of your writings have you ever regretted killing off a character too soon ? If so why?

… I never ‘kill off characters!’ Characters may die in the course of a story, just as they may be born, or be glimpsed in passing as their stories intersect with the one I’m telling. But I promise you that I’ve never sat down and said to myself, “And then I will kill him midway through book six!” My writing brain just doesn’t’ work that way. I think of Story as being a force, rather like the current of a river. If I let my writing flow with that current and follow where it carries the characters, then the stories seem to work well. If I oppose it and try to force the tale into a backwater where I can manipulate what happens, then the story is lame. That’s a hard lesson I had to learn through the writing and discarding of the first books I attempted. I have to follow the story, not lead it. So, characters have died and I’ve often felt regret, but I don’t feel I’ve ever ‘killed one off.”

freelance-writingIf you are reading this article it is likely that you’d like to have that ability to enter into ‘the zone’ when writing. To be able to write in a way that you are seamlessly relaying the story unfolding within your mind’s eye in a seamless, highly readable manner. In this series of articles I’m going to speak with authors about whether they feel they do, indeed, enter into ‘the zone’ as a fighter does, I’m going to ask them what it feels like, how it enhances their work and what it took to get there. Once I’ve managed this, I will look to provide a roadmap for new writers looking to reach ‘the zone’ and reflect upon the kind of time and effort it may take to get there. I hope you enjoy the journey!



  1. Avatar Joseph Grace says:

    Fantastic article!

  2. Avatar Alice Sabo says:

    I don’t fight, but I understand the zone. I think the practice of rereading the previous day’s work helps me to get back in the zone from the previous day. If I’m interrupted and have to leave the story during my designated writing time, it takes me awhile to get back to it.

    I think the writer needs to enter the same place a reader is when the words disappear and you exist in the story.

    If I find myself forcing a scene just to get through it, I know it is something that either isn’t necessary or will need to be changed later. Sometimes you have to leave those rough spots for awhile. They will come clearer when you’re further down the road of the story and know what needed to happen to get you there.

  3. Avatar ZG says:

    Great read! Thanks.

    I’ve tried it. Several times. The hard part is to get there – to get focused and to concentrate. But when it happens, it can go two ways: (1) Either the story just unfold for my inner eye, and I don’t notice I write. Things just happens in my mind, and I write them down. It’s not always good writing, and often it needs heavy editing, but the course of events is there – on my laptop, and often in a different way than intended. (2) The dialog just kicks in and the people in the dialog just attack each other with words and sentences. Then I don’t write ‘said X, while he something’ – I just write the argument or what ever it is. Sometime with a few action words like ‘X hits Y’ or ‘slams table’. When that happens, I’m several persons at once – amazingly funny!

    To add to the quotes John Cleese says something like “Creativity is not a talent, it’s hard work.” I have to concentrate, shot things and peaople out, turn off the internet and so on. Wait for it – but constantly look for it – I don’t decide when it happen – but I can fertilize my office space and my mind set to make it happen.

    To conclude, for me it’s not a zone I can walk in and out of – for me it’s something I invite – but IT decide whether of not it wants to come …

  4. Avatar Mike 'Rob' Robinson says:

    Great article! I think I’ve managed to make it to the outer edge of the zone, but not deep, deep within it. Even that took 500,000 words or so. I’ve found that one good technique is to occasionally go back over older work and see how you’re progressing. If it doesn’t get less crappy over time, then it’s time for a rethink. I shudder when I read some of my earlier work. Still not throwing it out though, as there may be kernels of goodness in it somewhere. Repetition is good. That’s why soldiers train so much…so it becomes second nature when they need to fight for real. Writing probably isn’t much different. And for anyone feeling they’ll never write well…you can and you will if you keep at it. Oh, BTW, I finally managed to hook onto an agent. That came from perseverance. Maybe it’s time to delete the crappy early stuff so it doesn’t claw its way out of the grave and wreck things. Keep writing, you’ll get there.

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