It Don’t Mean a Thing

Helga’s Post #44:

…If It Ain’t Got That Swing

Sound familiar? Duke Ellington could have written those lyrics just as easily for writers. Maybe especially for writers.

So how to get that swing on those pages, every time we sit down to write?  Mostly, we are familiar if the question is put differently: How to get ‘in the Zone’.

I think the ‘Swing’ and the ‘Zone’ largely mean the same. It often has to do with mood. Have you ever been told when you talk on the phone, ‘hey, what’s wrong? Are you sick?’ Your friends can tell when you’re not the same, when you’re off balance, or bored, depressed heavens forbid, or just having a ‘blah’ kind of day. On days like that, it’s pretty tough to be creative, or even motivated to open your manuscript, let alone get that swing into your writing. What shows up on those new pages is often uninspired, strained and simply boring, surely headed for the cutting floor before too long.

What’s a writer to do?

Much has been taught at workshops, and printed in countless ‘how to’ books and blogs, mostly under the topic of conquering Writers’ Block. But is getting in the zone different from the dreaded WB, and to spin that yarn further, does one cause the other? Which one comes first?

From my own experience, I can tell when I wasn’t in the zone. It shows up clearly on certain pages, scenes or chapters. When my writing is flat and my characters speak like the biggest bores you’ve ever met in your life. When I had to fight writers’ block, and went ahead regardless, producing scenes devoid of ‘swing’.

Luckily, we don’t have to be victims on those days when we’re our own worst enemies. There are ways to avoid these counter-productive dismal occurrences. Let’s look at some of the ingredient for getting the swing back in our manuscripts. Some suggestions that may help, nowhere a complete list:

Writing dialogue is fun, it’s spontaneous, and starts the ball rolling when it’s in danger of slowing down or coming to a stop. Just keep on writing dialogue without analyzing or stop to go back over it again and again. Let it flow, edit later. It’s amazing how it starts to feed on itself and gets you in the zone for more writing.

At the slightest hint of the story starting to drag, create a surprise, or a shock. Bring a character on the scene with a gun or something like that (that’s the old Raymond Chandler trick).

Create a positive workspace that’s strictly your own. “Privacy – like eating and breathing – is one of life’s basic requirements,” according to author Katherine Neville. And Virginia Woolf realized it a lot earlier: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” (fortunately, money may not be quite the deal-breaker today as it was during Ginny’s time; though there is truth in it).

Add some visual motivators to your very own workspace. James Scott Bell for example has posters on the wall that get him out of his funk (yes, even Bell gets those!) when he needs inspiration. They are of authors he admires. One is a casually dressed Stephen King in his home office, dog beneath his feet. Another is of thriller author John D. MacDonald smoking his pipe and typing.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Book Cover: On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

“Write hard, write fast, and the fire of creation will be yours.” (from: The Art of War for Writers, by J.S.Bell). Some of the best novels of the past century were written at a rapid clip by authors who wrote each and every day. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, author/editor of more than seven hundred books, was once asked what he would do if he had only six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Next trick on tap: Take risks. It’s amazing how it unlocks your creativity and improves your storytelling if you write what’s burning in your heart. Donald Maass believes this strongly. Hold on to your self-confidence. Believe in yourself. You can do it. Lesser writers did.

There’s always your writers’ group too if you’re lucky enough to belong to one. Lean on them. Don’t hesitate to call them and say, hey, how can I make that scene, that chapter, swing? Remember, it’s tit for tat. They will ask you in return at some point. So don’t be shy.

And put on the CD ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’. It’ll get you in the zone real quick. Especially when Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong belt it out in their incomparable voices and beat.

May their swing spill over to all of our writing.


Image Courtesy: Louis Armstrong House Museum

3 thoughts on “It Don’t Mean a Thing

  1. I was totally distracted by the sight of that ancient computer on King’s desk. 🙂

    Finding that swing or groove is so critical. And it’s funny that I read this post after deciding that what I had just written as a chapter opening was totally wrong, lame, limp, and boring. I was trying to show the tension in the setting and had one character yelling at another. But that would be completely unacceptable in the situation. I’ll need to fix it when I’m in a better place mentally. Still, those false starts sometimes provide insights to explore.

    And now I have an “earworm” for the rest of the afternoon. 😉 Thank heaven it’s one I don’t mind!

  2. Love the equivalency of musical “swing” and writing “zone”. I know what it feels like when I’ve got the flow going, am in the groove, and it does seem like playing the keyboard as an instrument. (Have also experienced the opposite, when every sentence seems like a sour note.) Dare I bring up another musical analogy – Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”? At the risk of being slapped down by the 1000-words-a-day-or-else police, I have to say I really do have “in the mood” days when the writing flows, and still struggle to stick to a disciplined schedule when I’m not up for writing. Maybe it was all those years I had to write on demand, day in and day out, always to a deadline, that is causing me to resist …

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