The principle is simple: potential energy turns to kinetic energy. Momentum is a force of movement, of energy, but most importantly, of consistency. Don’t panic. I’m not going to throw physics equations at you. Couldn’t even if I wanted to. I don’t have the greatest scientific mind, but I do know a little about writing. Our goal as writers is to achieve the proper amount of momentum in the discipline of our craft and within the pages of our fiction.
Without fail, each time I mention the “discipline” of the craft, artists everywhere cringe. I used to throw the term around lightly, but I’ve since learned several artists (writers included) have a strong disliking for the word. I’ve been blogging about the craft of writing for years now, and by far, the most comments I’ve received came early on in a post on, as Flannery O’Connor put it, the “habit of art.” I interpret the term loosely as the discipline of the craft, but many artists feel that “discipline” or “habit” or “writing even when you don’t feel like it” is detrimental to the art itself. They argue the simple act of consistency will in some way rob the passion, the inspiration, the heart of their art. When I hear their earnest dissent, I stand resolutely in favor of discipline. The number one killer of any art is not producing art. If you don’t produce, you have nothing to sell.
So then, our first task as writers must be to complete a project. Once done, we can revise and check to make sure that passion we feel for the project is clear on every page. But here’s the catch — the longer you spend not writing, the more your passion wanes. Stephen King backs me up on this. In his book On Writing, he discusses the importance of writing daily. When you do so, he asserts, you remain immersed in the world and it takes a much shorter amount of time to delve into that world each day, and to keep the passion for that world, those characters, and that story alive and well. If you think of the writing of a novel as a relationship, what kind of relationship would you have if you didn’t daily spend time with your significant other? Would your novel divorce you on grounds of abandonment?
Most writers have a few unfinished novels in their closet somewhere. I’m no exception, and when I think about going back and finishing them, I worry. I’ve been away from them so long, it’s like I don’t know them anymore. I’d have to start from scratch.
Make it your goal to spend time in your novel every day. Take a day off if you have to, but never more than two in a row. Monitor how long it takes you to get back into the swing of writing after a few days off. It’s infinitely harder. With consistency, your passion for your project will increase, as will your word count, as will the quality of your writing.
In the same way that you as a writer must maintain momentum to remain in the story, your story must maintain momentum to propel the reader onward.
Fiction, more than anything else, is a balancing act. Some time ago, I wrote about Charles Baxter’s idea of “stillness,” of slowing down the action to focus on the minutiae of setting and detail. The idea was to slow things down between moments of action. However, it’s possible to have too much “stillness,” or even too much exposition. The worst is introspection — pages upon pages of characters contemplating, never moving. I see this a lot in popular fiction, and literary fiction is often more prone to this. We get caught up explaining rather than moving.
Momentum within a text is pretty easy to maintain. The first step is finding where your characters are stationary, caught in a reflective moment. Then, give them a quick kick. Make them move. Make them uncomfortable. Give them something to fight for.
Some time ago, I found myself writing a novel that lacked any significant forward momentum. I dreaded writing each day. I lost my passion for the project and nearly gave up on the book. Instead, I re-read what I’d written the last few days. Sure enough, it was mostly introspection. No wonder I was bored. I needed to get out of my character’s head and into their body.
The formula is simple: make your character uncomfortable. Shift them out of their comfort zone. Put them in danger. Light a fire under their feet and make them move.
Once I did, I was excited to see where they went. The passion I’d lost came rushing back. The momentum in the pages increased my momentum as a writer. I wrote longer each day, put more words on the page, and left the computer disappointed I couldn’t stay longer.
Bottom line — if you’re enjoying the momentum of your fiction, your readers will, too. Strap in. Let the story move.