Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Five Ways to Stay Motivated While Writing a Novel

"Gelee Blanche" - Camille Pissarro
Believe it or not, there are many writers out there, real writers, who don’t particularly like writing very much.

It’s true! Some find the process tedious, even torturous, and find it difficult to stay focused for the length of time it takes to finish.

Like many writers out there, I’m someone who finds writing really difficult. I ultimately derive great pleasure from the writing process and feel incredibly fortunate to have the time to devote to it, but that doesn’t mean I find every moment riveting.

What burns in the heart of writers varies from person to person, so you’ll have to find what works for you. But here are some ideas that might help keep you in the writer’s chair.

- Cultivate Your Fear of Failure. Despite what Yoda might have you believe, fear does not always lead to anger, hate, and suffering. Fear is one of the best motivators you have. Invest in the idea of your novel. Develop the idea that you’re letting yourself down if you don’t finish it. Put pressure on yourself. Be afraid the regret you’ll feel the rest of your life if you don’t accomplish your dream. Fear is a feeling that can keep you going.

- Set Deadlines With Teeth. Deadlines don’t actually work that well for me personally (they tend to just stress me out), but I know people who swear by them. The trick is setting a deadline with teeth. If you secretly know that the deadline you’re setting for yourself is a soft one, it’s not going to have its hair-raising, stress-inducing maximum effect. So either you have to learn to be scared of yourself and your own punishments or you may need a partner in crime who can help you keep to them.

- Daydream a Little. It’s okay to imagine what would happen if your book blew up and you were on the cover of fifty magazines (do those still exist?) and you were the toast of the literati and a gazillionaire. Don’t let those dreams become expectations to the point that not getting those things gets you down, but give yourself the freedom to imagine those best case scenarios.

- Befriend Writers Who Have Finished a Novel. Before I knew real writers, the idea of writing a novel seemed so impossibly vast it seemed almost magical. But then you get to know the people behind the books, and there’s not as much of a secret to it: They are people who sat in place for as long as it took to write a novel. Get to know them. Lean on them. They may give you a blank, pitying, horrified stare when you start fretting you’re never going to finish, but that blank stare will get you back to the keyboard in no time.

- Write Something You Love. It may be tempting to try and chase the flavor of the moment or what the industry says is selling or the novel you think you should write, but that doesn’t work. You need to love your novel unconditionally if you’re going to finish.

What about you? What motivates you?






55 comments:

Suzanne Korb said...

I'm with Dorothy Parker who said "I hate writing, I love having written".

abc said...

I try to remember that these cool characters that exist in my head won't be known by anyone unless I get them down on paper and give them a cool story. Also, in my experience, the hardest part is to get started. Once you are in the mode, writing is easier, even fun. I suppose, perhaps, it's like running. Getting out of bed and putting on your running shoes is the tough part. Once you are out there, whew! Although I don't run and have no intention of ever running, so my comparison may be whack.

jrlawson4@comcast.net said...

Having a writing partner is motivation for me. I don't like keeping him waiting for something I should have done two weeks ago.

warmingHam said...

I work well with rewards. If I reach different goals throughout NaNoWriMo I'm finally going to buy various books I've been dying to read.

Ellis Shuman said...

abc = you hit this on the nose when you compared writing to running, even if you don't run. Writing is like a long distance marathon run. You're on your own and no one else feels the wind, the pain, the exhilaration of finishing the race. You may wear out your shoes and your muscles may get tired in the process, but the best advice is to keep on running/writing. It is a good sort of pain.

Mr. D said...

Having a passion for writing, imo, is what gets you finished. You have to want it.

Susan Cushman said...

Anne Lamott compared writing a book with marriage, whereas writing an essay (or other short piece) is more like a one-night stand. There's instant gratification with a short piece (not that essays are always quick), and there's the deep joy that comes from going the distance... in a relationship, and in the long form narrative. Thanks for these great words of encouragement as I'm trying to finish my novel this month, Nathan.

ilima said...

What is wrong with you people? :) Writing is the funnest thing in the world (whether outlining, drafting, revising, critiquing--all of it!) My problem comes with making myself stop and actually live the rest of my life. I would write all day long if I could. And I totally agree about writing what you love!

Roger Floyd said...

Good ideas. I don't have much trouble staying motivated, but maybe that's just me. If I get away from writing, I keep wanting to get back. But others may need to take your comments to heart.

Lisa Lane said...

Even when I'm thoroughly burned out on a project, I'm far too curious to see how it is going to play out to step away from it for more than a day.

When I write, it's like I'm watching a movie in my mind and using the keyboard to describe what I see--and that is typically enjoyable, no matter how rough it might also be. Even when the words feel like blood being squeezed from a turnip, my own desire to keep "watching the movie" to the end typically keeps me going.

Rida said...

Awesome tips- and I love the quote Suzanne's quote from Dorothy Parker :)

Eve said...

Like you, Nathan, I don't do well with deadlines. Give me a deadline and I freeze. But I do very much like your other points. Especially "Day Dream a Little". I don't give myself permission to do that often enough.

By the way, love the Pisarro painting!

Alana Roberts said...

The word-count progress bar on the NaNo site is like a miracle: suddenly the project is finite! My ambitions, from being unmanageably boundless, have focused themselves into a single defined goal.

Now it's true I've only got 1044 words. But still - it doesn't say zero any more! The power of symbol, perhaps?

Mira said...

Great post, Nathan. Love your subtle sense of humor. :)

I'm with warmingHam. Rewards are a HUGE motivator for me. I have a complex system of rewards based on how much time and how much I accomplish. I have so much fun setting up the reward system and thinking of the rewards, and ultimately the reward system becomes a reward in itself.


I also use all of your other suggestions, I like your suggestions - thanks - except one. I know the deadline with teeth would backfire with me. I do great with rewards, but a punishment system would just make me mad, upset and ultimately deeply depressed.

Although....that could give me fodder for my writing, so I may have to re-think that.

Enjoying your posts this week!

D.G. Hudson said...

I've found that the best way to get myself motivated is to concentrate on one part of the story, so I usually start with scenes.

Crafting scenes gives me something to work around, and I fill in narrative, setting, etc. later.

Character profiles, scenes, dialogue, draft - that's usually my order of creation, then of course, revisions.

That said, having NaNoWiMo hanging over your shoulder means these must be done at hyper-speed.

D.G. Hudson said...

I forgot to mention that Camille Pissaro is one of my favorite painters of the Impressionist period. Thanks for featuring his work.

Pissaro acted as a father figure to many of the other artists of his time. We saw some of his work in Paris.

Rick Daley said...

I'm all about the final point- write something you love. If I have a good story, I will want to finish it and will do all I can to do so.

WORD VERIFICATION: prityin. To be in the act of making something pretty. EX: My wife will be ready to go in a minute, she's still prityin up.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

I'm so glad to hear of writers who at times find it laborious to sit down and slug out a scene. Been there, done that, and will probably do it many more times. But then I realize how much I love my characters and want to see them grow and triumph by the end of the story and on we go. Great post!

ilana said...

Thank you so much for posting this today Nathan. I've definitely been struggling lately with not liking writing. My boyfriend is a musician who loves going to band practice and loves working on his music every day. I dread writing, except when I sit down and actually do it. I think the most poignant part of what you wrote was the last part about working on something you love. Writing is painful for me
(or the thought of getting started) but the only thing that gets my butt in the chair is the idea that I get to hang out in a world that I like hanging out in. Also, I used to hang a quote above my desk by Frank Herbert that said something along the lines of the Dorothy Parker quote that Suzanne posted. "I'd much rather go fishing, for example, or go sharpen pencils, or go swimming, or what not [than write]". I think I will put that up above my desk again!

tamw said...

It's crazy to me that I'm on round two of this. Round one having been the first novel, which was fully rewritten three times--which, technically, means I'm on round four I suppose. The first book actually came easily. Out of nowhere--bam, hours of creativity just pouring out of me. Of course, it was all crap, but the idea was in there. It was kind of like whittling to get it out.That first book was fun. All of it. Even the endless revisions. This second one isn't as much fun--but I think it's better. What keeps me going is knowing that it wasn't very long ago that I was staring at a blank computer screen wondering if/why I wanted to put myself through this again--writing those first tentative words. Now I'm looking at the finish line. Lagging a little at the end here, but still steadily approaching. Fear is my thing. Fear of letting myself down. Of never getting published. Of wasting the last four years of my life for nothing. Since that would SUCK, I keep going.

Robena Grant said...

I love "Set Deadlines with Teeth." I'm always driven to accomplish whatever I set out to do. I work well under pressure. My biggest problem has been finishing a manuscript and thinking it is done because I wrote "the end" instead of letting it gel, then rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. I'm now going to set new deadlines "with teeth" for the rewrites. : )

Vera Soroka said...

I can never set goals with teeth. I will break them. I'm trying to ride the wave of nano and try and get this book done.
I'm a profound daydreamer and not just about my writing career but the characters that are my own and others.

Elissa said...

Yay for other writers that find writing frustrating and difficult. I always feel very alone when I read interviews with some many writers that talk about how they MUST write or they will DIE. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to die when I do write.

Which is why I reward with candy after each chapter. Good days mean a major sugar high around dinner time. Mmmm, candy...

Raejean said...

Not being one of those who has finished a book, I know one thing that interferes with staying at the keyboard is negative self talk. When I keep telling myself this sounds dumb, there's little point in sticking with it. I know I can't see if it's garbage until I finish.

Even when it's "done", that's just the first step. When I write an article or short story, I have to leave it for a day and then I can look at it objectively. Usually it's not so bad and with a little tweaking I'm pleased with the results.

I expect writing a whole book would be similar.

magarentse said...

I'm a fast writer, so I find it amazing how simple everyday step like writing just 1667 words can result in a finish novel. In a month. Just like that. (And yes, speaking from a personal experience)

Anonymous said...

It's such a different process for every writer I can't even comment on it.

Sera Phyn said...

Personally, I've always loved revising a little more than writing. Tinkering with words, characters, descriptions, plot points, etc. just trying to get the best out of all of it is wonderful. This being said, I definitely have a hard time finishing a novel. I've somehow managed to write novel-length work four times (alas, nothing publishable... Yet), but that in no way reduces that fear of the blank page or the feeling of doom each time I realize just how far I am from "The End."

Blue said...

"Set Deadlines With Teeth"

This reminded me of something a friend has done. He'll set a hard goal for himself, and then if he doesn't make it, his consequence has "teeth" that he abhors. For example, if he decides to not have treats for a month and then caves in, he'll have to make an anonymous donation to an organization he can't stand...eg: the ACLU or KKK.

So a deadline with teeth could be that you give a friend a pre-addressed and stamped envelope with a cashiers check to mail on a certain date which can only be traded for a copy of your first draft (or whatever) before the mail date arrives. That's the kind of thing that would motivate me. It also scares me to the max, but what's life without a little fear? ;-)

Great suggestion, NB!

Doug said...

I agree with most of what you said, Nathan, but self-imposed fear can be very destructive for people who already suffer from low self-esteem. Like you, I seldom enjoy the writing process, and the last thing I need is to manufacture some more emotional baggage to drag along.

Marilyn Peake said...

I actually love writing, although not all phases of it. About the middle of every novel, I usually find myself wondering why I ever wanted to write, and editing gives me horrible migraine headaches, probably from staring so intently at the computer screen for so many hours. For the most part, however, writing gives me tremendous joy. I love the endorphin rush I get from the entire creative process, and I love using words creatively to build a story. Three things keep me motivated when writing novels: the sheer joy of creativity, the challenge of becoming an increasingly better writer and the idea of a finished book with an awesome book cover.

Natalie said...

What motivates me? Most important - I want to know what happens! I create a world and characters and set them into motion. I've got the big picture idea - beginning, middle, end. But how they get there and the details in between - that's the mysterious part. I'm curious and want to know how it all turns out. So I get my butt in the chair and type or pull out a pen and put it to paper and keep doing that until I've reached the end. On my third now. Page by page. Just writing to see how it all turns out.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I wonder if fear is the best word to use here, although I agree with that sentiment. I suppose it's more you have to fear for something rather than be afraid of something. I do cultivate some of this fear in myself, mostly a fear of not accomplishing what I set out to do, but I also encourage a more positive side of that fear, so that my desires become needs: I need to get this story down on the page, even if it goes nowhere after that. I need to take the next step so I know I tried, even if I fail, because then I won't only have myself to blame.

And allowing yourself to have positive dreams is also a good motivator. We need the silly little ones to keep us going sometimes, since so much else is pressure and labor.

Haha, I think I am the "writer who has finished a novel" within my group of writer friends and acquaintances. I used to think it was an insurmountable task, too, and sometimes in the middle of a first draft I can't see how I'll ever finish, but eventually I do and realize it wasn't so bad. I'm the one always telling other writers that a little bit a day adds up quicker than you realize. It's true!

Ida said...

It can be hard to get started writing but I love when I get to the part where I start to laugh out loud at the funny parts and tear up at the sad parts. My kids give me strange looks, though.

wendy said...

I'm not sure if I love writing as much as creating and sharing a story. I'm always creating stories in my imagination to amuse myself, and the thought that these might amuse another person is a wonderful motivator to write them down. One story started from a little girl's voice speaking in my mind about her friend, the sea witch. The others usually start as a kind of wish-fulfillment. I've ways wanted to write the ultimate fairy story, I mean about fairies - the fairies who were spoken of in awe in the most ancient mythologies. They were a mystical and noble race who were known as the 'good folk' or the 'people of peace' and who were possibly a few more rungs up the evolutionary ladder than human beings. They weren't cursed with sickness, poverty or many limitations; and apparently lived long powerful lives that were the stuff of myth and legend. Oh, to meet one of these magnificient beings...

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I have friends and acquaintances who have accomplished a lot as writers; they work regularly as freelance writers, or they've taken several writing workshops. They've published short stories and poetry. I'm glad that they're succeeding, but it also motivates me to succeed too. Maybe it sounds bad for me to say this, but it makes me feel a little bit competitive; I don't want to feel left behind. Of course, I write because I love it and I can't imagine not doing it. But at the same time I'd like to have something to show for all those hours at my desk too.

Verbose said...

I don't know if it's the whole "I hate writing" so much as it is "I hate writing about this" sort of thing. I love to write. Any person who loves to write, can spend hours on end just writing. If you don't like it, then I'm sorry, you just ain't a writer.
The easy part is starting. The hard part is what happens in between because you want to get to that golden gate of an ending, though in reality it's the journey that's gonna make that ending worthwhile.
I can't do deadlines. I can't overplan because then the whole story loses it's flavour and sponteneity. Failure isn't an option until whatever I've written is written.
Then again, I've never really been in a situation where money is on the line...or even on the horizon, so my point of view may be askew in that sense.

submeg.com said...

An interesting take on this! I was looking at goals in general - and lack of motivation and no driving force is the reason I think people fail.

The idea of a writing buddy is a good idea! Need to find out who to lean towards!

Reagan Philips said...

Personally I love writing, it's the revising I'm not so fond of. Sometimes it's good, but after one too many critters to spoil the broth if you will, the revising feels--like different soup.

So I use writing a new story as my reward for getting revising done. IF I revise to set goal, I can write. Rewards motivate everyone, it's finding the right reward that makes it effective.

VonMalcolm said...

The Deadlines with Teeth is a good suggestion: just make the deadline goal reasonable, otherwise that deadline will lose its teeth fast!

@Suzanne Korb: my quote would be: 'I love writing the first draft and I love having written the final draft: I just hate writing and revising all of the drafts in between!'

To the people who love writing so much: writing is a fun trip: it's the perfecting the writing that's a pain to me: the grammar nit-picking, the endless research, the plot hole repairs, the deep character development: the revising, the revising and the revising. If you enjoy all that stuff, then, indeed, you are a better writer than I am -and I envy you!

Mom & Dad Beery said...

It took me 8 years to write my novel. That's because I have a lazy streak and am easily distracted, plus real life sometimes interrupted the process. What kept me going is this: I truly loved my story and the characters I created. If not for that, 8 years would have become 80, with no end in sight.

Dennis Beery said...

(Not sure where that previous username came from, except to say I'm rather new at this stuff. Sorry) It took me 8 years to write my novel. That's because I have a lazy streak and am easily distracted, plus real life sometimes interrupted the process. What kept me going is this: I truly loved my story and the characters I created. If not for that, 8 years would have become 80, with no end in sight.

Peter Dudley said...

What motivates me is creating something others will enjoy. Although it holds no weight with agents, I was thrilled that my son said, "With a few tweaks it will be as good as [his favorite book, a very popular one being movied right now]." Since he pretty well represents my target market, and since he lacks any capacity for false kindness, this to me is success. (A dozen beta readers responded similarly, with only one who didn't get it.)

Anyway, what do you do when "write what you love" leads you to write something that's a really good story but which seems to have hit the tail end of a trend that the publishing industry is getting tired of? Not because you focused on the trend when writing, but just because it happened that way? Do you shelve it and bring it back out in a couple of years, hoping for a trend echo, or do you keep pushing on the string?

VonMalcolm said...

@Peter Dudley: Keep pushing the string! The whole Vampire thing should have been dead years ago, even before Buffy, and especially after: but the Vampire thing just keeps coming back: as will Young Wizards, Dragons, Nazis, Zombies, Love Stories, Murder Mysteries, Thundercats...

Marsha Sigman said...

I like to do pretend interviews with Matt Louer. It makes me happy. Then I write more.

Marsha Sigman said...

I like to do pretend interviews with Matt Louer. It makes me happy. Then I write more.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

Thanks for this one. I do love writing, but get blogged down when editing it, which is where I am now.

Soraya said...

You always write what I need to hear. Thanks!!

Michael C. Boxall said...

I’ve recently finished my first novel. What will keep me working on its successor is the incredible high I felt when it was done. Like the last day of term but more so. Much, much more so.

mclicious said...

Love this, especially number four. I'm trying to remind myself that while I don't enjoy writing the way I used to, I like planning, and I LOVE rewriting, so I just have to get through this middle part of getting the draft done so that I can get to part three, be done for awhile, and start part one with a new project.

the House of Payne said...

For me the key is to get something on the page. Once I've got something to chew on, it's easy. As long as everything remains in my head, it's incredibly difficult for me to move forward.

MariaAnna said...

I love writing when I am in the zone and hate it when experiencing writer's block. Lately I find it difficult to get in the zone. The fact that I have four young children constantly in my ear may be the zone prohibitor. I started a novel 18 months ago and it's in same place it was 18 months ago. I really want to finish it if just to finish it. The problem is the little green monster in my mind telling me I can't do it.

meaghmo said...

Thanks for the motivation! I'm working on my first middle grade novel and because I'm not published (yet) I sometimes feel I'm working in a vacuum. It's strange.

My goal is to be ready to query in January. I keep trying to say that publicly!

Also, you have a terrific blog. So informative. Thanks.

Reay Jespersen said...

Good stuff, Nathan.

As for what motivates me:
- Knowing how great it'll feel to get another project done
- Knowing that once I've finally finished the current project (script/short story/whatever) I can move onto one of my other ideas from an ever-growing mountain of them (some folks are put off by the blank page; I always love biting into something new)
- Knowing that while I could never hope to see all of my ideas realized in completed form, finishing something... ANYTHING... is the only way that any of my ideas will ever be realized at all
- Some degree of understanding the basic equation that only through finishing projects and sending them out again and again will I ever have any chance at eventually, hopefully making a living via just writing my own material.

Meg said...

This was absolutely inspirational to me! I've tried to write a novel a thousand times to no avail. Recently I began writing something I absolutely fell in love with, but was terrified that I would lose it about half way through- the norm for me. This article really helped me see I'm not the only one who has difficulty with this. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

I love your honesty! Haha

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