Posted by Anneque D. Machelle
Writing is a funny thing. When it’s going well, it’s the most fun you can have by yourself. When it’s not going well, it’s a frustrating and heartbreaking process that sucks the soul right out of your fingertips. Anyone who has been writing for any amount of time knows this feeling. The ideas are there, but the point just seems to be gone. You begin to question why you ever thought the ideas were good in the first place. Writing becomes a slog. The mojo, frail as it was to begin with, is gone. That mojo might be the most important part of writing, for reader and writer both.
If the mojo returns, the story comes back to life, and all is well. More often though, the more you try to inject the mojo back into the story, the more it’s slurped away. Projects are abandoned. Ideas are left unsung. The writer moves onto the next project, praying for better luck.
When writing is going well, that mojo is almost a palpable thing. It’s magical. The words seem to fly onto the page, your fingers are as quick as your mind, and hours and pages can pass in moments. Maybe it’s because of this element of magic that writers are by nature superstitious. While there is definitely a difference between a story that’s going well and one that isn’t, few of us can say exactly where that boundary lies. It’s in a feeling. It’s in the mojo. We’re superstitious because we don’t want to tamper too much with the magic. And so we develop these little magic ceremonies to keep the mojo flowing. Let me demonstrate.
I’ve had a terrible run of luck with stories in the past three months. The mojo was evaporating the second I set pen to paper. It had gotten to the point I doubted my sanity for ever trying to be a writer. I thought about giving up on writing and getting a real job. By which I mean a job that isn’t any fun.
Giving up on a career is a big decision, and not one to be made lightly. It wasn’t one I wanted to make. Desperate to bring the magic back, I revisited superstitions I haven’t bothered with in years. Write by hand rather than into a word processor. Using the flowiest pen I could find. Writing in a notebook that already had a story in it. Not naming the story until it’s finished. Not making plot notes. I wanted to write about politics, and that failed. I wanted to write something important to me, and that failed. I wanted to write what I knew, and that too failed.
What else could I possibly do, but give up?
I began to think about that mojo. That feeling you get when a story is going well. That feeling had been missing from every one of my projects. But what is it, really? We don’t question mojo because to question it might make it disappear forever. But it is a real feeling, a real sense, and it’s something so important that it can spell success or doom for your stories.
Some of you know I’m a diehard video gamer. I studied Games Technology at university. One of the first things we learnt in Game Theory was the theory of flow. The theory of flow describes the experience of enjoyment created when a person’s skill and the challenge they are presented with are increasing at an equal rate. For readers, you can think of flow a bit like pacing. If a story is slow with actions and details at the start, that can help you get into it, because the pacing will naturally give you time to build your knowledge (skill) of what the story is about. But if the pacing stays slow throughout, you’ll get bored and stop enjoying it. If a story starts too quickly, with too much detail or too much happening, you may become lost and confused, neither of which are pleasant. You don’t have the knowledge to enjoy the story at that rapid pace.
When a story starts slow and allows you to build your knowledge, and increases its pacing as you progress, it will be a pleasure to read. That’s to say nothing for the content, of course, but that’s the ground roots of flow. The challenge must match your skill. The amount of detail presented must match your knowledge base. It’s okay to have occasional rises in pacing, which push your knowledge to the limit. It’s also okay to have dips in the tension, which let you relax. That’s how a good story operates. But that balance between knowledge and pacing must still exist.
The same is true for writers. However, your enjoyment of a story does not explicitly come from how much you know about it or how fast it’s moving. Your enjoyment comes from how well you are able to meet the challenge you give yourself.
If you want to write a political story, that’s all very well and good. But if you’re going to force yourself to write about large and complex ideas, and say on top of that you must write 1000 words a day, then you are not going to succeed. You are not going to enjoy yourself. And that’s what mojo is, really. It’s how much you are enjoying the story, because you know you will succeed in writing it. Think of mojo as your psychic insight into a story’s sustainability. You can probably hammer out an introduction and a few first chapters for something you’re not enjoying. But you’re not going to get a novel out of it.
The same applies in reverse. If you don’t set yourself enough of a challenge, if you are writing too much of what you know, too much of your everyday life, that sense of flow will also be absent. The challenge must be higher. You already know what you know. Explore the things you don’t know. Give your creative mind a challenge.
Hold on, you think. You’re not trying to write the next War and Peace, but still the flow isn’t happening. You’re out on a limb and the magic isn’t there. What can you do?
There’s no one solution to restoring flow to a project. In fact, if you’ve been slogging away at a story for a few weeks now and you’re still not enjoying it, it’s probably a sign to give up on it. You don’t have to be laughing and letting the pages fly every day. But a story that presents a consistent ordeal, one that you do not look forward to writing at all, is one that you should put away for later. Or maybe never. If you feel guilty about scraping a story, remember that there are only so many stories you can write in one life time. Focus on the ones that are worth your time.
Flow, too, is one of the most difficult things to establish. It is as integral for writers to implement it into their work as it is for game designers to implement into their games. If you’re feeling bored with a project, try increasing the pace. Quit writing that long dialogue exchange and move onto the next scene. Skip half the words in your next description and get on with the action. Your readers will certainly thank you for it.
If you’re having the opposite problem, being daunted by the project you’ve taken on, or even worse, experiencing that sinking feeling that you just can’t write this story, try this. Add more to your descriptions. Have your character take a walk around the city. Include a little light banter. Lighten the mood. And then move onto the next scene. You can do it. If it’s a scene that’s both technical and action-or-drama-intense that’s putting you off, consider breaking it into two scenes. We all know technical pieces require copious amounts of research, while action and drama scenes require a lot of mental processing power. Give yourself a break and don’t throw it all in there at once. Have Commander Goatherd manually disarm the sub-spacetime particle separator and break up with Morris in different scenes, not all at once.
When you’re finished with the day’s writing, whatever you’re writing, reward yourself. Go do that thing you’ve been wanting to do. Have some ice cream. Have a glass of wine and some nice brie. Bum out and watch YouTube videos for the rest of the evening. Writing is tough! Reward yourself for doing it well.
As for me? I got back to basics. I thought about the first novel I’d ever written, back when I was 11 and being a writer seemed like such a distant dream. I thought about how dumb that novel was, all 20 000 words of it, and how goofy the characters were and how I’d just thrown on an ending that was completely out of sync with the rest of the story. And I thought about how much fun I’d had writing it.
I spent the last week rewriting it. It’s quite a different beast, and I think 11 year old me would be horrified. But at its heart, it’s the same goofy story, and I had the same crazy amount of fun writing it. And to me, as a writer, that’s all I can ask for.
Oh look! I now have a book-orientated YouTube channel, the Book House. You can check it out here (and please do!)