Business Musings: Ground Effect
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
Great post! I’ve found that 1,000 words a day is a comfortable steady-as-she-goes target for me. Sure I can do more in a pinch, but not every day or I’ll burn out.
It’s been a good while since I’ve dropped in on your blog. Been in a writing slump for several months, but reading about your own efforts gives me encouragement that I can get back to a more regular routine. I should try to drop in here more often again. So thanks.
I’m glad you’re feeling better. I’m glad you wrote this post. I’ve been caring for my mother who has Alzheimer’s for the last 10 years. This has affected my health and writing tremendously. I had to completely stop all social media, and writing during the last three years. Until last February when all of a sudden I had the idea for a novel and wrote non-stop for 45 days. It wasn’t word count I was after but time. I worked two shifts of four hours every day. The pandemic helped tremedously as my kid wasn’t in school and I didn’t have to deal with leaving the house. (two hours driving every day). Anyway, after that, I had to stop writing. Again. It hurt. Like a physical ache. But then, somehow, after we went back to school on a limited schedule, I somehow found four hours every day to write. I finally finished a genre novel I had left languishing for three years. I also started another for the same series and dropped 56k words on it before I had to quit again in late Feb. On July 14 I made some time. I gave myself 16 days to finish. I finished in 9.
I like the idea of ground effect. I like the idea of floating this high above the ocean, seagulls call it “skimming the tide”, and being so immersed in the story that nothing else exists and the words flow so fast my fingers trip over themselves as they write. What’s really funny is when I go back to edit, I find so many homonyms. Like my brain just doesn’t care what it says as long as the words are out.
I found when I give myself blocks of time, I don’t worry so much about how many words I get, but I also found, that by not caring, I write a lot more words. I also could not believe how much of my stress it released. My mother’s illness is very time consuming, high school sports, disabled ex-husband with health issues, father with health issues, yeah. I always knew that writing is a relief, my solace when life gets truly shitty, but there are only 24 hours in a day, and lots of things had to go. The guilt I carried in not being able to produce “work” every week, not being able to provide for my family also addeed to the stress.
Over the course of the summer, I’ve found that as long as I’m putting in some time on the keyboard, I’m working. It’s a great feeling. Finally. Thanks for the post Kris.
Oh, you’re welcome. I do hope your burdens ease, in a good way, whatever that means. And I’m so glad you’ve returned to writing.
There’s another neat aspect to ground effect. It’s not just that moment of float as the air gets squished between wing and plane on landing. Read the first paragraph of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ground-effect_vehicle. (Don’t read any further because it’s all brain hurt stuff.) The basic idea is that by constantly riding low enough to be on the squished pillow of air over a smooth(ish) surface like the ocean (except during storms), you can go long distances with little energy. You settle back into the sea or onto the ground? Then you have all of the extra strain to take off again. But if you get up to your base height, or flight level, or whatever you want to call your daily word count goal, then that consistent low-energy-expenditure brain-muscle practice floats you along in cruise city. Anything above that height and it’s a bonus that day, but it gets harder to maintain because you’re too high for that nice squished-air word count to be kicking in. (I’ll note that this level is different for everyone, 500, 1,000, 4,000, whatev. And different at different times.)
As an example: My word count (and everything else) went into utter chaos during my July game Kickstarter. (My first ever, game or KS, so the learning curve was staggering.) But while it was still happening, I managed to convince my old trad. publisher to revert all rights to all 13 of my titles (rather than the multi-year lawsuit I’d been anticipating). The clean-up, re-cover, record audio, and reissue of that many titles is such a monstrous task that it can’t be done by a high-flight push (esp. because it’s the front end of a 41-book / 70-short story universe, all of which is ready for updated covers and much needs audio [I’d intentionally been leaving it to languish to depress sales for the trad publisher]).
Immediately, without even thinking about it until I read this, I kicked up into ground effect. I built a rolling plan to tackle this in a low-flying, steady, 1-2 hour-a-day fashion that’s probably going to roll along for much of the next two years. I’m “ground-effecting” a daily block of my admin / recording time without cutting off my low-level writing ground-effect. I won’t be able to do as many of my big burst 5k days, but 1k ticking along in the background? I’m down with that…or rather up on ground effect.
So, yeah, grinning that you finally found a way to “hear” that part of our, what I’m sure were consistently maddening, conversations. 🙂
Thanks, Matt! I’ve tried to work in those hyper-focused chunks of 4 hour when it comes to publishing, but it results in way too much procrastination and visual burnout. I’ll try what you’re doing. Small bits of time add up, whether it’s book covers or writing or publishing tasks.
Some days I’m lucky if I can get up, and that’s not much of an exaggeration.
But I’m pretty sure I can do 50. 50 words of actual fiction for the current scene (not notes and research and background and journaling – I do thousands of those at the drop of a hat).
Someone else said to ‘Drop and give me 50.’ I’ll take this as confirmation.
I like the ground effect metaphor, hadn’t heard that one before. It probably doesn’t matter what an individual calls it, I guess, but for me it is somewhere between “cruise control” and “momentum”.
I have spent a lot of my reading time in the last 15 years reading about goals and streaks, planning and rebounds, failures and restarts. And I find Dean’s stuff really interesting for his various “streaks” or “crunches” to do X many stories in Y amount of time, or successive streaks. The popular literature refers to the Seinfeld method which is attributed apparently falsely to Jerry Seinfeld writing jokes every day to see how long a streak he could do…but it wasn’t about the streak so much as the momentum. (Apparently he denies it was what he really did but someone attributed it to him and it stuck). The recent lit isn’t about the streak in the normal sense, i.e., never breaking it as Dean hasn’t for ten years, but more about realizing that a streak is just a series of individual steps. If you miss a day, you start counting over again. But it doesn’t erase everything you did up until that point.
The biggest “streak”, well before Seinfeld, of course, is AA-type meetings. And if you make it to a year, you get your 1-year chip for a streak. If you don’t, because you broke your streak, you start counting again at day 1. But regardless if you are at ten years or 1 day, it is always “one day at a time”.
I am often impressed by the stories like yours and Dean’s where there are really long streaks. Impressive even. But I also like the stories from the person who misses a day and doesn’t go, “Oh, well, my diet is shot, I might as well give up for a month” but instead gets back up on the day after and says “Okay, let’s see, day 1, we have lift off”.
One day I’ll turn my creative juices towards various ways to measure progress beyond streaks and output (further to emails we exchanged earlier that you shared on some things Dean had written). I still think there’s something “else” embedded in your lessons that is halfway between your streak/outputs and successful publication / sales (and not just sending query letters if you’re of that bent). Not sure what it is i.e. what’s “above” a streak?
Love the nudges for my own thinking, as always…