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 A Writer in Motion:
Newtonian Laws for the Modern Author

by Jim C. Hines
(Jim is the author of Goldfish Dreams)

As I browse through the online writing journals that have become more and more popular over the past few years, two things occur to me. The first is a question: Why am I surfing the net when I should be writing? The second is a common theme that recurs in many journals, as well as in conversations Iíve had with other writers over the years: How can we be more productive with our writing?

Forcing the question are those writers who produce enough manuscripts each year to depopulate a small forest. While dealing with my own struggles to remain productive, Iíve tried to look at what works and what doesnít, both for myself and others. I discovered... Isaac Newton. With only a few small changes in word choice, Newton could have written his three laws about the writing process.

Law 1: A writer at rest tends to stay at rest, and a writer in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.

Many writers, myself included, discover an endless list of chores that simply must be finished before they can work on their story. The carpets need vacuuming, the dishes arenít done, the cats have to be fed... and when we finally sit down at the computer, thereís e-mail to check, web journals to read, and "just one more" game of Minesweeper to play.

The longer we wait, the harder it is to get to work. After finishing a draft of a novel this November, I took a week off "to recover." Fair enough, right? A novel is a lot of effort, and even Olympic athletes need a breather after an event. I took a second week off because, "I needed some distance from the book before I revised." I wanted to make sure I could read objectively. The third week was Christmas, so naturally I didnít do any writing then. The fourth week I didnít even bother with an excuse. I said, "Iím tired, and Iíll get to it later."

By the time I finally sat down to begin revisions in early January, I had over a month of momentum working against me. The first few days were worthless, and not until a week had passed did I reach a good pace, one where I could revise a chapter per day. How much easier would it have been if I had kept writing something each day - a short story, an article, even a page of freewriting gibberish - anything to maintain my momentum?

Which brings us to the second half of this law. Once you start to write, inertia can actually help you to continue. I had the opportunity to listen to Kevin J. Anderson speak two years ago. An incredibly prolific author, Kevin talked about hitting the million-word mark, the point where a writer produces a million words in a single year. Thatís ten novels.

After overcoming a bit of raw envy, I began to understand. The more you write, the more momentum you gain, and the easier it is to increase that productivity even further.

Law 2: Quality is equal to the product of talent and effort.

Some people claim talent is everything. Others claim talent is irrelevant compared to dedication and effort. For now, let us assume that, just as every object has some measurable mass, every writer has some quantity of talent, however great or small.

Since we canít request more talent from our manufacturer, talent functions as a constant. We can decide how much effort weíre going to put into our writing. Among any group of people, some of us will need to do a lot more work than others. I know, because writing has always been one of my worst subjects.

Nobody has it easy. Sure, we all hear stories about the brilliant girl who sold her first bestseller at the age of fourteen. Likewise, Iíve grumbled about how easily writing comes to some of my friends, the ones who sold stories to Analog while I was still collecting badly Xeroxed form rejections.

Maybe theyíre more talented than me. In fact, most of them probably are. I canít do anything to change that, so why worry about it? If one writer naturally produces smooth, flowing prose while I churn out a page and a half of stilted garbage, that simply means I have to put in more effort. Itís a simple equation. Increasing effort will improve productivity and success, regardless of how talented the writer may or may not be.

Iíve even seen an abundance of talent work against a writer. Greater talent requires less effort to achieve the same result. But when the demand grows, productivity needs to increase as well. I saw this phenomenon most clearly when I was teaching freshman composition at Eastern Michigan University. The kids who had the hardest time learning to write at a college level were not the ones with the least talent, but the ones with so much talent that they had breezed through high school. The students who were used to giving greater effort did fairly well.

So talent, while a nice thing to have, is not the ultimate measure of a writerís success. All we can control is our effort. I believe everyone can produce brilliant, bestselling work, as long as they balance the equation. That kind of quality will always require a matching level of work.

Law 3: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Writing is hard. How many of us have been told, "If you can find anything else to do with your life, do it. If you donít have to write, quit." Success comes with a price, and the higher your goal as a writer, the higher the cost. One of the greatest costs has nothing to do with the slow-but-steady rise in the price of stamps, the money shelled out for that old word processor, or for bills to the therapists who help us through another bout of Rejection-Depression. One of the greatest costs is time.

Over the past month, I had a long list of things I wanted to accomplish. I was going to exercise more. I wanted to volunteer at a local crisis center. I wanted to revise the aforementioned novel and write a few short stories. Of course, I also had to go to work so I could pay off the Christmas bills. Somewhere in the midst of everything I hoped to visit a few friends I hadnít seen in months.

I set out to do everything on my list. It didnít happen. Every time I tried to do something, another goal slipped through the cracks. If I worked on my writing, I didnít get to visit friends. If I played racketball, I came home too exhausted to work on the novel.

We all know this isnít an easy field. Simply knowing, however, is not enough. Every time we sit down at the keyboard, brush off the typewriter, or lug out the old notebook, we pay a price. We give up something else we could have been doing with that time. If we arenít aware of those costs, if we donít deliberately choose to work on writing instead of something else, thereís a tendency to end up frustrated and resentful.

Sometimes the choice is an easy one. Should I watch a rerun of The Simpsons or write another three pages of the novel? For me, the novel takes priority. (Unless itís a Halloween special, of course.)

Sometimes itís not so easy. If I spend a week visiting friends out of state, thatís a week when Iím unlikely to write, but Iím not willing to sacrifice all human contact, either.

I still watch The Simpsons from time to time, and I still visit friends. That means Iím not as productive as I might be. Sometimes I choose to write instead of exercise. This means Iím a few pounds heavier than I want to be. Choice, cost. Action, reaction. As long as weíre aware of those reactions, weíll be better able to cope with them.

What it comes down to is this: we have the power to control how productive we are as writers. The more we write, the easier it will become. (This should not be taken to mean that it will ever be easy.) The harder we work, the more we succeed - eventually. Likewise, the more energy we devote to writing, the more we sacrifice in other areas. After all, I could have seen Lord of the Rings this afternoon instead of sitting here with my laptop, working on this article.
_____
Jim C. Hines
jchines@sff.net



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