Tidbit (Not Exclusively) for Novelists: Writing Momentum Isn’t Always Brash and Dazzling

It’s so hideously easy to feel like you’re treading water.

I used to think that the distinction in my case was related to a lack of handwritten draft. I do have many pages of early scenes scribbled out, of course, but less than 10% of them proved salvageable years later. Some of my ideas came in such a tangled blur that it became totally impractical for me to handwrite them. I couldn’t pick them apart, which probably led to years of crawling through half-remembered ideas. I used to believe that computers weren’t a suitable medium for random notes, so I only used them for coherent writing moments. Everything else stayed locked up in my head, especially the more outlandish or harsh ideas. To this day, I firmly believe that my mistake was overcensorship, not the nature or length of the story. On the other hand, it was inevitable. I didn’t realize just how vast of a story I was forming at the time – and if I had, everything probably would’ve turned out differently.

Nevertheless, I have immense respect for those who actually take a pen to paper for something other than vague bullet lists. If you scratch entire chapters out by hand or incessantly print your draft, God bless you for a thousand and one years, because you’ve probably given yourself access to an element that many of us blunder past without realizing it. Likewise, those who use typewriters (I know you’re still out there, folks) also have an edge over computer-only writers because they get to immediately see what they’ve written in coherent ink on a physical page.

But it’s not necessarily the digital format to blame. The bigger the project, the easier it is to lose sight of the “you are here” symbol on the map. A large number of our ranks prefer it this way, and it’s often downright necessary. It’s also extremely toxic.

Recently, I was quite ill for two weeks. The chief symptom was, annoyingly, eye strain. I couldn’t type, I couldn’t read anything – digitally or on paper – and I could barely even watch TV. The slightest exertion extended or renewed the pain despite careful food intake and – I jest not – 12 hours of sleep a night. In effect, I couldn’t move.

It should go without saying that when I assessed my progress at the end of that month, I was flabbergasted to realize that I’d somehow done intensive editing on almost 400 pages in a few weeks (post-illness, of course). The law of averages had been on my side, and I hadn’t even noticed it.

We often forget about our dear old friends like the law of averages. We somehow assume that because we happen to have one absurdly good week of writing out of the blue, every week should be that way. We even get mesmerized into thinking that if we didn’t generate (or mutilate) large chunks of draft, it doesn’t count. We’re tricked into saying “to hell with character analysis” or “I don’t need to summarize the next four important points that come in this book.” For those working on an invented world, details like geography considerations or cultural habits suddenly don’t matter – because we didn’t fiddle with the words today, damn it.

Meanwhile, writing is supposedly a methodical and meditative pursuit.

Momentum is a tightrope as thin as a razor. I hesitate to say that you should enjoy writing 24/7/365, but if you’re going to go in with all guns blazing, you might as well be smart about it. Take on what you can and no more. There’s an agonizing art to this, and it takes a lifetime of study before you even begin to grasp it.