There are two types of writers who have captured our collective imagination. On the one hand, there’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote novels that were unabashedly autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. His wife and muse, Zelda, was as famous as he was. On the other hand, there’s Stephen King, who writes 10 pages a day and has published 66 novels at my last count. He’s so prolific that he couldn’t possibly rely on something as fickle as a muse.
What kind of a writer are you—muse type or momentum variety? I’m somewhere in the middle. But if I have to choose between the two camps, I would be in the latter.
When I worked for the Associated Press, hourly deadlines were typical. When AP breaks a story, it sends out an alert that tells editors when the story will be transmitted on the wires. So, if an alert promised a story by 10 a.m., then it better be ready at that time, or the news desk will be inundated with phone calls from irate editors.
When I started writing fiction in 1995, this deadline-oriented mindset was already deeply ingrained in me. So I never wait for the muse. I simply write and trust that it will come. When moments of inspiration come, they’re truly a gift. But in the end, I’m at the mercy not of the muse, but of momentum, which carries me through the last word.
Keeping Up Your Momentum
Based on what I’ve read about other writers, as well as my own experience, here are three tips to help you keep up your writing momentum.
#1 Write Regularly: Whether you write an hour a day or an hour a week will depend on your personality and present circumstances. What’s important is that you do it with regularity. Take it from Flannery O’Connor, who believed in the importance of making writing a habit. In a letter published in The Habit of Being, she said she wrote only two hours a day—but she didn’t let anything interfere in those two hours. That’s the key. Your writing time should be sacred.
#2 Save Your Ideas: I save ideas that don’t have a place in my current manuscript. It could be a sentence or a subplot or a character. When I’m on vacation, especially when I’m visiting a new place, I’m primed for random thoughts and observations that are seemingly worthless, but sometimes turn out to be gems.
The news can be a treasure trove of ideas. Take the example of Andres Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog, a book I enjoyed reading many years ago. In an interview, he said the novel was inspired by a news article he had read about a woman who was evicted for failure to pay back taxes she didn’t owe.
Nonfiction works, especially history books, are a great source of ideas. The seed for my historical novel, MY MACARTHUR, came from footnotes in history books about Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Save those notes from history books you’ve read and any interesting news clippings and article links. Write down your observations and thoughts. Don’t delete those sentences or whole pages of extraneous descriptions. They will come in handy when you’re stuck with your writing.
#3 Always Be Writing: This is not the same as writing regularly. This is about always moving forward with your writing. There are first-time novelists who want to get published first before writing their next novel. It’s almost as if they want “permission” to continue writing.
Guess what? No one is going to give you that permission but yourself.
Most authors’ debut novels were not their first. Sue Grafton wrote seven novels before the eighth one finally got published. Stephen King wrote three before the fourth one was accepted. For Nicholas Sparks, his third book became his debut novel. As they say in sales: “Always be closing.” As writers, we should always be writing.
Note: This post, first published on my old blog on Feb. 15, 2014, has been updated.