Being a Better Writer: Keeping Motivation on Longer Works

Welcome back, everyone! Being a Better Writer has returned at last! I know it’s only been two weeks since the last post, but honestly, with all that’s going on it felt like quite a bit longer.

Anyway, today we have a requested topic from the new topic list to tackle (remember that call for topics a few weeks ago?), and it’s an interesting one. It’s also a topic that I’ve tackled in part before (though that post hasn’t been reposted here, sorry!), but this time there was a new wrinkle added to the mix. Where before the question was just “Motivation while writing,” this time the question of length came into the equation.

Specifically, the reader wanted to know: how does one keep motivation up while working on a longer work?

This is actually a pretty valid question. There’s a definite difference between writing a short story, a novella, a novel, and then a piece of epic length fiction. But sometimes this difference can be hard to spot from the writing perspective, especially if you’re new. Some might be tempted to think “Well, I wrote a short story in two days, so a story that’s ten times that long should only take twenty days, right?”

No. It won’t. Because they’re not the same kind of writing experience. Short stories, novellas, epics … all of these come with different requirements, different amounts of prior work. For example, writing Beyond the Borderlands, which is about 300,000 words, took me three months (and probably a month of free-time prep-work). Meanwhile, Unusual Events ended up around 150,000 words … and yet it took about two-and-a-half months.

Huh. From a simple “1+1” perspective, that doesn’t make sense. But when I step back and look at the fundamental differences of what I was writing, the roughly equal amount of time does make sense. Beyond was a single work, one I’d planned out, but a single work. Whereas Unusual Events was a collection of ten separate stories, each with their own characters, background, events, etc …

My point is, different lengths of works come with their own differences in writing as well. Don’t expect that because you can pump out a short story in two days you’ll be able to pump out a story that is ten times that length in ten times the amount of time. Just don’t. It might be a good rough goal, but it’s not something that you should expect to be set in stone. Writing different lengths of works takes different skills.

And, actually, this segues nicely into the first bit of keeping your motivation on a longer work: don’t overexpect too much from from yourself.

If you’re going to start a long work, I would stress this first off. There are far too many writers who attempt to tackle something massive for their first project (I know I first attempted to write a book when I was in seventh grade) and fail not because they lack the drive or determination (talent on the other hand, at least speaking of myself at that age, is another issue, but that’s of less consequence at the moment) but because they expect too much from themselves. Many would-be authors sit down at a keyboard with grand ideas and designs for an epic adventure, expecting that the words will just flow, writing stuff (that they have no words for) will just happen, and they’ll have a novel in a week or two. Tops.

This does not happen. Turns out, writing is hard. And these would-be writers, who expected to have a completed work at the end of a few weeks, find that by the end of the first they’ve not finished their first chapter.

Now, if they were writing a short story, this wouldn’t seem so bad. But writing a gigantic, whirlwind adventure that they expected to take at least thirty chapters? Suddenly what work they’ve done seems microscopic compared to the task ahead of them. Worse, it’s far in short of the schedule they’d set for themselves. Disappointment sets in. And after a week or two’s passing … they give up.

There’s a way around this, though, a way to keep that from settling in. Did you notice in that bolded text above that there was a bit odd about one of the words> I used the phrase “overexpect” rather than expect.

Because in truth, you do need to expect much from yourself. You’re writing a long work, remember? That’s going to take a lot of effort and dedication. You need to have expectations. The problem is that when those expectations are not realistic, you’ll find not only do you fail to achieve your goals, you’re not even going to come close.

So do you want to keep motivation about you while writing a longer work? Set realistic—but still challenging—goals. Something that forces you to stretch, but not too far. You want something achievable, yet still challenging.

I’ll be honest: This is hard. Setting realistic goals requires an individual to be honest with themselves about themselves, and that’s something that a lot of people don’t like to do. It’s awkward. Uncomfortable. But you need to do it. Give yourself a realistic estimate of your abilities, then push it. Don’t overexpect too much, but do expect a little more than average from yourself.

In addition to setting realistic goals, there’s something else to keep in mind. These goals need to be measurable. The easier they are to quantify, the better. Why? Because goals that are vague or hard to measure are also hard to track. This is why a lot of authors recommend setting word or page count goals rather than time goals: because while one can stare at a screen for an hour without doing any work and call it “writing” and a job well done, it’s much harder to say the same when your goal for the weekend was five pages in a word document and you have only three.

Set measurable goals.

Now, I know some of this sounds like nothing new, and it’s true, I would give the same advice to a new writer starting out on some project. But the truth is the basics always apply. And if you’re going to set out to write a long story, a novel, an epic, or even a series, well, you’re going to need these basics. Because a long work is a mountain. And you’re only going to get to the top one step at a time.

So, set realistic, measurable goals. Learn self-discipline (goals help with this). Push yourself. Be honest and expect honest results.

Now, what about outside of that? What if you’ve already gotten all that down, and you’re in the middle of things. You’re working hard, having fun … but also, realizing that sometimes things can be a slog? What then? How do you keep your motivation past the basics?

Well, it’ll probably vary a bit depending on your project, but I’ve found that there are some common threads that authors talk about when working on longer stories. Including “the slog.” Because it exists. You’re excited about the story you’re working on, you get through this exciting scene … and suddenly you’re back near square one. A lull in the story. And it needs to be there. The problem is, you’re just not that excited to write it. How do you keep your motivation then?

There are a couple of different ways. For me, personally, I’ve always got my mind on the prize: the end. I’ll remind myself why the scene I’m currently writing is important and what it allows me to get to. For me, the reward for finishing the less exciting part is gettingto the exciting parts and letting all the pieces come together.

But not always. Sometimes I remind myself that to the reader, it won’t (or shouldn’t) be a slog. And again, I’m not using the word “slog” to imply that it’s something that is unneeded, irrelevant, or poor. No, not at all. Well, hopefully. I’m referring to a part of the story that’s difficult to get through, or seems unrewarding while writing.

I have to remind myself of this: While it may be a slog for me, for the reader it will be part of the adventure. It may be incredibly tense or exciting to them, while to me it was just writing out a scene of puzzle pieces.

So sometimes that helps. I think of the reader and how they’ll anticipate the scene. What they’ll get out of it. And that can be a “reward” to keep my motivation up. A payoff, so to speak.

But there are other ways to keep motivation up. One author I heard speak at a con admitted that they write everything out of order so that they can split up the ‘fun stuff’ and the ‘boring stuff.’ When they get tired of boring stuff, they’ll just write some of the fun stuff for a while. Other do similar. I’ve heard of some that just write all the ‘exciting stuff’ first and then go back and fill in the gaps.

And for writers who don’t mind writing outside of chronological order, this is probably a pretty good system. It lets you take a break from the slog to work on some fun stuff and then get back to the slog … but on your own schedule. Unless you run out of fun stuff. Then you’re just on your own.

I can think of another thing you can do to keep your motivation through a slog, though, in addition to these others: Watch what you’re writing. It might seem like odd advice, but if things are really becoming a slog, take a step back and look at what you’ve written. Maybe it’s not just a slog because it’s boring to you, but because it just is boring. Maybe it’s time to look at things from another angle, and take a few steps back to try something new. But sometimes, you might look back and realize “You know, this is pretty good.”

I realize that this last prospect is a bit risky, because it’s hard not to feel discouraged when you do realize such a drastic step such as moving back a ways needs to be taken, and for one who’s already been pushing hard to create a long work, the act of redoing some of that work can feel crippling. My advice? Don’t let it be. If you decide to rework some things, don’t just delete them. If it’s a lot, cut and paste it into a separate document so that you can still look at what you accomplished and remind yourself what you’ve done.

You know, that’s something else you can do that helps with motivation as well. Stop every so often and look at what you’ve achieved! Sure, you’re trying to get to the peak, but it doesn’t hurt every so often to stop and take a look back at everything you’ve conquered so far. Those of you who are hikers know the feeling of being halfway to your destination and looking back on everything you’ve passed so far. On a long project, don’t be afraid to do this!

In that same vein, and combing that with the goalsetting mentioned earlier, don’t be afraid to give yourself rewards. Small rewards, but rewards. Tell yourself that when you hit your goal, you’ll go see a movie. Or buy yourself a new book. Whatever. The point is, you have something to keep you moving forward, to motivate you.

Now, one last word of caution before I wrap this up. It’s not a bad thing to look at the works of others. You can draw advice and inspiration from looking to a favorite author or creator. But at the same time, be careful in comparing your mountain to theirs. While it can be a good thing to look at another’s works and say “I want to do what they do!” it can be all too tempting to compare their works to our own in an unhealthy manner and start despairing at how much more someone else can appear to achieve then us.

There’s always going to be someone better. Accept that now. But that doesn’t mean you should give up, or despair that you’ll never reach their level. Don’t make someone else’s mountains so titanic that you don’t feel like you should even bother, or that you should turn back. Instead, remind yourself of all the base camps that individual had along the way, and then move forward, step by step.

So, if you’re working at keeping motivation on longer works, first realize that longer works are perhaps different than what you’ve worked on before and may take more time than what you’re used to. Set goals for yourself so that you can track your progress. Measurable, realistic goals that expect you to stretch, but aren’t out of your reach. Then reward yourself when you meet those goals.

Along the way, keep yourself fresh. Keep the end goal in mind. Keep the reader in mind. What feels like a grind to write may not be to read. And if it is being a grind to read, well, change it up! And if you feel like the task it getting to large, well, take a step back and remind yourself what you’ve achieved so far. Then look at the goal and go for it. Or, if you’re one of those non-chronological writers, maybe even reward yourself by writing a fun part.

Make no mistake, writing a long work is hard. Keeping the drive going for that entire haul is part of the process. But if you do … in the end, you’ve climbed that mountain of your own creation and marked it as your own. Better yet, you’ve blazed the trail, and every reader who comes after you is going to enjoy the effort you put into it.

So go out there, find your mountain, and start climbing.

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