The Five Modes of A Writer’s Life

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So I was sitting around the other day with a bout of procrastination when I had a thought (I writertry to have at least one thought per day). I find, as a writer, I am usually in one of five modes: Flow, Go, Slow, No and Pro. I thought of adding another one for residents of New York and New Jersey – Yo! – but decided five was enough

Flow

Flow is a state of hyper focus, of total immersion in one’s creative work. In this mode you experience a mix of forgetfulness, play, joy, and “time quickening.” An hour feels like five minutes. Difficult tasks seem to melt before you. You are “in the zone.”

Jack London wrote a lot about flow, in all parts of life, but especially in the life of the writer. In The Call of the Wild he compares it to the elemental ecstasy of the animal in full beast mode:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.

There you go, writer. Hunt that book!

So how do you get into the zone when you write? I’ve found it more or less sneaks up on you, that you can’t force it. But there is a way to make it more recurrent: Know your craft!

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I’ll help you out. It’s pronounced MEE-high Chick-SENT-mee-high), in his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, stressed that flow most often occurs when the challenge of a task is met with an equal or greater skill level. When you know what you’re doing, and how to pull something off, you are more likely to experience flow. I love the speech in The Hustler with Paul Newman, where he describes to his girl what it’s like to play great pool:

EDDIE: Like, you know, anything can be great. Brick laying can be great, if a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.

When I’m goin’, I mean when I’m really goin’, I feel like a jockey must feel. He’s sitting on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him, he’s coming into the stretch, the pressure’s on him, and he knows. He just feels when to let it go and how much. ‘Cause he’s got everything working for him – timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a really great feeling when you’re right and you know you’re right.

It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue’s part of me … You feel the roll of those balls and you don’t have to look, you just know. You make shots nobody’s ever made before. I can play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.

SARAH: You’re not a loser, Eddie, you’re a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything.

Study your craft and write with abandon and you will experience those times when you just know. It’s the greatest mode of the writing life.

Go

The next best thing to being lost in flow is being able to write at a good pace anyway. Get the words down. Turn off the inner editor and just go.

One way to do that is the writing sprint. You set yourself a goal of, say, 250 words. You make a little plan for what you’re going to write. It might be some action, some description, some dialogue, whatever. You think about it, then write without stopping.

You can set a timer for this, or use something like Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die.

When you get to the end of your sprint you might very well find that you’re in flow. So keep going.

Otherwise, take a short break and then do another sprint.

Slow

We all know there are times when writing is a slog. There are many reasons this may be. It could be physical—you’re just tired. Or it could be a part of your manuscript you’re unclear or unexcited about.

If it’s physical, take a power nap. I recommend them! Every day, sometime between one and three o’clock, I try to nod off for fifteen or twenty minutes. You can train your body to do that. I can put my feet up on my desk and lean back in my chair, or hit the sofa, and I’m off to dreamland in a minute or two.

Another idea when it’s slow going is to take a brisk walk in the sunshine. If you live in Buffalo and it’s December, do some jumping jacks in the living room … and then don’t live in Buffalo in December anymore.

If slowness is caused by being unclear or unexcited about your WIP, try this:

Skip ahead from wherever you are and write a fresh new scene. Before you start, let the scene play in your mind and tell your imagination to come up with one surprising thing. Out of the blue. Wild. Your character could do something you never thought he would. Or another character might pop in (Chandler’s famous “guy with a gun” perhaps?). Or create some crazy lines of dialogue.

At the very least, this exercise will produce new plot possibilities and more layers of character life. And it’s fun.

No

And then there are some days when you simply do not want to write, when it almost feels like you can’t type. Your fingers rest on the keys but refuse to move.

There may be several reasons for this.

It could be that familiarity has bred contempt. You just can’t stand looking at your project anymore. Perhaps you’ve hit a wall in your story and don’t know whether to jump over, tunnel under, blow it up, or go back the way you came.

Or it could be completely unrelated to your writing, such as a life crisis that saps your mental energy.

So the first thing to do is figure out why your brain is saying No. Journaling about it helps. Write to yourself in a free-form way, asking questions, letting your thoughts pour out on the page.

But don’t beat yourself up if you have to take a break. I am all for busting through barriers, but there have been times when I’ve given myself permission to just say No. I even build a day into my week for a “writing Sabbath.” I try not to write anything on Sunday. This lets my mind rest and usually results in new ideas and fresh energy on Monday.

Pro

The pro writer writes to a quota.

Now, I know some writers think a quota stifles creativity by putting “pressure” on delicate artist sensibilities. I say hooey. It’s the exact opposite. Having a quota actually pulls you forward so flow and ideas and productivity can happen.

My standard advice: find the number of words you can comfortably produce in a normal week. Then up that by10%. Make that your weekly goal and divide it up among your days and according to your schedule. Keep track of how you do each day.

A pro also keeps up on what’s happening in the publishing world – both traditional and indie – in order to make wise career choices. Keep abreast of what’s being offered in publishing contracts (Kris Rusch is currently running a great series on this subject. Start here.) Subscribe to industry blogs like Jane Friedman and follow observers like @Porter_Anderson. Put together your own list of go-to resources … and then go to them.

And then there’s marketing, which these days falls mainly on the author’s shoulders, even in traditional publishing. So we all have to give it attention, but here’s my thing: follow the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of your writing life should be devoted to the writing itself, the craft, the production. Twenty percent to the business and marketing side. Why? Because I’ve seen some fabulous marketers zigging and zagging all over the place, but with stinky books. That doesn’t build repeat business.

And repeat business is the name of this game for a pro. You get that when you write great books. So make that your primary focus.

For if you can deftly handle Flow, Go, Slow, No and Pro, you will greatly increase your chances of making something else – Dough.

Y’know?

So …

…what mode have you been in lately?

 

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28 thoughts on “The Five Modes of A Writer’s Life

  1. I’m a constant student of the craft, but actually writing a complete novel taught me so many things, one of which is that I write because of the flow, the magic.

    Before I started writing my second novel, a friend sent me the first draft of his second novel, and I couldn’t believe how good his first draft was… until I started writing my second novel.

    Wow! What a difference! So much more flow. So many elements of the craft are now second nature to me that I often write the first draft of a scene and I know it won’t need revision until I’m finished the entire first draft.

    Absolutely knowing your craft makes a huge difference. I’m looking forward to the next novel because I’m sure the magic will happen even more frequently, not only the magic or flow of ideas but the magic of being able to forget the craft, because the craft is in you.

    • I’m so with you on this, Sheryl. I remember feeling exactly the same way when I finished my first novel. How much I learned just from doing that. I still had a lot of craft to pick up, but there was a certain confidence after that which never went away.

  2. I heartily agree with everything here. A few months ago, while prowling the indie community, I met a group of people who can comfortably write a novel in a month. They can write 12 books a year. Astounded, I asked how this was done. They directed me to an outlining book called Take Off Your Pants (writers joke). Using it, I wrote 3 books in 4 months. I’m also using your technique of tracking word count daily–it’s like a dopamine drip. I keep going back for more.

    So yes, it really does work. 🙂

  3. Jim, sometimes I’m in the mode of “Whoa”–as in, “Whoa, where do I go from here?” That’s when I put the project aside for a day and let Stephen King’s “boys in the basement” work on it. I usually see the answer the next day.
    Otherwise, I recognize all the stages you describe. Thanks for reminding me that I’m not alone.

    • Doc, that’s a great addition to the list. WHOA! As in:

      Where did that come from?
      Did I really write that?
      Do I really want people to see this?
      What would my mother say?
      What was I thinking?
      Where’s the bourbon?

  4. Ah, flow. Unquestionably the most awesome phase of the process–and also the most infrequently achieved, at least in my finding. But the good news is you can find evidence of your flow when you go back and read some of the things you’ve written. You peruse it and then look up and say, “WOW! Did I write that?” 😎

    • So right, BK. I get that feeling every so often. Usually it’s a line or a paragraph, sometimes a scene. And I let myself enjoy the moment, just between me and the wallpaper. Then get back to trying to do it again.

  5. I love the “dough mnemonic” flow, go, slow, no, pro.

    I’ve been in the slow phase lately. Proofreading simply isn’t as much fun as creating. I’ve found that taking a break, allowing myself 30 minutes to work on a short story, puts some fun back into the writing day.

    And it certainly helps to start the writing day by finding inspiration with all the great posts here at TKZ.

    Thanks for a great post, Jim.

    • Steve, your proofreading remark made me think of another word for the list. You find a typo in a book you’ve published, you slap your head and shout, “D’oh!”

      I try to avoid as many of those as possible.

  6. This post resonates so much with what I’m feeling just now. I want to write, actually I want to start the sequel to the last work, and my mind keeps telling me, why should I? Trying to get traditionally published is like banging against locked doors. But when I do start writing–then words flow, and who cares if they will ever be read by anyone other than my beta readers.
    Sorry to hear you’re in a slow phase too, Steve. If it helps, I loved the three stories I’ve read of yours.

    • That’s why I’ve called traditional publishing the Forbidden City. Big walls and huge gate locked from within. It’s tough to get inside. But you have the right attitude, Caroline. Write first of all for the joy of it. That alone makes your writing better than it would be with cold calculation.

  7. Congratulations on neatly capturing the stages of the writers life. I’m in “wanna flo” mode. I want to sit down and write but there are too many distractions :promoting the book that’s out, redoing my Website, reading proofs, writing memos to editors and PR people. All necessary for the business of writing, but I miss the creative side. Really, physically, miss it.

  8. This reminds me of when I started taking piano lessons (at age 55). It was so hard at first because my hands weren’t strong enough, I couldn’t yet read the notes, I couldn’t even sit at the keyboard without getting a back ache. But I slogged on because I wanted it so badly.

    I got stronger, learned to sight-read, found better teachers…practiced, practiced, practiced. Until I could at least get through “Wooly Bears.”

    Then, a couple years in, I was playing and the husband came home and said, “Why are you sitting here in the dark?” I had been playing for three hours and hadn’t realized it. I was in the zone. I had flow. I will never forget the joy of that moment.

    So it is with writing. I get days when I am tone-deaf and near defeat and hear keyboard cat playing me off the stage. But sometimes I am granted a zone-flow day and all is good.

    Going to go open the chapter now. Don’t know if today is a flow or pro day but am looking forward to it. Thanks!

    • Piano at 55? Wow, Kris. I took one piano lesson as a kid. I learned how to play Mr. Frog is Full of Hops, starting at Middle C. That’s exactly what I can play today. ALL I can play. When I hear good jazz piano, I always wonder what might have been.

      • Yeah well, I once wanted to be a Rockette, too. But being 5-foot-3 sorta put a damper on that dream. 🙂

        • 🙂

          When I was a kid, I thought for a few weeks about becoming a jockey. My mom told me I’d be too tall for that. I thought that was unfair. But at 6’4″, I guess she was right.

  9. Right now the “flow” is “slow.” I sometimes have a problem turning of the inner editor when I write. I can’t stand typos! I need to accelerate into “go.”
    But I loved the post. Frances

    • Right, Frances. James Thurber said of first drafts, “Don’t get it right. Just get it written.” Same for spelling! You can, as the movie folks say, “fix it in post.”

  10. Love this clever post, Jim. It’s encouraging. Yesterday I drafted a short story and I was definitely in go mode. I remember what flow feels like; feel it lurking in the shadows ready to come on stage and sing.

  11. I’m in Slow mode right now. I’m revising.
    By the way, you have been writing on Sunday. Sunday is your No day.

    • Augustina. Ha! I was a lawyer, remember? I can say, “That is not the legal definition of writing controlling the principle.” Or some such. But I won’t.

      I’ll just say that on Sundays I usually want to write fiction … but I stop myself. I try to catch up on my reading.

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