Six impossible things

Keeping Moving

One of the things I remember from my high school physics class is Newton’s First Law of Motion, also called the law of inertia: “An object in motion tends to remain in motion; an object at rest tends to remain at rest.” It applies to a lot more than particles.

Most specifically, it applies to writing. It’s a lot easier, in my experience, to keep writing than it is to start writing. An awful lot of “writer’s block” isn’t so much writer’s block as it is sit-down-at-the-computer-and-get-started block. In fact, I recall hearing a story about an agent who had a “sure-fire cure for writer’s block” that amounted to sitting the writer down at a typewriter in an empty room and telling him/her to come out in half an hour with whatever he/she had written in that time. Supposedly, by the end of the half-hour, the writers were happily tapping away, having been forced through the sit-down-and-start part.

Similarly, for many writers it is often much easier to fix something that’s already written (whether that’s yesterday’s draft pages or the whole manuscript) than it is to write today’s new stuff. This is what makes rolling revision such a double-edged sword: on the one hand, sitting down and fiddling with yesterday’s draft is often easier than jumping right into today’s work, so it’s a way of easing oneself over that sit-down-and-start block; on the other hand, it has all the earmarks of a fabulous method of procrastination (it is easier than the thing one is supposed to be doing, i.e., the first draft, yet it still counts as working on the story, since it is stuff that theoretically should be done at some point).

A lot of writers, however, are reluctant to get moving when they aren’t completely sure how everything is going to go. They’re facing a huge, dense forest that they have to carve a path through, and they don’t want to move until they can see their way clear, or at least have some confidence that they’ve chosen a good path that’ll get them out the other side.

Trouble is, for a lot of us, some things don’t come clear until we start moving. It’s like planning a game of golf; you can carefully plan every shot, but doing so doesn’t guarantee that you won’t end up in the sand trap or the water hazard. And if you don’t know every inch of the course (and have a master’s control of the ball), your first shot may land somewhere completely unexpected, rendering your whole plan impracticable.

When it’s golf, you have to walk up to the ball, wherever it landed, and take your next shot from there when your turn comes around. You can’t take five hours to re-plan your game. You have to keep moving.

When it’s writing, one has the luxury of pausing to re-plan…but doing so usually means more than stopping at the end of today’s writing session and starting off tomorrow in a new direction. If it took weeks or months to lay out one’s original plot and/or scene sequences, it’ll probably take weeks to rearrange everything into a newly satisfactory whole. At which point, the actual manuscript has usually “gone cold” – which is to say, one is starting from a dead standstill, which is a lot harder than remaining in motion.

Because that’s the other secret: it is a lot easier to change the direction of something that is already moving than it is to get it moving in the first place. It’s why some folks advise having six ninjas attack through the nearby window whenever a writer is stuck; it may not fit the story, but it keeps things moving. Of course, if the writer is trying for a sweet and tender Romance novel, the ninjas will almost certainly have to go…and that causes its own problems.

A lot of writers have a horror of “wasting words.” The idea of writing a paragraph (let alone a scene or chapter) that might have to be cut later because the story turned out to need to go in some other direction is anathema to them (and this is so in spite of the fact that I daresay there is no professional writer around who hasn’t had to do some serious cutting of a “finished” manuscript at some point in their career). If one knows that the ninjas will have to go, one is understandably reluctant to put them in in the first place, which leads to the writer stopping to figure out some more plausible alternative…and we’re back at a dead stop.

An alternative to throwing in implausible ninjas is to put in something else – a scene shift, a flashback, a flash-forward, the sudden arrival of a mysterious great-aunt – that may not actually fit right there, but is at least a reasonable part of the story that may be of use elsewhere. Personally, I’m a lot more amenable to cutting something in Chapter Five if I’m pretty sure I’m going to use it in Chapter Twelve or Fifteen.

It’s unrealistic to expect to always stay in motion – to keep the manuscript moving forward and increasing in page count every single day without fail. There are times when one does come to a complete standstill; when one has to stop and replan, or pause to replace ninjas with something that fits better. I find, however, that it’s best to keep moving for as long as I possibly can. Movement uncovers things that help me find the eventual right road.

Remembering these things is a whole lot harder than it sounds.

  1. Hm….. Sudden Implausible NINJAS!!! That is silly enough to work. I’ll try it on my current stuck project. Heh – assuming the “ninjas” are small children in costume and it would actually fit too.

  2. I didn’t think I was an outliner, until it occurred to me that the quick and dirty rough draft I do could be considered an outline.

    That’s the hardest part, but I give myself permission to just throw it on the page without worrying about word usage, pacing or grammar. I know it’s going to be changed, embroidered, rearranged, whatever. But it gets words on the page for me to work with, and that’s the most important part.

  3. I’ve heard the re-write thing described by writers as “editor mode” vs “author mode” – and specifically that it can be very easy to let oneself drift from author to editor, to the point that some of them have to force themselves (as Alice describes) to keep writing rather than correcting even small misprints, because doing that can drag them into doing other fixes rather than producing more text.

    An extreme example of this was Douglas Adams who on occasion would produce a negative daily word count, because he was stripping back more than he was writing anew.

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