Mental Energy and the Art and Science of Writing

There is a certain degree of mental energy that goes into writing. It is a form of labor, and people should respect it as such.

But hold up. Let’s go back for a second.

What is Mental Energy?

The National Institutes of Health (!) says:

Mental energy is a mood, but can also be defined as ability or willingness to engage in cognitive work. 

So, essentially, what I am talking about is the cerebral labor of writing. That is, as opposed to writing about it.

It’s Like Pie

pumpkin pie wedge to illustrate the concept of finite mental energy in writing

Er, what?

So, hear me out.

The thing about pie is, of course, that it is finite. Never mind that you can always buy either a ready-made one or the ingredients for same. That is not what I am talking about.

Rather, what I mean is the concept of—this is it, it’s all I’ve got. That’s all there is, and there ain’t no more, if you will.

We have finite days and finite lives. Also, we have finite capacity. No matter how young you are, or your physical condition, you’ve got to sleep, right? At the same time, no matter how smart you are, inevitably you have to study at times. Even if that just means opening a book, memorizing it, and calling that “studying”.

NB, that’s not studying.

But I digress.

Why am I Talking About This Right Now?

I was looking at Wattpad, and came across a passage in a work about NaNoWriMo. The passage essentially said that there’s always going to be someone or other who claims they wrote 100,000 words on the first day of November and is sitting pretty and essentially laughing at the rest of us poor peasants.

It’s a form of trash talking. I ignore it, and I urge everyone else to ignore it as well.

But, why?

Well, for one thing, it’s not likely to be the whole truth. Evidently, the fastest anyone has ever typed is 216 words per minute. Voice recognition isn’t necessarily any quicker, because you have to say the punctuation, formatting, and line breaks.

So, let’s do some math.

Only a little. I’m not insane. 😀

216 wpm * 60 minutes = 12,960 words/hour. 100,000 ÷ 12,960 = just under 7.72 hours. So, it’s technically possible. But is it likely? Probably not, as this is assuming a person is typing at blazing speeds every second. No breaks, no fatigue, no distractions, no editing, and no writer’s block.

Even people with exceptionally detailed outlines will have a moment or two or twelve in there where they aren’t certain of where to go next.

Why am I Talking About This Braggadocio?

It’s because of this. I have little doubt that those 100,000 words need a ton of editing.  That’s the part which I think some folks want the rest of us to forget when they make such claims.

Writing takes time and serious mental energy.

You spend it…

  • Getting inspired
  • Planning
  • Writing
  • Editing
  • Packaging (i.e. marrying your manuscript to a cover,  or to a title,  or putting together a series, that sort of thing)
  • Querying
  • Marketing

This is the finite piece. And now we go back to the pie example.

The Finite World We Live In

You can’t make the pie any bigger. Something’s got to give.

Banging out 100,000 words in a little under a full work day, without going over it, means typos. It means inconsistencies. And it means the last parts in particular are dominated by labor from a person who is exhausted. You cannot drink coffee or take speed, etc. your way out of it forever.

If you don’t spend time planning, you’ll spend it writing. And if you don’t spend time writing, you’ll spend it editing. If you don’t spend time editing, then packaging becomes enormous and takes longer. If you don’t work on packaging and spend time on it, then querying will take longer, because you’ll be faced with more rejections. And finally, if you don’t spend time querying, and just take what you can get (and that includes self-publishing—no slam on it, but it is something we do without spending any time on querying), then you will spend that time on marketing.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Shrinking That Finite World Down Even More

I’ve got a full-time job. I didn’t when I wrote Untrustworthy. But I do now. And that means eight (usually nine) hours are spent working. And I don’t even commute!

Unless you count walking from the bedroom to the office.

Hence let’s pull a third of a day out and toss it. I can’t spend it on writing this way. And neither can most people who have full-time employment.

Sleep? Cut another third of the day right off the top and 86 it. Even if you don’t sleep the full eight hours, it will catch up to you eventually. Not getting enough sleep means you’re not performing at peak efficiency. So, even if you’ve got, say, an extra two hours, it’s likely that you’re not able to produce within those extra two hours (or several other hours, for that matter) if you don’t get enough rest.

Personal hygiene, fitness, and meals tend to lop off at least another two hours, maybe as many as four. Household stuff like cooking, washing up, paying bills, cleaning, etc. can average out to around one-half to one hour per day.

And this doesn’t even get into spending time with family or pets, or other forms of socializing, whether in person or online.

So, Where Do You Find the Time and the Mental Energy?

Most of the above isn’t just a drain on time. It’s also a drain on—you guessed it—mental energy. A long day spent, say, preparing tax returns, can wipe you out.

But I’ve got the weekend, you say.

Sure you do. And you may be spending it on writing. But there are likely other activities where you’re spending your time.

If you don’t spend time or mental energy on one,  then you will spend it elsewhere. Maybe it’s dates or chauffeuring kids around or food shopping. It could be catching up on your sleep, too. Or maybe you’re binge watching something or other.

Here are a few places to slip it all in. And no, I am not suggesting that you go nonstop and work yourself to death.

The Shower

We all do this. It’s something to do with the relaxation and the rhythm of water. Our minds wander, and we can come up with ideas. This is, of course, not the time to edit. But remember all the stuff I mentioned above, about needing to market, etc.? Some of your shower time can be spent on that.

You can’t write anything down, so it’s not a good place for the specifics. It’s more for the big picture. It’s for the lightbulb moments of, hey, I could advertise on TikTok.

The Commute

Mine is nonexistent these days, but it didn’t used to be. You’ve got your phone with you, right? Then if you think of something on the bus or train, why not email it to yourself? Or put it in a document on a drive you can access from both work and home. The details are yours to figure out.

If you drive, then you can get more creative. Maybe you can essentially dictate while driving, and send the documentary product of voice recognition to yourself. But keep in mind—voice recognition often requires a lot of massaging. The tech is great but imperfect.

And, naturally, don’t endanger yourself!

Plucked from Life

A True Believer in Skepticism was conceived in, of all places, Home Depot!

Exercise and Mental Energy

Now, this won’t work for fitness classes. But if you’re busy riding a stationary bike or chugging along on a treadmill, or walking in the woods, again, you’ve got your phone, yes? Working with your phone also means taking photos if need be.

First Thing in the Morning

This is something I do. I get up, do my ablutions and exercise. Then, I hit the laptop and write for a while. How much? Probably somewhere between 85 and 385 words on average. Then I turn off the home laptop, turn on the work laptop, and go downstairs to get breakfast. By the time I am back upstairs I’m in work mode.

During November of 2021, I was getting up 30 minutes early. Not much, but it was something. Since you need to write at least 1,667 words per day on average to hit 50k by the 30th, it was helpful to have 200 – 250 or so words banged out already. 250 words is just under 15% of the absolute bare minimum. Not bad for something like 15 – 35 minutes.

Right Before Bed

Don’t use your phone for this, as you’ll diminish the quality of your sleep. So, get a small pad of paper and a pen and scribble. Ideas, sentences, titles, character names, whatever. And keep that pad and pen next to your bed, for the next slot.

Middle of the Night Mental Energy

Have you ever had this happen to you, where you’re sleeping away and you wake up at maybe 3 AM with some sort of amazing idea? Or that dream had some narrative you feel you can harness.

Write that stuff down. In particular, this may help with insomnia. You won’t be laying there, trying to keep from forgetting something or other.

However, I do want to point out that sometimes your amazing middle of the night revelation is something like:

The Cold War on Toast

Well, they can’t all be gems.

Distribute Your Time and Mental Energy the Best Way Possible

This is reality, folks. You cannot be 100% on, all the time. Your body naturally cycles through peaks and troughs.

Know yourself. If you’re a morning person (I mainly am), then getting up early is for you. But if you do better at tea time, then take a work break if you can for 30 minutes, and do your thing. And then make up the time, of course.

And if you are truly terrible at some of the writing tasks, then there’s no shame in outsourcing them and paying someone to do them for you. As in—editing, marketing, and packaging. You may be able to hire someone to write your query for you or at least to help you polish yours.

And ghost writing has a long and semi-noble tradition. But where’s the fun in that?

Some Last Bits of My Own Mental Energy, Beamed Straight from My Brain to Yours

Insert weird sci-fi sound effect here.

This entire post is essentially about setting your priorities, when you get right down to it. Decide what you value in your life. And if that’s spending time with your child to the exclusion of a lot of other things, then hey, that’s fab. You do you. But also recognize that this means it’ll take longer for you to write and get to whatever you feel is your own personal finish line.

After all, you can always put your slice of pie in the freezer, to have another day.
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