I’m going to pretend I’m smarter than I am, because the term in the title is not mine, and my understanding of it is an inch deep.
For years, Dean and M.L. Buchman used to talk about achieving ground effect with their writing. Now, please understand that Matt (M.L.) writes military romances featuring pilots. Dean considered training as a pilot at one point in his life and has a fascination with all things aerodynamic.
These two guys talked in code, like all writers do. They wanted to achieve (or often did achieve) what they called “ground effect.”
So for reasons you’ll see below, I wanted to use the term to talk about something, and I did what I always do.
I looked it up.
Ouch. Oh, ouch. I do not have an aerodynamically designed brain. The technical terms, the problems, the drag and lift and constants—ouch. Just ouch. And yes, I know that many of you understand this down to the smallest mathematical equation, but please refrain from explaining it to me.
I rather prefer my inch-deep knowledge. There’s only so much space in my brain and I tend to use it for other things.
Still, I did find some lovely writer who put the analogy in context for me. Here’s how the kind folks at FlightLiteracy.com opened their article on ground effect.
Ever since the beginning of manned flight, pilots realized that just before touchdown it would suddenly feel like the aircraft did not want to go lower, and it would just want to go on and on. This is due to the air that is trapped between the wing and the landing surface, as if there were an air cushion. This phenomenon is called ground effect.
Apparently (remember, inch-deep) this isn’t always a good thing for pilots. It’s something to be coped with.
But for writers—at least according to Matt and Dean—ground effect is something to be desired.
Why? Because of this part of the description: “…it would suddenly feel like the aircraft did not want to go lower, and it would just want to go on and on.”
Both Dean and Matt noted that if you maintained a certain numbers of words per day, the words got easier. It took almost no effort to sit down and write. Writers who stop and start, however, always had a ramp up when they began again.
I listened to this for years, and watched both men as they achieved what they called ground effect. They had weeks, sometimes months, of writing prodigious amounts because they were up and running, and getting into the groove was not an issue for them at all.
Then something would knock them off, and oooooooh, the complaining as they worked to reach ground effect again.
These conversations would take place in Lincoln City, Oregon, before we all moved. Matt’s somewhere on the East Coast now, and we’re in Nevada, but I’ve been thinking about those conversations for a while now.
You see, I only listened with half an ear back then. I was so sick for so long (more than a decade) that the idea of maintaining anything that required brain power was almost laughable. I got brain fog regularly, migraines more than 20 times per month, and I had no idea from day to day if I would be able to write anything, let alone a minimum number of words.
I stubbornly maintained my 10,000 steps per day streak, which I started over 10 years ago now, but sometimes that meant shuffling across the basement floor with American Idol on in the background, because I couldn’t follow anything more complicated.
Ten thousand steps requires stubbornness, not brain power, and I have cornered the market on stubborn. I managed the steps, realized that if I taught myself how to run (even with a migraine), I would complete the steps faster, so I did that.
But a daily writing streak? Not possible, not even in the best of times.
Fast forward to Las Vegas. As I wrote previously, I’m healthier here. Not cured, not healed, but healthier. We’ve solved a lot of the problems that once compounded into a worse problem. And—fellow migraine sufferers—believe your doctor when she says that your migraines will decrease as you grow older. That happened as well.
I’ve slowly realized that my coping-with-illness strategies, which enabled me to get a lot of work done while sick, were actually holding me back now that I’m healthier. It took classes to teach me that, because even at 61, I’m anal about grades—even though I don’t need them. (I’m also dyslexic, so in classes like Spanish, I have to work twice as hard because I’m not asking for dispensation. I’m a successful woman who survived without dispensation for decades. I can get a bad grade because my spelling sucks, even if that bad grade irritates the hell out of me.)
Because classes were new, and I had no habits, I pushed. I realized that I could do much more than I had been doing. And, considering how much I wanted to get done—in life as well as writing—I needed to up my game.
So I set a difficult schedule (which I mentioned in a few process blogs), but the death of my brother and some other issues made me lose focus in April. I wasn’t surprised. (Well, I was surprised about losing my brother.) Part of planning includes planning for setbacks. And part of planning for setbacks is having time scheduled for reorganizing the schedule.
(Okay, yeah, I know how that sounds, but bear with me.)
As I was revamping the schedule, I told Dean I had to do about 5,000 words of fiction per day to get everything done. He looked at me like I was nuts. Yeah, I can do 5,000 words per day, but everyday? Maybe, for a while, until something major got in the way.
At that point, we didn’t know we were going to move this summer…again. Long story, hard to explain, but wowza did we end up in a nice place, and double wowza is moving distracting. So, yeah, 5,000 words might’ve been a stretch at times (she writes with great understatement).
In that conversation, though, Dean reminded me, gently because we were verging on an “As You Know, Bob” conversation, that writers often miss big goals, like 5,000 words of fiction per day, but 1,000 words can be squeezed in at any point—100 words here and 100 words there.
“Go for that,” he recommended, and wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, I listened.
I started the very next day. And by day three, had enough of a streak that when distraction hit—and it did, powerfully—I snuck into my office and wrote 1,000 hasty words.
I was working on short fiction, which is even tougher, because you finish something and start something new, often in the same session. Novels allow you to stay in the world consistently. And while I was working on a big novel project, I wasn’t to the writing stage yet.
Still, I managed.
And I realized, last week, that I had hit what Dean and Matt call ground effect. I only had 30 minutes and I had to start a new story. I had three I wanted to start, but they required some work around to get into. So I looked at old story starts, saw one that intrigued me, and figured I could abandon it if it didn’t work.
I finished my 1000 words before the thirty minutes were up.
At that point, I recognized the feeling. I’ve had it in other things. Back in my radio days, that was the feeling of putting together a 30-second piece to go live, on air, about five minutes later. That heart-pounding don’t-stop don’t-stop don’t-stop.
More recently, I’ve had it on my runs. I have a Pilates class on Thursdays and on hot days, I sometimes head to the gym early to finish my running mileage. A few weeks ago, that damn distraction hit and I was late, and I had very little time to finish my mileage, so I didn’t run at distance pace. I sprinted.
Finished, went to Pilates, and wasn’t physically tired. (But, whoa, was I sore. Pilates in person is much harder than on Zoom.) I’ve got stamina because I’m in good running shape. I barely notice the mileage I put in before breakfast now, where before it was a major effort from start to finish.
I wouldn’t call that ground effect. I’d call it training. My running muscles are trained. My lungs are trained.
Well, the brain is a muscle too, and I’ve been training it for 1,000 words of fiction (minimum) per day. And now, that’s not as much of a challenge.
Bonus: my schedule doesn’t allow me to do what writers usually do, which is…well, 1,000 words per day was easy, so I’ll bump my minimum to 2,000 words. Writers keep bumping up until they hit that max per day (such as 5,000 words) and then they fail and have trouble starting again.
I’m hoping this writing streak will last like the walking streak. The last time I missed my 10,000 steps I had such a bad flu (pre-COVID) that I didn’t get out of bed except to…well, you know.
I wouldn’t have written that day either.
That’s how streaks are supposed to work. I’m hoping this one will continue.
I’m not sure if I’ll call it ground effect, but at least I understand the term as applied to writing now. I like the muscle analogy better, but I don’t have a pithy two-word phrase to describe that.
I must say, though, it’s fun. And some stories are lining up in the queue that would never have been written otherwise—while the novels and novellas are happening as well.
Oh, and these blogs. So the discipline of streaks is helping me quite a bit. More than I had expected.
And, except for three small misses and one five-week long miss (due to a badly injured knee), I haven’t missed my 10,000 steps streak in 10 years. So I understand streaks. You’d think I would know that a writing streak would work.
But no. That brain-fog thing is real, and not something I could fight. I’m not suffering with that right now, so I have this luxury.
And it feels amazingly good.
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“Business Musings: Ground Effect,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / bluering