I write like a tiger. Which is to say that I spend days at a time without writing anything OTI-related at all—just lounging out on a metaphorical tree branch, trying to expend as little energy as possible. When a nice juicy topic wanders into my territory, I spring into furious action, pouncing on it from behind, breaking its neck with my vise-like jaws, and gorging myself on huge, five-thousand-word slabs of its quivering flesh. Then I go back to sunning myself, and waiting for the next target of opportunity.
Many people write like this, including some successful writers. But most successful writers write like ants. They get up every day and write a page, whether they’re in the mood or not. At the end of the week, they have seven pages. At the end of two weeks, fourteen pages. By his own account, Neal Stephenson churns out his 900 page books by writing like an ant every day for three years. And antlike writers manage to do it all without missing deadlines, or pulling consecutive all-nighters leading up to the deadline, or feeling like lazy pieces of crap on on the days leading up to the consecutive all-nighters. Forgetting about the metaphor for a moment, doing creative work incrementally like this also has the benefit of giving you time to revise and hone your craft—not just as a prose stylist, but as someone who does creative work. William Gibson once bragged that he never has to deal with writer’s block because he has never experienced the mythical unblocked state that so many writers talk about: every word of every sentence was a painful chore for him to write, but once he learned to write THROUGH the block, it stopped affecting his life, and eventually stopped being painful.
Me, I find writing through the block to be all but impossible. The compensation, I suppose, is that on my good days I can slip into a state of quasi-autistic focus, and pound out a ten-pager almost without noticing. But all-nighters aren’t as easy as they used to be. It’s partially that I no longer seem to be able to do without sleep, but more than that it’s just that the “good days” seem fewer and farther between. Therefore, although I am constitutionally better suited to writing like a tiger, I aspire to some day write like an ant. (After all, in the grand scheme of thing more tigers are eaten by ants than the other way around.)
Most OTI writers do one post every two weeks. Lately, a number of us have been finding that hard to sustain, for various practical reasons. As a result, there was some discussion in the back channel about the possibility of lowering the quota. (So far nothing has come of it. We might be too lazy to write anymore, but it turns out we’re definitely too lazy to change the status quo.) This might work for some people, and I won’t think less of any OTI writers that end up going down that road. But I know myself well enough to realize that if I tried to cut back to once every three weeks, or once every month, it wouldn’t actually get EASIER to sustain. It’s not like I’m writing like an ant, cranking out one page a day for fourteen days. Rather, I’m counting on lightning striking at some point within that interval, at which point I would crank out whatever post I’m working on in a single session. (One of the reasons that the Cowboy Bebop posts have been so erratically scheduled is that they typically take two or three separate writing binges to finish.) It’s quite likely that if I tried to write any less often than I do now, I’d stop writing at all.
And so I’m going to try the opposite approach. This year I’m going to try to write three posts a month. Two of these will be typical OTI posts: a little more than a thousand words, an image or two, some attempt to cover the subject in detail and back up my argument with examples, etc. The third will be, well, sort of what you’re reading now. Much shorter (250-500 words), no multimedia elements, and excessively navel-gazey, even by this website’s generous standards. If I understand my own creative process as well as I think I do, this should actually make the two big posts easier to write. But we shall see. I’ll be sure to keep you — ahaha — posted.
Brilliant post. Very timely as I am currently trying to force myself to write a 5 page paper due tomorrow that I failed to write yesterday as I waited to enter that “state of quasi-autistic focus”. I’m glad someone understands. Back to writing…
Fantastic. I completely sympathise with everything said there. I’ve been trying to write weekly posts for my own site for some time now and have found it excruciatingly difficult. Like you I need that sudden burst of writing energy that occurs every now and again when I can really focus and write page after page.
But then I make excuses like “I didn’t write anything because I didn’t have any time” or (the one I literally only used about about half an hour ago) “I couldn’t write a new post because The Butterfly Effect was on TV and I needed to see which ending they were going to use”. All of which are clearly rubbish as I have plenty of time for this thing, and know that they never show the directors cut on TV… I just won’t admit that I can’t work through writers’ block.
Also I refuse to believe that more tigers are eaten by ants than the other way round. That simply can’t be true.
any Neal Stephenson’s books particularly worth reading? i read The Big U and Snow Crash which were translated to my native language and i quite enjoyed them. now with the broader availability of e-books i might read more
Cryptonomicon is his best, for my money. But Snow Crash is the most fun, by a fair margin — if you were hoping for another dose of that particular energy, you might want to look elsewhere.
While Stephenson is one of my favorite authors, and Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite books, it seems that after Snow Crash, he just couldent end any of his book right, or rather at all. The Diamond Age crammed one hundred pages of material into five, and Cryptonomicon, while fascinating and hilarious, spends 995 pages setting up an intricate web of plot threads, and then promptly forgets about them all and ends.
thanks to both
For some reason, this made me feel incredibly… mushy. It’s very heartfelt and earnest. Navel-gazing does a body good, and it’s kind of cool that you’re going to share that with your audience. Way to be, Stokes, way to be.
the thing about navel gazing, is that while you are gazing at your own navel, everyone else has one too, and there’s gonna be some similarities and issues to be compared and reflected upon.
though not too often though, cause i dont really want OTI to be solely navel gazers, cause that really isn’t the point of OTI.
I really appreciated your honesty and sincerity in this article though.It’s nice, especially when one has read OTI often enough to grow fond of it, and their authors. Thankyou man!
Interesting. It seems that you write OTI posts the same way that I read them.