How to get the Big Mo on a small scale


Silk’s Post #87 — See if this sounds familiar. You’re pushing the shopping cart down the supermarket aisle when a friend sidles up to you and gives you a hug.

“So how’s the book coming?” Your friend is smiling, genuinely interested, maybe even proud to have a friend who’s writing a book. This isn’t a challenge. It’s an affirmation.

“Um … good, good.” You grin and shrug. “Not quite as far along as I’d like to be, but … you know.” It feels like a challenge.

“I can’t even imagine,” your friend says. “Where do you find the time? It would take me a year!” Your friend obviously thinks this sounds like an extravagant (and maybe ridiculous) time commitment, little knowing that many writers would kill to turn out a finished book in a year.

“Well, you just have to chain yourself to the desk and grind out that thousand words a day,” you say. At this point you’re hating yourself. A thousand words a day? When was the last time you did that for a week straight?

“Hey, I’m dying to read it,” your friend says. “When do you think it will be published?”


Since there’s no answer to that well-meaning – but loaded – question, you find yourself suddenly attracted to the two-for-one sale on industrial size cans of plum tomatoes at the end of the aisle. Better to rush off with apparent purpose than to get yourself deeper in this charade, or slink away ignominiously like the fraud that you are.

And you know that your encounter is not likely to prompt a wildly productive writing session when you get home with the groceries. It’s more likely to prompt the consumption of an entire tray of brownies. You skip the plum tomatoes and head for the bakery section.

Every writer, I assume, has had such moments at one time or another. You’re in a trough. Forward progress on your current project has slowed, or stopped altogether. Your partly-finished manuscript sits expectantly on your computer drive, awaiting your return and giving off what looks like a faint radioactive glow every time you walk past the door of your dark office.

You’ve lost the Big Mo – the elusive and magical momentum that feeds on itself and keeps the words flowing.

How do you get it back?

I’d love to tell you I have a sure-fire recipe. If I did, I’d have at least three finished third drafts out there hunting for glory in agent land – instead of one sprawling first draft that needs a lot of work, one half-finished first draft that might have some promise, and one new story concept with a (pretty good) opening chapter. Oh yeah, and approximately 85,000 words of blog posts.

But since this is a problem I’m trying to wrestle to the ground myself right now, I’ll throw out some ideas anyway. Maybe some of them will work.

The first thing is to try to understand what the Big Mo really is, and where it comes from. Originally a sports term, it refers to “behavioural momentum” that comes from victories or other affirmative experiences, and confers an advantage on the team (or political party, or economic cycle, or social movement) that has apparently “caught fire”.

The Big Mo is both real (delivering actual results) and ephemeral (in that it seems to be sustained by nothing more than confidence, hope and belief). It can be a powerful force one day, and the next day collapse into a pile of ash when it burns through all its oxygen. But sometimes it persists for a long cycle and, if continually reinforced, momentum can become resistant to change.

Newton's Cradle. Credit: Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint).

Newton’s Cradle. Credit: Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint).

Like Newton’s Cradle, it can appear to become perpetual.

Generally, the phenomenon of Big Mo has been thought of as a large scale mechanism, something that applies to collective behaviour. Psychologists have studied it, even developing a methodology for calculating its impact. Economists have based market theories on it. Politicians have built campaigns around it. Technology has created the social media tools to both stimulate and record Big Mo. Even physicists have gotten into the act, likening it to aspects of quantum field theory. And some of the most hilarious and quirky superstitions in the world of big-league sports arise from players’ attempts to keep their Big Mo streaks alive (never more charmingly portrayed than in the movie Bull Durham).

The question is: can this “networked” phenomenon be achieved on a small scale? Like for an individual writer? Well, why not? “Behavioural persistence” theory is apparently now being used in the development of drug rehabilitation programs, harnessing momentum to counter the prospects of relapse. (Okay, it’s not a pretty thought, but there are probably some uncomfortable parallels between addicts and writers that I won’t go into right now.)

So … since writers seem to love putting things in lists, here are my completely unproven but patently reasonable suggestions for writers who need some momentum. Warning: some of this is harsh. But you want to finish that book, don’t you?

Silk’s Top 10 Strategies for Getting Your Big Mo Back

1. Purge the filler. Examine what you actually do every day (besides writing) and make a list of your personal time wasters. I know you have them. Everyone does. Angry Birds. Television. Web surfing. Anything even slightly obsessive, even cleaning. Find ’em and just stop doing them. Or put yourself on a time-waster diet. An hour or two a day, tops. Wow! Now you suddenly have all the time you need to write!

2. Try, try, try to write on a regular schedule. This, for many of us, is the hardest thing to achieve. But most of us work (or once worked) at something that required us to be somewhere every day at a certain time and place to do a certain thing. This is no different. If we’re honest, there are three main reasons it’s hard to schedule writing. First, we put other’s needs and demands ahead of our own; we let everything in the world crash our writing schedule. Second, we don’t really think writing is an imperative, or at least not more important than, say, washing the windows or catching the latest Anthony Bourdain. Third, we use every possible excuse to avoid writing when we feel secretly afraid of failure. Okay, maybe this is just me. But you have your own hang-ups, I bet. Writing on a regular schedule is not a cure for them. But it’s a trigger for momentum, purely through discipline.

3. Every time you get a good chunk of writing (or outlining or research) done, reward yourself. If you’re able to get into the habit of writing on a regular schedule, that means you deserve at least one reward per day. This isn’t a game. We all need that positive reinforcement. It’s what builds Big Mo. Make it something that counts. Today I rewarded myself by registering for the Surrey International Writers Conference in October. Tomorrow, maybe all I’ll get is a brownie, but that’s okay. I love brownies. (I recommend against rewarding yourself with a full bottle of wine every day; see earlier reference to parallels between addicts and writers.)

4. Amplify your momentum by being part of a larger group. Big Mo is described as a group phenomenon for a reason: we get energy, positive reinforcement and contact highs from other people on our team. (Isn’t this what sports, politics and religion is all about?) Writing is an isolating profession. Even if you’re an introvert, even if you think your work is “not good enough”, even if there are all kinds of obstacles to doing it, you need to commune with other writers. Find a writers group. Can’t find one? Start one. (If it weren’t for my 5/5/5 friends, I probably would have given up long ago.) Go to workshops or classes or seminars and rub elbows. Go to writers conferences. Yes, they’re basically trade fairs that sell books and advice (and hope) to writers. Go anyway. (Surrey International Writers Conference, here I come for the 7th time!) You’ll meet people like you. You’ll come home energized. I guarantee it. Writing requires faith. Become part of a writing congregation.

5. Read, read, read, read, read. Reading is never on the list of time-wasters. Reading is learning. Reading is like drinking water for a writer: you can’t live without it. Read about writing. There is so much in print and online it isn’t funny. Even if you don’t always learn something new, you may see something you already “know” differently, and reading about writing will keep your head into writing, simple as that. When you’re not reading about writing, just read good stuff. Your favourite authors. Different genres. Fiction. Non-fiction. Everything. Learn from it all, good and bad. When you just can’t face writing your own stuff during your “scheduled” writing time, read instead. It might inspire you.

6. Cultivate your curiosity. Curiosity is an attitude of openness and engagement. It feeds imagination. It keeps your senses constantly on the lookout for novelty, insights, revelations and surprises. It stimulates the brain and the heart. It keeps you from getting bored, and boredom is a momentum killer. Incurious people are dull, and dull people don’t write interesting things.

7. Practice flexibility and adaptation. If you have to have a certain chair and a certain coffee mug and all your pencils and pens lined up north to south before you can settle down to write, you’re in big trouble. Many books encourage writers to set up their writing space to suit their work style on the theory that this leads to higher productivity. Can’t argue with that. But then there’s what I call the “bomb shelter problem”. If you’re not home when the bomb drops, your shelter is useless. People have busier, more mobile lives than ever. Keeping a regular writing schedule is harder – sometimes much harder – when you’re away from your own domain and daily routine. So you have to learn to adapt without fuss. Write in the hotel room or the airport or on the boat. Don’t wait for things to get back to “normal” to resume your writing schedule, because by then the Big Mo will be down the drain, like your tan.

8. If you really hit a wall with your main project, write something else. Writer’s block is real. So is burn-out. Sometimes your brain just needs to fall back and re-group before it’s ready to scale that particular wall. But keep writing anyway. Do a blog post. Write an essay. Try a poem or a short story. Write in your journal. Just keep writing. Attack the book again after a rest from it. A short rest.

9. Make your peace with your non-writing friends and family. Some people who are close to a writer are incredibly supportive, both in word and deed. Then there are the more normal people who want to be supportive … as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them too much. Living with a writer can get lonely. People understandably get a bit testy about missing meals, say, or having to build their own schedule around your work. Maybe they’d like a little more of your attention, or would appreciate your calling more if it resulted in some published books and income. It’s hard for a non-writer to understand what drives us, and to share our solitary writing life. Everyone’s situation is different, but two goals are pretty universal: that the people closest to you feel they have some personal stake in your writing, and that you don’t neglect their needs and wants. Fair’s fair.

10. Stay healthy. Be happy.  All that advice they give you about a healthy lifestyle applies double to people who spend a lot of time in front of a computer thinking their brains out. Eating right, keeping your body moving, spending time outdoors, getting some R&R, sleeping well, having some fun, maintaining your relationships and social life with emotional intelligence. You’ve heard it all. Take it to heart. I can’t remember which writer it was who claimed he wrote every single day of every single year, except his birthday. Somebody successful, rich and famous. I’m in awe of that level of obsession. But most of us need to have an actual life to keep up our Big Mo as writers. So, besides being good to the people around you, be good to yourself.