Hidden Rooms in the Basement

By Joe Moore

Last Sunday, James Scott Bell gave us a great look back at his High School basketball conquests, described how it felt to be in “the zone”, related his successes to writing, and gave some excellent tips on how to develop mental muscle memory to make it easier to enter the zone on a constant basis.

Today, I wanted to expand on the zone concept. A beginning writer once asked me: “I’ve heard authors talk of being ‘in the zone’ regarding their writing, which I take to mean being in an altered state of extreme creativity. But how, without drugs or other stimulus, do you get into that state?”

In fact, as Jim mentioned, we hear the term in the zone used often, not only with writers, but athletes, artists, and just about any activity that requires skill, creativity and concentration.

So what is “the zone” and how do we enter it? Why is it so hard to remain there for extended periods of time?

Being in the zone can last for a few minutes, a couple of hours or a whole day. For those that never seem to enter the zone, it might be because they try too hard to do so. Sort of like when we stop trying to solve a problem, the solution suddenly comes to us through our subconscious, again as Jim calls “the boys in the basement”.

Let’s try to define what being in the zone means, especially when it relates to writing. For me, it’s a mental state where time seems to disappear and my productivity greatly exceeds normal output. It might start after I’ve finished lunch and sat down at my PC to work on a new chapter. Without any feeling of the passage of time, I suddenly realize a couple of hours have gone by and I’ve produced 1000 words or more. I don’t remember the passage of time or anything that deals with my surroundings. I only remember “living” or becoming immersed in the story’s moment, having the words flow from a deeper source, and “awakening” from the writing zone as if only a few moments have passed.

I’ve never been hypnotized, but I can assume that being in the zone is somewhat like self-hypnosis. My body remains in the here-and-now, but my creative senses somehow find a hidden room inside my mind, a place normally under lock and key. And I’m able to enter it for a short time to let what’s there emerge into the light of day.

It can also feel like driving down the Interstate on a long trip deep in thought or chatting on a hands-free cell phone and suddenly realize I can’t remember the past 10 miles.

I’ve also never been athletic, but judging from Jim’s story, I bet it’s a similar scenario: a golfer is able to tune out the surrounding crowd of tournament spectators, the dozens of network cameras, the worldwide audience, the cheers from the distant gallery as his opponents make a great putt, and he’s able to enter a place where only his game stretches out before him. The rest slips by in a blur. Personal mind control.

So, in addition to Jim’s tips, what are some additional methods for getting into the zone? Some writers use the “running start” technique by reading the previous day’s work or chapter. It gets them back into the story and hopefully the new words start to flow.

Others listen to music. This is something I often do. Nothing with lyrics, though. I listen to movie scores or piano and guitar solos. I find that it can help set a mood or become background “white noise” that blocks out other audible distractions. That’s because, for me, the biggest obstacle is distractions. It’s important to reduce interruptions and distractions by creating an environment where they are minimized. This means shutting my office door, closing the drapes on the windows, unplugging the phone, disconnecting Internet access, and most of all, choosing a time to write when those things can be fully managed. Doing away with distractions is no guarantee that I will enter the zone at will, but it does give me a fighting chance to at least knock on the door to one of those dark, hidden rooms in the basement and let my story flow.

OK, Zoner’s. What does it feel like for you to be in “the zone”? Any tips on how you make it happen?


thor-bunker-cover-RSApril, 1945. The Germans have the bomb. Download THOR BUNKER, A Short Story prequel to THE TOMB for only 99¢.

18 thoughts on “Hidden Rooms in the Basement

  1. I can’t explain exactly what I do, but when the zone hits me, it’s usually because the character is alive for me; i.e., the character writes the scene.

    So I think one piece of advice is to really know your characters.

  2. This is not much of an answer, but, I just…go there, in-the-zone. I made a several cd hypnotic sets; I sold on the internet after opening a part time hypnosis studio. I had a website made(which I did not like) and planned to sell them there. I had sold them previously on Hypnosis Coaching.com, of which I eventually closed.
    You can get a taste of what Joe is talking about here…http://bigmindloosebolts.com/sessions/
    Read the text
    I never figured out how to sell the sets from the site, and imbed several hypnotic samples…no time. Many of the writers here, Go there, as do I. They don’t know how they just do it.
    With a little practice, anyone can reach the zone. Tiger Woods did.
    My problem is not writers block. “Procrastination Block” is my nemesis.

  3. Being in the zone is akin to meditation. You block out your surroundings and become part of the story in your mind’s eye. Interruptions are painful and can cause you to lose the rest of the day’s work. I like to work early in the morning, before sunrise and before the business world awakens. Then the chances of getting my daily five page quota done are much increased, as long as I don’t allow myself to check email or access the Internet.

  4. I’m agreeing with the previous comments. I read the day’s output in bed at night; I think that helps keep the story in my subconscious. Next morning I revise/tweak/fix the glitches I found the night before which does give me a running start. I also listen to my characters, and it’s often a matter of transcribing what they’ve been saying behind my back while I’m doing something else. When my husband retired, one of the first things I had to teach him was that “I’m writing” didn’t always mean my fingers were clicking the keys.

  5. I think it was Hemingway who said he liked to stop the day’s writing in the middle of sentence. The next day, he’d take off right there and be in the flow. When I’ve done that, it worked. Which means I should do it more than I do! (File under “Duh.”)

    • Finally got in the habit of doing that, stopping mid-sentence in a scene where I knew where it was going. The difference in getting started the next time is amazing. It’s so simple…probably why I couldn’t quite believe it until about the ninety-eleventh time. Duh indeed!

  6. Joe, thanks for the post.

    Since the subject of “flow” or “in the zone” has come up twice, it got me interested in two books sitting beside my bed (and not yet read).

    Csikszentmihalyi published FLOW in 1990, and CREATIVITY in 1996.

    Here’s a link to Wikipedia’s description of “flow” (or “in the zone”).


    If any of you have read either of these two books, I would be interested in how helpful they were.

    For me, writing in the morning, before the “cares of this world” have intruded, is the best way for me to get in the zone.

    Thanks for a great post. And thanks for the link to THOR BUNKER. I enjoyed THE BLADE, so I look forward to reading THOR BUNKER tonight.

  7. Fun post, going for the zone. I’d like to focus here, though, on the ending element, where Joe shows us his new book.

    A lot of folks struggle with the notion of “concept vs. premise,” not truly getting how they are different and, to a great extent, both are essential. “Concept” is often the element that produces a bestseller… just like the singular line of description that Joe so tantalizingly put forth. It’s not the premise, by the way (that would include the hero and a quest and stakes)… but it IS the concept:

    “April, 1945. The Germans have the bomb.”

    That’s it. That’s the concept. It meets all the criteria, it’s the compelling “notion” that leads to a premise that springs from it. That line alone makes us want to buy and read the book. Which is, by the way, the best and highest benchmark for a concept… does it make you go “Whoa, now THAT is a story I’d like to read.”

  8. Joe, probably the last time (athletically) I was in the zone was when I pitched a two-hitter in high school. Don’t remember much about the game, but I do recall that my slider was working well. Wish I could do the same with my golf game.
    As for writing, yes, I’ve achieved that a few times–had an idea that grabbed me, changed the course of my work-in-progress, and kept me writing until my wife called me to eat. Wish I could achieve that more often, too.
    Thanks for a great post.

  9. Pingback: Getting In The Zone | allbettsareoff

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