Day 3: Momentum and Arbitrary Limitations

I’d hoped to talk about characters today, but an allergic attack (a really wicked case of the sniffles) along with the medication I took to relieve it incapacitated me for most of the day. Character work takes coherence, and I have that in short supply. I still got some writing in, and wanted to talk about the importance of that – of not giving up for one day.


Every writer is different. I get that. For some, the entire idea of NaNoWriMo cannot fit with their writing style, since they write in infrequent, incredibly prolific bursts. Once you know that is how you get your books done, there isn’t any real reason for trying to change it up.

The problem there is that it is easy to assume that is how you write, when it has nothing to do with reality. I have succumbed, again and again, to the idea that, with just the right amount of outlining and thinking ahead, I could put my head down and write a novel in a week of 10 hour sessions, outputting 40 to 60 pages a day. In fact, my most productive day of writing probably did result in 50 pages, the end of a 500 page fantasy novel.

Problem is, the novel is terrible. No one will ever see it, and I can’t for the life of me understand why I don’t send that Word file into digital oblivion. I may have some fantasy of being an author of some literary esteem, and at some point the subject of academic study. Some intrepid young researcher, given access to my files finds this fantasy novel. This is all posthumous, understand, after I have succumbed to a debilitating case of Awesomitis at the age of 352. He reads it. And concludes, “Wow, Kent wasn’t very good when he was 20. I’ve wasted my life studying him” and drops dead of Disappointerosis.

Where was I? Oh, 50 pages in a day. It is a dream because I would prefer to have finished whatever book I am writing now post-haste. I am not one of those who says he prefers “having written” to “writing”. I like writing fine. I just am far more interested in the next book than the one I’m writing at the moment, since every word I’ve put down in my current book is separating it from the perfect Platonic text in my head, while that future book has not been sullied by the vulgarization of putting it into words.

The fantasy of finishing whatever I’m working on at the moment quickly and efficiently is a dangerous one, because it sets up a feeling of disappointment: I set an unrealistic goal for myself, miss it, get discouraged. Or, worse, try to make it up the next day, which makes the task of writing unpleasant. The only thing that has worked for me (and to date I have completed 9 novels and about as many screenplays) is steady, day in and day out, work. The momentum and regularity of sitting down every day and eking out some scribbles is the only thing that gets the books done.

You may have a different way of working. But until you have proven so, assume you have to work every day. And assume that any day you have not worked is a day of work completely lost that you will not make up. Don’t try to make it up. Don’t worry to much about it. Just grab your lunch pail, head to your place of writing, and do what you can that day. Every day. Until you are done.

Arbitrary Limitations

Working without a net, without an editor, without any input from anybody else creates a wonderful freedom, and complete freedom means unlimited ways to suck. One of my tricks for fighting this freedom (which means, ultimately, fighting the blank page) is arbitrary limitations.

Mostly this comes in the form of pre-meditated structural choices. Like, number of chapters. With my NaNoWriMo book, today I decided that I wanted it to be 40 chapters long. My preference is for one chapter to be roughly one scene, so that means I am writing 40 scenes. 40 locations, 40 conflicts (at least), 40 THINGS THAT HAPPEN. If I’m following a four act structure (set-up, incident and reaction, action, resolution, to put it in almost uselessly succinct terms) that means about 10 chapters per act.

You can make up other arbitrary story limitations. Each act will take place in one location. I will have no more than four important characters. My book will begin in the summer, and end at the end of the school year. I will explore exactly 24 hours of one man’s life. One week, seven murders.

The problem with this way of writing is that it can appear to arrest any organic story-growing. It can feel, just looking at it, as bloodless, formulaic, and enervating. And for some, it may be. For me, it’s a battle plan. The white screen, the blank page, they are my enemies. I want to fight them with wonders and interests and amusements. But to do so, I need a strategy. Just throwing crap out there means I will get lost, and so will my audience, and I will lose them. The arbitrary limitation gives me a box I can fit my head around, and from there I can fight with a chance of winning.

Today’s Writing

862 words (3142 total.) I wish I could say other artistic obligations took me away from my writing, but, seriously, it was the sniffles. According to the NaNoWriMo site, I am on track to finish my book somewhere in the middle of December, but I expect once I’ve really finished my structural work (hopefully by the middle of next week) I will be in a position to write less fitfully. And if the damned air and trees of California’s central coast stop trying to kill me. It’s like The Happening here, but instead of trees making me commit suicide, I use a lot of tissues. And instead of Zooey Deschanel, I have two cats who wake me up at 4 in the morning, just ’cause.

Though I hear Zooey Deschanel is free now. Maybe she’d like my cats. And I’m way better than Mark Wahlberg.

Not better than Donnie, though. Nor the funky bunch. My medication is making me fuzzy.

Today’s Writing Music: Electric Wizard, again. This time, Witchcult Today. Every song on the album sounds almost exactly the same. And they all sound awesome.


One response to “Day 3: Momentum and Arbitrary Limitations

  1. Thanks for the encouragement, Kent! Today’s been busy, but I’ll be sure to write something before I go to sleep. Just after I finish watching Community.

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