Writing Excuses 11.4: Newton’s Laws of Writing
Key points: Tayler’s Three Laws of Writing.  A word count at rest tends to remain at rest, while a word count in motion tends to remain in motion. Motivation? To keep writing, write some more! To start writing, start slow, then bump your goal. Build your writing inertia by writing every day! Oh, at the end of a session, don’t stop at the end of a chapter. Write the first page of the next scene, and then pick up with that jumpstart. Dan it all! Don’t sweat the zone — fight to make the most of each chance, and make sure people understand don’t interrupt me! Think before you start writing, don’t waste time ramping up.  Word count equals motivation times focus. Motivate by thinking about what comes next. Focus BICHOK and clear distractions. Consider word count per hour. Try a timer (sand timers don’t beep!). Meditation might be your ticket to a clearer mind?  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When you write words, the words write you. You also are affected. Writing is its own reward. Every word you write builds your writing skill. The goal of writing stories is to become a better writer. The equal and opposite reaction to writing is that you become a better writer!
[Mary] Season 11, Episode Four.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Newton’s Laws of Writing.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] Okay, I pitched this to Brandon. I confess. I love the idea of sitting down and getting work done. We talked about ways… We’ve talked about ways in the past to motivate ourselves. The thought I had is that an object in motion tends to remain in motion. Being motivated is awesome. Suddenly, I was relating this to Newton’s three laws.
[Brandon] Yeah. This works. I mean, I have found that in my writing, the number one thing to keep me writing is to have a good day of writing. And the number one thing to stop me from writing is skipping a day. Right? That kind of sounds a little bit self-fulfilling. You’re like, “Great. I’m in a funk. How do I get out of the funk? You say I have to write something good?” But the number one thing that will keep you writing is just writing some more.
[Howard] Yeah. It’s the principle… It’s Newton’s first law. Rephrased, a word count at rest tends to remain at rest. A word count in motion tends to remain in motion. It’s hard to start writing. If you don’t start writing, it’s easy to just let that word count sit there and not do anything. Once you start, once you expend that effort, it’s easier to… And I’m not going to say easy, because it’s never actually easy, but it’s a lot easier to keep the words flowing.
[Mary] One of the things I want to talk about is what happens when you have stopped and you need to start writing again. A lot of times, this is like the amount of energy that you have to expend is just sometimes enormous, but once you start going, as we’ve said, it’s easy. So I find that if you start slow… I sit down and… I’m like, “All right. I’m going to write three words… er, three sentences. Three sentences every single day.” Those usually turn into more. Once I get comfortable with that, I say, “Okay. I’m going to sit down and I’m going to write 100 words every day. Or 250 words.” I try to move up, just always kind of bumping up my goal. I had start doing this because I had a bout of depression last year and stopped writing completely for months. Getting that motion back again, the… Getting out of the inertia was really, really hard. I started it by treating it like going back to the gym in some ways. Doing these very small, very simple exercises until I was able to ramp up my speed.
[Brandon] That’s brilliant. That’s exactly what I think people need to hear. I often use Dan’s method of getting back into something. Which I’ve heard him talk about before, which is to take something that you’ve written earlier, in a previous chapter and reading through it to get yourself into your momentum. In fact, I’ve heard it given as advice to not stop at the end of a chapter, at the end of the day, particularly if you have a habitual problem with this. Write the first page of the next chapter. So that when you come back to work the next day on your piece, you can read through that first page and be like, “Oh, I see where I was. Let’s finish this chapter.”
[Dan] Yeah. That is something that I stumbled onto accidentally by being forced to leave a chapter half done, and feeling like I’d screwed it up. Then the second half of that chapter flowed so much better the next day, because I hit the ground running by jumping into it.
[Brandon] I actively call this Dan’ing yet.
[Brandon] When I’m like, “I’m going to Dan this chapter.” I really do. Because it’s something I’ve learned to do that is so helpful.
[Mary] Dan it all!
[Howard] Years ago, I picked up a book called… I think it was called Peopleware which talked about knowledge workers. That’s what we are as writers. We are knowledge workers. It pointed out that when we get into the zone, we are at our most productive. We have this momentum. Different people experience this differently. For me, if I know I only have an hour to write, I immediately begin performing the math and I know I actually only have 45 minutes of writing, because it’s going to take me 15 minutes to get into the zone. And, I’m going to get interrupted. If I’m going to get interrupted, it’s actually only 30 minutes to write. Now I’ve talked myself out of writing, because it’s not worth spending that hour for only 30 minutes. So for me, challenge number one is deciding that I’m going to fight for the momentum as hard as I can and make the most out of that hour. Challenge number two is communicating to the people around me the value of not interrupting me. I love having a large block of uninterrupted time on my calendar, because that initial hurdle of subdividing it until there’s nothing left isn’t there. I know I can just sit down and start and get into the zone. If I’m in the zone for an hour, hey, that’s great. If I’m in the zone for three hours, that is fantastic and wonderful. If I’m in the zone for six hours, I’ve probably forgot to eat.
[Howard] That doesn’t happen very often.
[Dan] But even if you’re only in that zone for 15 minutes, that’s 15 minutes of writing that you got done. That’s the important thing that we want you to take away from this.
[Mary] Yeah. I used… When I was living in New York, I would think about what I was going to write on my way to the subway, and I would get on the subway and I would have 15 minutes. I would write that 15 minutes. Then I would think about what I was going to write while I was waiting for the next train, and then I would write it down. I wrote most of Glamour in Glass that way. Actually, in Graffiti on the subway. But the point of this was that even during those rest periods, those periods in between, I was thinking about it. So even though my word count was not actually happening on the page, I was still prepared when I got into the zone. Or got into a place where I could write. So one of the things that you can do if you know that you’ve got… Okay, I’m going to have X amount of time where I’m going to be able to write. As you are moving towards that time, be thinking about your story. Don’t just sit down and use part of the fingers on the keyboard time to ramp up.
[Dan] Yeah. I have done two different book tours with Lauren Oliver, who’s a fantastic YA writer, and she is constantly writing on her BlackBerry. That’s actually I think the craziest part of this story is that she’s writing on her BlackBerry. Anytime we’re in a car…
[Brandon] No, the craziest part is she still has a BlackBerry.
[Dan] I know. That’s the thing. Who has a BlackBerry? But anytime we’d get into the car to drive to one store to the next, she would pull it out and she would write and get just a couple of paragraphs and be done. Anytime she wasn’t, we could look at her and say, “Lauren, what are you thinking of right now?” And she’d say, “The chapter that I need to write next.” Because she was using that time she couldn’t be typing to get herself mentally prepared.
[Howard] Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man is very famously written on his phone.
[Brandon] Yep. On the subway in New York.
[Howard] Hey, that brings us to Newton’s second law of motion, which in… I mean, law of motion is force equals mass times acceleration. It’s typically expressed mathematically. Coughing up a formula for this, spit bowling… Word count equals motivation times focus.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think that’s a really good way to say it. Because you need to have that focus. Being motivated isn’t sometimes enough. Right? I meet a lot of writers who seem actually motivated to write some fiction, but they never actually get it done.
[Mary] Yeah. Conversely, I know people who are totally focused, but they don’t… Aren’t motivated because they have chosen projects to work on that they’re not actually excited about.
[Dan] Yes. We actually have… We had a question from a listener a while ago asking about burnout. What do I do if I’m just super burned out? That’s part of what that is, is that you’re focused on the work, but you’re just really unmotivated to do it.
[Brandon] So how do we get focus, and how do we get… Recently, in your lives, how have you gotten that focus and how have you gotten that motivation?
[Howard] This varies widely depending on the shape of the problem. I am… Getting motivated to write is often just a matter of, and we’ve already talked about this, thinking about the stuff that comes next. Getting excited about what comes next in the story. The focus… Well, focusing on making the words come out involves clearing some hurdles. Hurdle number one is putting my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard. Number two is clearing all of the other possible targets for my typing off of the screen. Closing twitter. Moving things around. Sometimes I even turn off two and maybe even three of my four monitors.
[Howard] It’s kind of… Yeah, okay. First world problem.
[Howard] I… But it’s an actual physical focus, where what I am looking at is the page. If I’m really motivated to write and that’s what I’ve got in front of me with my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard, then the word count starts to happen.
[Brandon] I time myself. Not time, but I mean I word count myself. How many words am I getting each hour? I can use that to gauge when I’m letting myself get too distracted. If I’m writing at my normal clip, I’m getting 500 words an hour. If I’m not, then that’s often an indication that something’s wrong. Now the something that’s wrong can be I just have a stomachache, so it’s harder to write that day, and that can be okay. But it could be that I’m just spending a little bit too much time distracted by the fantasy thread on Reddit, or what people are saying on twitter or things like this. Which I usually kind of manage my distractions. We’ve talked about this in the podcast before. To let my brain recover from writing a scene and jumping back and forth, but it’s very easy to get sucked into those things too much.
[Mary] Yeah. A lot of times, what’s happening with those is that they’re taking over your narrative brain. That is where the distraction comes from, is… And the lack of focus is because you’ve suddenly split your focus between two different narratives. Which is why when someone is wrong on the Internet, as a writer, you just need to let it go, because it will [distract your…] But the other thing that I do is I use a timer. I’m a… I’ve always been a procrastinator. I have a sand timer which is 45 minutes. I also have a 15 minute one. The reason I like it is that I turn it over and I start writing and I can’t tell when it runs out. So it doesn’t making noise, which means that I’ll keep going. I can’t also tell exactly how many minutes I have left. But I can tell that…
[Brandon] Oh, there’s still time left, I better keep going.
[Mary] I have to keep going. With the 15 minute one, in particular, I’ll turn it over and I’m like, “Mary, you have what? Eight minutes left, and you suddenly desperately have to go get a drink of water or you’re going to die? No.” So I use that. Then the other tool that I have recently discovered, and again, this is since the depression issues last year, is I’ve actually begun meditation. This is a way to actually try to clear my own brain space, the way I clear my monitor of other things. It’s… I have been pleasantly surprised by how well it works. I’m using an app called Headspace. But it’s… It is… The thing about focus is that what you’re trying to do is to bring your attention to bear on the problem at hand. You have to just clear everything that keeps you from doing that, through whatever method works with your particular brain.
[Howard] I found… On the timer front, you said, “Doesn’t make a noise.” I was looking at the Pomodoro school of you carve things into 20 or 25 minute tasks. What I found is that when that 25 minute timer went off and said, “Okay, take a five-minute break.” Eh. No. That break was way too long. Pomodoro just absolutely didn’t work for that. But when I need to sit down and write a movie review for a film that I’ve seen and I set that timer and I think, “All right. Movie review. Only 250 words long. I’m speaking from the heart. I should be able to type as fast as I think. The longest part of this process is the image grab and the crop in Photoshop. I’m going to get this done in 25 minutes. It is me racing that stupid little tomato timer, and if I don’t win, I suck.”
[Howard] That… I mean, I hate throwing down that gauntlet because…
[Dan] Because we’re trying to motivate you.
[Howard] Because we’re trying to motivate you. But sometimes, throwing that down in front of me and saying, “If I can’t do this, I just suck.” So I’m going to make it happen.
[Mary] That’s what Write or Die does.
[Howard] Oh, dear heavens.
[Mary] You can say how long… How many words you want to try to do in how much time. There’s various levels of it. I did not use the kamikaze one where it deletes your words if you stop writing.
[Howard] Good night.
[Mary] No, I do not use that. But I just use the version where if I stop writing, the screen slowly turns red.
[Mary] It’s a really good… It’s a really useful thing.
[Brandon] I’d never heard of this.
[Dan] Yeah, there’s lots of different settings.
[Mary] Oh, yeah. It’s really useful.
[Howard] Is there a version where a little zombie moves along your sentence, chasing your cursor?
[Brandon] Oh, that would be great.
[Howard] And you have to keep going or the zombie will eat your cursor?
[Mary] There is, actually. There is…
[Howard] I don’t want that one, because that’ll make me scared.
[Mary] It’s not with Write or Die, and I can’t remember what it’s called, but it basically does turn your fiction into one of those games where you have to jump… Yeah, I was just…
[Brandon] Okay. Let’s… We really ought to stop…
[Howard] Book of the week?
[Brandon] For the book of the week.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] Mary, you actually have the book of the week this time.
[Mary] Right. The book of the week is Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. This book is set in Regency England, so kind of near to my heart. It’s about a young man who becomes the sorcerer to the crown of… And it is the book that I wish that I had written. It is so good. It deals with gender issues and class and race and then the sense of wonder is amazing. Like the… Basically, it’s a problem puz… Novel in a lot of ways, because magic in London… In England has stopped. They have to figure out why and have to restore it. At the same time, people are wanting the sorcerer to the crown removed because they are blaming him for it. It’s a fantastic book. Beautiful world building and details. And it’s written in omniscient point of view, which he handles gorgeously.
[Brandon] Excellent. Wow.
[Mary] So this is Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. There is everything to love about it. It is narrated by Jenny Sterlin. You can get it by going to Audible and starting a 30-day free trial membership at audiblepodcast.com/excuse.
[Brandon] Perfect. I think we’re on to a third Law.
[Howard] Right on. Okay. This one, I couldn’t come up with a clever one that puts word count in it. But we all know the third Law. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. My take on this is that when I write words, the words write back. When I put things on the keyboard, when I tell a story, if I’ve done it well, it affects me. There is something that I get back out of that. Writing is… In essence, writing is its own reward.
[Dan] Yes. My wife knows when I need to get back to work again. After finishing a project and taking a little break, two or three days into that break, I’ll start getting really cranky. She’s like, “Okay, you need to be creating something again, because that’s what makes you happy.” Then I know I need to get back and start writing.
[Mary] One of the things about this is the equal and opposite reaction… The amount of break that you need does actually correspond to how many words you get down on the page. There have been days when I’ve had to for whatever… For deadline reasons, put down a stupidly high word count. Then I need another day before I write again, just because my brain is so tired. So one of the things when you’re setting a word count for yourself, be reasonable about how much time you’re giving yourself to recover in between writing sessions.
[Howard] I am not a… I am not by any means a record-setting sort of writer. My personal best for words in one sitting is 6000 words. At the end of that sitting, I did not sit down and write words for quite some time, because the chair hit back pretty hard.
[Brandon] I have a different take on this law.
[Howard] Okay. Good.
[Brandon] I’m going to take it in a different direction. For me, when we said we’re doing the Newton’s three laws, and we talked about the third one, I immediately envisioned the idea that every word you write is worthwhile. The equal and opposite reaction to me is every word that you, listener, put down is doing something wonderful for you. It is progressing your story, and more importantly, it is progressing your writing skill. I often tell my students, and I’ve said it before on the podcast, I believe, that the end goal of writing your stories is not the book. The end goal of writing the stories is turning yourself into a better storyteller and writer. You are the end product of your books. The book is great. We want to have the book. But your skill will grow so much with each book that that is far more exciting and important, at least to me. So every word you write, none of them are wasted. The equal and opposite reaction is the change inside of yourself that makes you better at doing this, and makes this whole thing more fulfilling.
[Howard] That’s a much better metaphor than the one that I often use, which is these 1000 words that I had to write before I got to write the 1000 words that actually worked are the 1000 words that were in the way that I just had to type and get rid of. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Those 1000 words I had to write in order to change myself so that I was the writer I needed to be that could write the 1000 words that worked.
[Brandon] Now, we are out of time on this episode. I’m going to give you a writing prompt. It’s going to actually be a classic writing prompt. One of these ideas that popped into my head and I was on the cruise, and that I was actually pretty excited about. So maybe someday I’ll write it. They were talking about art auctions, and it just sent me down this weird spiraling path to thinking about, “You know, it would be kind of smart to take artists, buy up all their paintings, and then murder them so that the art spiked in value.”
[Brandon] So the story somehow is about somebody who is a serial killer of artists, specifically in order to bump the value of all that art up and try to make money. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write. Please don’t kill any artists.