Marble Theory: OR Why Writing a Book is Hard

“Why is writing a book so hard? It’s just putting words together, right?”

This is sort of a redo of a very old post. I came up with this metaphor while I was writing a book on a deadline. That book is being revisited, so it’s only fair that Marble Theory should be as well. I’m rather proud of the improvements in my artistic abilities in the intervening two years, as well.

It is the nature of some types of tasks that they are repetitive, while other gain complexity with each revolution. If you work on an assembly line, for example, your task does not become more complex, regardless of the number of times you repeat it. Writing, however, continues to grow more difficult as the scale of the project increases.

This is also a fairly straightforward concept to discuss mathematically. Consider addition. The process by which we arrive at 1+1=2 is not meaningfully changed should we instead be attempting to figure out 1,000,000…000,000+1, right? It’s always n+1. Consider, instead, a geometric expression. It is fairly simple to arrive at 2^2=4 or 4^2=16. It’s not all that difficult to arrive at 16^2=256. What’s 256^2, though? 65536. That only took me four minutes to work out in my head. I don’t have time for 65536^2. The point is that process of determining the answer becomes complex. Likewise in writing, it is not just the word that came directly before which must be considered in choosing the next word, but all the words that came before. A simple task for two words, ten, twenty, or one hundred, even. Roughly the length of this paragraph. Reach a thousand words, or ten thousand, though, and the task begins to weigh far more heavily.

Marble Theory Infographic


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4 Thoughts on “Marble Theory: Why Writing Books is Hard”

  • Hey great post!

    It rings true with me! Sometimes I metaphorically throw all my marbles at the wall on one of those days when the words Just. Wont. Come. Ahh!


  • Don’t forget, you also have to stack the jars according to a long and complicated series of rules – and you only get some of those rules to start. You don’t get the rest of the rules until you’ve stacked at least half the jars – and they sometimes entail re-stacking the whole thing. I could chase this metaphor around all day!

    • Haha, yeah, and then once you’ve done that, you’ll have to show the stack to a number of marble-stacking authorities who will offer differing advice on how it should be restacked before they’ll even consider paying for it. . . I figured I’d stretched it far enough.

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