Words of Iron, Buns of Steel . . . or Be An Arnold, Not A Sean
Something tickles your muse so you sit and begin writing. Sometime later you decide you’ve finished. Enough is enough and you have other things needing doing. Or your muse has run out of steam and is limping across the finish line. Or you’ve reached your word count goal for the day. Or your hourly count. Or you get frustrated and give up.
But how do you know when you’re REALLY done?
For me I usually write anywhere from 2 to 8 hours daily. I sit before my trusty laptop, start banging out words and everything is going great. Hours later the pauses between writing grow longer and longer. Then once I realize I’ve been going back through what I’ve already written and am attempting to find superior words for the past half hour or so I know I’m done writing for the day because: write first, edit last. Time to recharge my muse because it’s drifting off into the oblivion of slumber, exhausted. So I go about the rest of my day with the later plan of reading a good book for a few hours and maybe getting in some weight lifting depending on the specific day of the week after my “real job” because that’s what recharges my muse for the following session.
For others they have a specific word count goal for the day and once they reach it they stop regardless if they can continue writing. 1,000 words achieved? 2,500? 3,729? Done and done. Time to mow the yard or wash the dishes or beat the kids.
Others still have a specific set number of hours they write each day, and once the ticker hits whatever o’ clock they click save then close their laptop and go about their daily routine until tomorrow comes along with a new day of writing.
Then there are those whom have no specific goal at all. You know who you are. They may sit for hours toiling over 3 little paragraphs while attempting to make every word a perfect fit like pieces to an elaborate puzzle. Or they write 10 pages only to realize 9 of those pages are uninteresting or illogical or unrelated bunk and needs be deleted. Sometimes they have no plan of how their story will go and so sit in wonderment trying to figure out where their protagonist should go next or wait for that perfect line of dialogue while they chew on a pen for 2 hours straight and stare out the window. Though sometimes the words flow onto the page so fast their fingers can barely keep up. While other times they grunt and frown because everything they type is crap and their usual musing flow has slowed to a disappointing trickle.
Which brings me back to weight lifting.
Lifting weights has afforded me several things over the years (strength and muscle and better health included) and those things have carried over into my writing. Though I’m not a competitive bodybuilder or powerlifter by any means. I started lifting weights when I was a few months shy of 20 years old, I was bitten by “the iron bug” and have continued lifting ever since because I enjoy the struggle of moving heavy weight and the benefits it affords me both physical and mental. And every time I step under or grab the oly bar (olympic bar for you newbs to weight lifting) I have a specific goal to achieve. I don’t always achieve it, mind, but when I do my happiness blooms like spring flowers. Weight lifting is a constant flow of success because you set smaller goals to reach over a shorter course while slowly achieving a larger goal over the longer haul.
Want to squat 300lbs by next summer? Then you start with the puny 45lb. oly bar across your back knowing you will try to add 5 tiny pounds to the bar each workout or every week until you eventually reach 300lbs.
Weight lifting is humbling. It’s just you verses the load. There’s no taskmaster lashing your back with their motivational whip. You either move the weights or you don’t. Period. No one else to blame but yourself and your lack of effort.
Which is why it’s so much like writing. Because it’s just you verses the empty page. You write a little each day over the short course while slowly working toward writing an entire novel over the long haul.
I’m a Plotter by nature. I’ve tried Pantsing but it wasn’t for me. How anyone can sit and try writing while having no idea what they want to write about is something I’ve never been able to grasp. To me that’s like getting into your car intent on driving but with no destination in mind. I understand the appeal but not the waste of gas.
I plot my stories out before I begin writing them so I know they make logical sense while also containing surprising yet logical plot twists. I divide them into smaller sections, each with a brief description that tells me where I’m going though not specific enough as to how I should get there so I can still weave new ventures into scenes that did not occur to me while plotting. This helps me write every time I write. I literally cannot think of a single time I’ve ever sat to write and produced nothing.
And it’s because of weight lifting that I hold to this plotter’s mentality. Every workout I strive for more reps or sets or weight than the previous workout. Progressive Overload is the #1 key factor to getting stronger and more muscular. Everything else is wasted effort if there’s no progressive overload. Even one more single rep than last time is one more rep than last time. Tiny accomplishments added up equal a big success. If I’ve plotted out 40 scenes for a novel, I know once I’ve written all 40 scenes that I’ll have a finished first draft of an entire novel. I may have more scenes when I’m finished, which I almost always do because writing is a wondrous process of discovery, but in the end that first draft is done. Next stop: editsville.
Because of this I tend to view Pantsers as those whom go to the gym having no idea of which exercises or what muscle groups they want to train for the day, only that they want to exercise. And if you have any knowledge of or experience with lifting weights (I have 20 years worth as I write this, by the by) then you know these are the exact type of “lifters” who remain small and weak because they achieve zero consistent progress.
These are the skinny-fat guys (yes, “skinny-fat” is actually a lifting term, meaning your limbs are skinny while the rest of you is fat) benching 185 or squatting 225 for “heavy singles” just like they were two or more years ago, and you know in two or more years’ time they’ll still be struggling with the same weights while you’re pushing up 315 for reps or rebounding out of the hole with 495 for a new PR (PR = personal record; the “hole” is the bottom of a squat just so ya know, and not just “the tops of your thighs breaking parallel to the floor” bottom but the “calves touching hamstrings” bottom). These skinny-fat “lifters” also assume glugging 3 protein shakes in one month on top of the 2 extra cheese burgers they ate will somehow add 30lbs. of muscle to their spindly frames then blame “overtraining” or their lack of steroid use when it doesn’t.
Monday they exercise their chesticles, Tuesday their arms and abs. The next two days are “rest” days because they have stupid memes to tweet out to their 7 followers and groceries don’t buy themselves. Friday rolls around and they decide on chest and biceps again because why not? They want to develop a frosty peak on that massive 12 inch bicep of theirs anyhow and a wide sweep to their flat birdchest. Saturday? Naw, I gotta mow the yard, and Sunday is my “relax and play video games all day” day. Monday again and they decide they haven’t worked their wheels in a month so they bang out a few half-assed squats, sinking 6 inches “deep” if that and with excessive hunching because they overloaded the bar in the hopes of impressing the hot girl locked in a distant stare while doing 1,000 unweighted lunges hoping to tone her saggy glutes who doesn’t even know their name, then they slam the weight home in the power rack and call it a day. Tuesday is a rest day because their lumbars are almost as sore as their fragile ego from Monday’s “squats.” Wednesday and it’s time for some high-rep curls for the girls to pump those tiny biceps, and 5lb. lateral raises to plump their medial delts wider . . . until the pump goes away 20 minutes later and they look like they never even hit the gym let alone broke a sweat in their too-tight wife-beater gripping their flabby gut. Thursday was gonna be back day but now it’s chest day because they watched a youtube video the night before of a silverback twice their age and body weight benching 700lbs. at his local powerlifting meet and earning cheers. What weight did I use last time? Oh, who knows. I don’t keep track of that stuff anyhow because simple math is hard. Friday and whew! It’s been a long week at work so they decide on an extended weekend vacation from the gym. Besides, it’s summer out, and who wants to get all sweaty when I can post on Facebook about the last song I listened to and how it made me feel then sit for hours refreshing the page every 15 seconds while wondering why nobody is liking my dumb-ass post because I forgot I’m not the center of everyone’s universe.
See where I’m going with this?
Inconsistency breeds a severe lack of results.
Now, this doesn’t mean to say that Pantsing is an inferior method of writing, because it’s not. It’s just not my preferred method when it comes to making progress because you can’t measure inconsistent achievements.
Go ahead and try to find your average word count when you write 1,500 words on Monday, 200 on Tuesday, Wednesday you cranked out 4,500 but deleted half of it because you looked back and realized the last half had nothing to do with the main conflict of your story, Thursday was a good day with 3,200 words down while the kids were at school, Friday you got nothing though you did realize your protagonist’s hair should be brown instead of black after 3 hours of daydreaming, Saturday you managed 500 words but you had to cut it short because you were hungry then did two loads of laundry, and Sunday you banged out a nice 1,700 words but you’re not sure if they’re a keeper because they’re about a new character you just came up with on the fly and haven’t yet figured out how to work them into your story.
Every Pantser I know enjoys the excitement of discovering what they write as they write it. Though when no words come pouring forth as they’d hoped, they grow frustrated and blame their muse because it’s a lot easier to blame than themselves for being undisciplined as a writer.
“I just couldn’t write anything today because my muse wasn’t working.”
What you mean is you didn’t write anything today because you are a lazy writer.
Humble yourself and admit the truth. You might as well do so now because nobody is going to write your novels for you.
Nothing worth doing is ever easy. Weights don’t lift themselves, and neither do blank pages fill with words on their own.
Hard work and dedication reap their own rewards. Having a set goal, however tiny, is still a goal for you to work toward achieving. And success breeds the motivation to continue achieving.
You make progress by keeping track of your progress. It really is as simple as that. And you don’t blame anyone but yourself if you fail to achieve results. Set smaller daily goals so that when added up they equal a big success over months of writing. Which makes that time spent toiling away all the more satisfying when you look back and see just how far you’ve come and how much you’ve accomplished.
Let me tell you about my writer and lifter friend Sean. Sean doesn’t write every day, instead he writes only when his muse strikes him. Sean also doesn’t rewrite–ever!–because he believes editing will remove the inspirational emotion from his writing (god help us all) because he’s an artist and when he writes he writes with passion sparked by the flames of his fiery muse. One day Sean gets a particular interesting character stuck in his head involved in a few interesting situations, so from here on out he decides his stories will revolve around said character. For the next year Sean only writes when his muse strikes him. One year later and Sean has a random collection of stories loosely connected to his character who is not even a protagonist because no antagonist exists.
So what does Sean do now?
He can either face facts and assemble all of his stores, arrange then rearrange them until they flow into each other with a logical sense of connection, go back and rewrite everything so the scenes weave together, and eventually he’ll have a finished novel. Maybe. He also has to deal with several major plot holes he has no idea how he’s going to plug because he never planned out any of his stories beforehand. Or Sean can continue down his inconsistent path and keep writing stories that have nothing in common other than a protagonist wandering through random events and hope for the best.
Sean, by the way, has never published anything. Ever. Because readers don’t want to spend their hard-earned money on let alone their time reading a collection of random events. Sean also buys lottery tickets with the “plan” of winning and retiring from life and is always disappointed when his numbers don’t come up in the Idiot Tax.
Is Sean’s lack of progress always true? No. But even Napoleon Dynamite had a plot revolving round a very interesting protagonist.
Sean is the type of “lifter” who goes to the gym whenever he feels like it. He never records any weights or sets or reps on any of his exercises because his exercise routine is always different. He can bench press his own body weight for a few reps if he really pushes hard, but he never gets anywhere near his goal of bench pressing 300lbs. because some chest days (which are never set in stone, god forbid) he bench presses while others he does cable crossovers and never with the same weight twice let alone for the same sets and reps. Sean has the appearance of possibly working out, though he definitely isn’t what anyone would describe as athletic. Sean has yet to understand the motto “Failing to plan is planning to fail” despite the irony of living it.
Now let me tell you about my other writer and lifter friend Arnold. Arnold understands that a goal without a plan is just a wish. One day Arnold gets some ideas about an interesting protagonist involved in several interesting and related events. Arnold spends a few days coming up with many more interesting and related scenes, moving them around until his story possesses a logical sense of flow while also having several intriguing plot twists. Arnold then sits down every day determined to write 1,000 words no ifs, ands, or buts. 1,000 words per day is small enough to manage without interfering in his other life activities yet large enough to produce good results so that’s his goal. Sometimes the 1,000 word goal takes Arnold several hours, and sometimes he’s done in half an hour. But he’s made a plan and a commitment and so sticks to it. After 80 days Arnold has an 80,000 word first draft of a novel. Arnold pats himself on the back for all his hard work because his planning and dedication has paid off.
So what does Arnold do now?
Arnold takes a break and rewards himself. For the next week he relaxes while his new novel “rests.” The following week it’s back to work, because Arnold spends the next 80 days rewriting and editing his novel-to-be. 1,000 words per day just as before, only now the process is much easier because all those words actually exist. 80 days later and Arnold is done. Hooray! He rewards himself for all his hard work. Then he spends the following weekend polishing his entire novel by crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s while omitting needless words and double-checking spelling and grammar. Weekend over and everything in Arnold’s new novel is exactly how he wants it. He could keep tweaking but he knows it’s not necessary. Now Arnold sends his finished manuscript out to publishers. But he doesn’t play the waiting game by sitting there biting his fingernails down to bloody nubs, no sir-ee. Instead Arnold sits and plots out a new story just as before then begins working on his next novel-to-be. 1,000 words a day worked out great so he bumps it up a tad to 1,200 a day because why not reach for higher than before?
Arnold is the type of lifter who has a plan before he hits the gym. It may not be perfect, and he adjusts it where needed, but his plan provides him goals to strive toward. He keeps a record of his workouts to ensure he makes slow but steady progress because progressive overload is key to training, though sometimes he goes into the gym knowing only that it’s “back day” and decides which specific exercises to perform while working out his back. Arnold not only reached his goal of a 300lbs. bench press months ago but is now closing in on 350lbs because he’s consistently added a tiny amount of weight to the bar over a long period. Arnold definitely looks like he lifts weights by the way his muscular physique bulges beneath his shirt and pants. And Arnold attracts more female attention because not only has his consistent workouts given him an attractive physique but it’s also an instant visual indication to others than Arnold is a hard-working man who follows through with things.
Arnold’s consistency has not only helped him in the gym but also carries over into other aspects of his life. Arnold is ambitious and sets goals then strives to accomplish them, making him a success and a boss favorite at work. Because weights don’t lift themselves, Arnold is confident when he lifts weights he hasn’t lifted before and humbled when he doesn’t because he has nobody to blame but himself. Arnold is friendly to others because he enjoys helping those weaker than him while also knowing he is physically capable of defending himself against bodily threats.
There is a major difference between Sean and Arnold, and it ain’t the stink of their gym shorts.
Arnold is a man others respect and know they can depend on because he follows through with things. He’s a man who gives his word then does his best to stick to it. He lives on his own and works hard to accomplish his goals. If Arnold hit the lottery he’d bank it as savings and enjoy a comfortable rest of his life while still working hard to achieve his writerly dreams.
Sean is a boy pretending to be a man who shows up late if at all, and when he does you never know what kind of mood he’s in because of his uncooperative muse. He blames everyone else but himself, makes promises he never keeps, and is unreliable at best. Sean is the loser who lives in his parents’ basement smoking weed and playing video games or listening to music all day at 30-something years old, and every so often he scribbles down a story in one of his notebooks for that first novel he’ll eventually get around to writing. Always telling everyone he’s gonna be a writer someday . . . always someday, though never today. If Sean hit the lottery he’d be broke within 2 years.
I advise you to treat your writing like an exercise program. Don’t think of it as a chore but a habit, and make it a good one. Don’t be a Skinny-fat Sean who makes little if any progress, looks like he’s hardly every touched a weight after several years of “training,” and blames the weights or his uncooperative muse for all his lifting or writing failures. Instead be an Athletic Arnold, a confident and determined though humble individual earning constant success through proven results because he cares enough about himself and his achievements in life to plan ahead.