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
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
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
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
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,
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.
Back to Article