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On Writing, Pt. 6: “Flow” (or, The Actual Writing Part Of Writing A Novel)


If you ever wanted to shut yourself out from the joy of writing a novel, much less a nine volume series, just think of how long it’ll take.

That’ll do the trick, every damn time. And that’s why the power of being in “Flow” is so important, for me at least. But what is it? And how does one even get there?

Flow is the feeling of being INSIDE the writing, and having absolutely no hesitation whatsoever getting it out. It’s trance-like. You’re there. You’re in the moment. You can’t not write. You see everything clearly, feel it all deeply, and your fingers fly across the keyboard. But it’s not just that. It’s so much more.

Flow isn’t the process of writing lots and lots at a clip without a break. It’s not creative inspiration. It’s not some bright swirling thing that empowers you into Limit Break Mode where all of your writing comes out over 9000 (which I realize is blending Final Fantasy with Dragonball but hey, I can’t help it, I’m in Flow, it’s just coming out).

And would you look at that, someone has created Cloud vs. Trunks fanart specifically for my mixed metaphor! Well, not really. Credit: Abremson @ DeviantArt

I can jam my fingers into keys and make words appear without any hesitation, anytime I want. But to actually produce something worth reading? To describe what’s going on and how each character is feeling about it accurately, such that it completely clicks inside me as an authentic experience for whomever I’m writing about (even if it’s an entire city, or an entire country, or just one person)? That’s Flow. That’s the magic. And if I’m not in it, I’m definitely outside of it, which is where things like Writer’s Block happen.

But let me back up a second. To understand the difference, and why and how Flow shows up, you have to know how I approach writing. For me, there are two perspectives when I am writing:

Outside the writing: This is when I write what I imagne, see, think, hear, touch, smell, experience, or conceptualize, on the surface. I stand on the outside of the subject, and I observe it. I piece it together, then describe it in words. This is the state I am usually in when I write any kind of review, or documentary scriptwriting, or historical analysis. It’s also the state I’m in when I’m plotting Marlowe Kana, deciding who is going to do what and where, what happens, why… It’s setting up all the dominoes and tipping them, watching them fall, making sure each one connects to the next. And it is hard work, especially if you miss a domino placement here or there and realize they didn’t fall right, and you have to rework the pattern.

Inside the writing:  I am a miniature me, inside the actual events of the story in my own head. I’m feeling every feeling, thinking every thought, reacting just as the characters do to what’s going on. I am not just setting up the dominoes into the pattern they need to fall in. I’m actually on top of the dominoes, running across them as they fall. Or, I am under one of the dominoes, dodging to avoid it as it falls just in time to be in front of the next.   Or I am pushing the next one over so it falls right. I think every thought every character has. I react emotionally and sometimes even physically — I can’t tell you the number of times Meghan or the dogs have investigated my office when they hear me talking out loud, shouting, sobbing… I’m in there, with the damn dominoes as they fall. This is the narration. This is the storytelling. This is, for me, the actual act of getting my story out. This is the “writing” part of writing.

In my older writing, I mostly wrote about things that happened in my life. So, I never had to bother with the first perspective. There wasn’t much to set up, craft, connect, create or flesh out. When I wanted to emotionally connect with readers on a topic close to my heart, all I had to do was remember it. I lived it. I was there. All I had to do was tap that vein, bleed on the page, and then sum it all up with what I learned.

Easy? No. But far, far easier than inventing everything out of whole cloth.

…Some inventions, however, don’t really deserve to exist.

When I’m writing fiction, Flow happens primarily in the second perspective. It’s not hard at all for me to achieve a flow when I’m at the whiteboard (well, mine’s black with neon markers, but I guess the term “whiteboard” isn’t so much an adjective describing how it looks as it is a noun anymore). I can jot out plot elements and beats and chapter breaks with no issues. I can get interrupted and go right back to it. I can take coffee breaks, dog-petting breaks, “look out the window yet again and see if the mail carrier has arrived with that damn check I’ve been waiting on for a month” breaks…

It’s no different than reporting. I’m describing the events that I see in my head as they show up. I’m putting them into a sequence. I’m editing that sequence so that it makes sense. I’m deleting crap that doesn’t fit, adding in new things as they pop into my brain… It’s all the prelim work for writing. And on the surface, it’s the truly fun part of writing a novel. This is where all the ideas come from. It’s just “what if this happens?” and “How would she react to this information?” and “What could happen here that completely throws all of this into (even more) chaos?” Yes, there’s a flow to it, but it’s not “Flow” as I understand it. It’s not a transcendent state of existence. It’s just doing the work that needs to be done, and rarely do you ever get stuck. When you do, fixing it is as simple as erasing some stuff on a whiteboard, or deleting nodes in a mindmap, or shifting your outline a bit.

This is the mechanics of storytelling, and it all happens “Outside” the writing.  This is all the goo you sift through in just about every class, tutorial, video, book, or other educational piece on how to write a story. Three-act plays, hero’s journey, all that. It’s framework. It’s structure. And while it is all very useful in every kind of writing, it is downright essential in fiction. Without this, your story will meander and stray and break. You will have “Act two” problems and “Act three” problems and relationship problems and plot holes and Deus Ex Machina and all the terms you hear in all the movie and book review videos you subscribe to on YouTube.

(There will be many, many parts of this series dedicated to each and every point I just made above, but for now, it’s enough to lump all of it into one pile that is the mechanics of telling a story — and for me, all of it sits outside of the actual narrative aspect of putting words on the page. )

Once I’ve done all of that, it’s finally time to sit down and start on word one of paragraph one of page one of the novel. I have to get “Inside” the writing and put it on the page, how it happens in my head. And this is where EVERYTHING GOES TO SHIT, and half the time it just won’t come out.

Or, worse… It all comes out at once, and fights for dominance in my mind. To wit, it’s drinking from the firehose. I can’t pace any of it, much less place it in its proper sequence. I can’t feel the character’s thoughts on the subject at hand. I can’t see them reacting like humans would. They’re like those pop-up targets on a gun range, appearing to let you know that they are in fact where you told them to be, but they have absolutely no interest in being there. They’re cut-outs. They’re props. The situation is manufactured. Nothing feels honest.

And I’ve got 79,999 more words to go.

And that’s just for THIS volume. As of this writing, I’ve got six more to do. It’s every bit as annoying and frustrating as writing a mandatory report in high school. Besides, I’ve already done the hard work, right? I’ve already come up with the story. I’ve already made it make sense in the outline, and in the breakdowns, and in the chapter summaries! I’ve already done this. The story is there, in my damn head. Why can’t it just appear on the page the way it needs to so I can get on with the really fun bits of getting the next volume plotted?

Because I can’t, that’s why.

Someone’s gotta push that boulder up the hill… And since it’s my boulder, I guess I’m the guy.

It’s literally this simple: If it’s going to exist, I have to be the one to put it out there. And that means typing word after word, separated with punctuation in places and paragraph breaks in others. Over and over again, all day, every day, for weeks at a clip.

The only thing I’ve ever done in my life that even remotely compares is getting in shape. When you first start, it sucks so, so bad. You hate every workout. You loathe going to the next. If you don’t force yourself out the door and onto the road, or into the gym, or wherever your training is to commence, you will take another day off, then another, then another, and then you find yourself back at the beginning, having to start over.

It’s only after days stacked on top of one another in a calendar full of weeks that things start to click. The work gets easier. You’re less sore every night. You can complete the tasks without breaks. All of the work you did to get there was simply the foundation for building the actual goal, and it sucked every single step of the way. But now you’re here, weeks into the routine. It has become a routine, and one that you’re starting to enjoy. And then the numbers start moving in positive directions. Weight goes down, pounds lifted or distance ran or jumping jacks jumped goes up. You can see progress, both on the charts and in the mirror. And at some point, you actually begin enjoying this masochistic practice of beating your body up every day to make it better.

Writing a novel is that, with your brain. And to get anywhere near the goal of completion, you’ve got to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, both physically and mentally.

Physically, you have to resist the urge to get out of the chair, walk away from the desk, and do literally anything else. You have to put down the fidget spinner or magnetic toys and type words. You have to block Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and other distractions. You have to resist the temptation to click a third and fourth and fifth link on Wikipedia or Google when you’re looking up something for your story.

Emotionally, you have to put yourself deep into the psyche of each character in each scene. If they’re hurting, you have to hurt with them. If they’re happy, you have to laugh with them. If they’re broken, you have to break with them. You have to face demons. You have to dredge up stuff from your past, or at the very least pretend what it had to be like to go through what they’re going through.

(Given that Marlowe Kana is set 100 years in our future, a lot of what’s going on is not a crisis we would face in current times. But, I can very easily correlate surviving a hurricane devastating a city to having a huge technical disaster achieve the same result. Less carbon and neon, but the same amount of suffering all the same).

The only way I can survive the process of doing all of that and make it to the end of my next novel is to get into the Flow of it. I have to love it, or I’ll never get through it. And to that end, I would compare it to any other meaningful relationship I’ve ever had in my life. It wasn’t always fun and happy times, but because I love the person, I stuck with them through thick and thin.

Novels are the same, only you have several — sometimes dozens — of people to stick with through the end. And they are going to be uncooperative at times, and downright assholes in others.

Just like some days at the gym are going to be slogs. You ate wrong, or you had a bad day at work, or you’re just plain not in the mood. But you go anyway, because that’s your job. You signed up for it. You want the achievement at the end. So you have to do the work all along, or else you simply will not get there. By default, we don’t want to do it, because we don’t enjoy the process of doing this work more than we enjoy video games, parties, hanging out with friends, or any other universally enjoyable activity. But we do enjoy the results of having done it more than any of those other things. And if you can accept that the future reward is worth the present misery, you’re well on your way to making anything you want happen.

That state of acceptance — that understanding that there will be a LOT of time put into this, and so you might as well enjoy it — that is Flow. And I can tell you honestly, once it takes hold, there’s no place else I’d rather be. It’s transcendent. It’s emotionally challenging, which is also to say I feel it. And once it takes hold, it is a drug unlike any other. It takes me over and controls me, and I can just go and go and go.

All the things I set up when I was Outside the writing begin to show up and take hold. The plot points manifest. The characters react and/or respond. The shock, the horror, the joy, the happiness, the sadness… It’s all right there, on the page, flowing through me. It’s electric.

It’s also a major, major pain in the ass to achieve. And the key to achieving it is acceptance. Accepting what it is, and what it takes to be there. Accepting what you must give up to achieve it. Hours you will not be spending at parties, or playing video games, or indulging yourself in any other form. Phone calls to trusted friends to vent out the frustrations. Research… So, so much research.

It’s work. And like all work worth doing, it is its own reward. Every single time I do it, I hate every second of getting there, but I love being there. And I never, ever regret having done it. Because at the end, I look at the body of work and know that there was no one else who could have made this exist, in this way.

That’s Flow.

Oh look, someone made a nice image with text over it to motivate us to do something hard… Wait? What? There’s literally thousands of these? Well, okay then. I guess it’s a commonly understood thing. EXCEPT IT’S NOT AND WE ARE ALL PROOF.

So, we’ve covered a lot of the emotional stuff that stops 99.9% of all efforts to write a novel. You’ve accepted that yes, this is hard, and there are challenges. You’re convinced that you’re able to take it on and get to the actual mechanics of writing the thing. I feel the same way. But I had to get through all this stuff before I could make any meaningful progress on the actual writing of my novels. So, next, we’ll start diving into the mechanics of how I approached writing Marlowe Kana — structure, plot, characters, arcs, storytelling… All that great stuff. See you in Pt. 7.

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Joe Peacock's Website Hope you’ve got some time, cause I have a lot to say… Like this latest post:

Cash Me Outside

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