09 July 2022

The Big Mo


In 1980, George H.W. Bush won the up-first Iowa caucuses and crowned himself the GOP presidential frontrunner, thanks to the now-unstoppable Big Mo--momentum--wind at his back. And Bush actually did win the next open primary. In Puerto Rico. Where Ronald Reagan wasn't on the ballot. Thereafter, Bush suffered a Mo-less drubbing that included his home Texas going for Reagan. 

Bush's main feat in 1980 was bringing "Big Mo" from sports lingo into the cultural vocabulary. And Bush wasn't wrong about momentum's potential. When things go well, empowerment soars toward critical mass. Future things likely go as well or better. On the other hand, confidence drains off when things start going poorly. Setbacks, if left unaddressed at root, breed more setbacks.

Reinforcement equals direction, positive or negative. It's no more true than for writers. We find our self-momentum, or we don't.

Publishing track records owe as much to authors finding an audience groove as to comparative talent. Process-wise, a cultivated routine sustains effort. I write more and better when I'm on routine. Productivity success lures my butt back in that chair the next day. When I lose Mo and get off routine, that empty chair looks daunting as hell.

And then there's craft. By my quick count, the Big Mo is--or isn't--alive in a story three ways. None of them happen by accident. 


Consider the Golden State Warriors. Last month, the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight seasons (they also lost the Finals twice in that stretch). This, despite being smaller and less athletic than the Celtics. The Warriors took the trophy because of game pace. Their core line-up pushes tempo and zips passes at a level that is fan joy to behold. They've trained themselves that way. They feed off it. When Golden State kept their signature pace, they ran up big leads. When they eased off the gas, here came Boston. It took a bunch of time-outs for the Warriors to break those runs and reset.

Fiction works the same way. A story needs pace. It needs a constant and crisp focus from avoiding asides down to Strunk and White's advice to omit unnecessary words. No off-plot indulgences. No info dumps to show off the research. Every sentence launches plot or character or both one direct step toward the big finish (red herrings allowed), or else say goodbye to tension. Say goodbye to Big Mo. 

An example. I truly enjoyed about 100,000 words of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The other 68,000? A perfectly good thriller could've soared next-level if it'd skipped its pace-sapping detail. But hey, what do I know? That novel is still selling--thanks to its hype momentum.


A sneaky craft trick? Sentence construction. This sounds so retro as to be quaint, but how sentences unfold is critical tactically. A great sentence build around its moment's conflict. What central person or thing deserves the subject mantle? The most important actor or action. What verb captures that central thing in action? What clauses show the situation or implications? 

That's only part of the trick. When I read great fiction, I don't just see words on the page. If I'm that deep in, the author's words have music. I hear the words. Each sentence rolls into the next, again and again, and carries me with it. Check this out the next time a story hums for you. Maybe, just maybe, the author created momentum through pleasing and varied construction. Like I just did. Hopefully.


Last year, I submitted a literary piece that I'd held back a while. It was long-ish for competing even after painful cuts, and my acceptance rate with literary pieces lacks, shall we say, similar momentum to the crime side. The story was rejected, nicely so by one market. The editor liked the writing and premise but didn't feel powerful character evolution for the length. A correct assessment, on re-read. I hadn't given the story enough forward motion.

Ironically, this is my frequent beef with some high literary pieces. Talented work laced with great imagery and language, but nothing happens. Not really. Don't get me wrong. Form and abstraction makes for an amazing read, in poetry. 


In 1980, George Bush invoked a Big Mo never actually behind him. He might've grabbed Mo anyway, had he altered his patrician style and message. He didn't. He stuck to words and aspirations. That's the thing about the Big Mo. It thrives on hard work, on acts and habits. The Big Mo is a fickle beast. It goes with who feeds it.

Writers can feed our Mo. Our work is, after all, ours. That over-long literary piece of mine? I can edit it. I can get fresh critique, or I can study authors who shine at these mid-long arcs. Or I can file it away and try another piece with more promise. 

Resets aren't easy. Resetting a reset is worse. Be that as it may. We can all tweak our approach to make us better at this writing thing. More enthused about our work, too. And that's when the Big Mo might swing our way a while.


  1. Ouch. Some of my favorite first-draft darlings are parenthetical or between-the-em-dashes wisecracks. I delete most of them. Just before reading this, I reconstructed a couple of such sentences as four sentences as a better way of preserving the darlings. But that was in a post to DorothyL, not the short story I was writing this morning. So maybe I’m not such a self-indulgent bad girl after all.

  2. My stories are really more about character than plot, so the folks tend to explain themselves. Sometimes too much. It's a hard balance to get right, when I can.

  3. I read this a few times There's gold in these here words


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