Being a Better Writer: Motivation

This post was originally written and posted August 12th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Still off the grid in Alaska. This post was uploaded ahead of time for your viewing pleasure.

I actually have been asked about this topic on numerous occasions, and it was something that came up from multiple people during my time at the Crystal Mountain Convention. Everyone has a variant on the topic, but in the end, they all boil down to a two-part question: what do I do that keeps me motivated, and—in connection with that—what advice do I have for them to acquire motivation and keep it?

I’ve attempted to tackle this discussion before, but ended up digressing into a discussion more about how I kept myself focused and on task rather than what I let motivate me. Which I suppose was because I probably see writing motivation as a bit different from what most new writers hope to hear. I get the feeling that a lot of times what people are really looking for when they ask me about motivation is some sort of “magic bullet” answer like “oh, it’ll come as soon as you get that one idea.” And to an extent, this does sort-of happen, but not in the way most are hoping. If you’re looking at this post to find the one thing that will suddenly, magically motivate you to write, make the work no longer seem like work, well … you won’t. That’s not how it works. Writing is work, and it’s always going to be work even if you enjoy it. The simplest answer I can give to motivating yourself to writing is “just do it.”

The problem a lot of young authors have is that they want the writing they’d like to do to be more appealing than say … playing Halo, watching television, or reading a book. They have this idea that they need to enjoy it, that writing should be just as fun and relaxing as sitting down with a controller in hand and playing a round of deathmatch. And the truth is, it isn’t. Not at first, anyway.

While there will be moments along the way where writing is a blast, and I’d rather be writing than doing anything else at the moment (like, for example, when writing an ending scene), there are also moments where writing is a slog. Writing is work. It’s a dedicated process that can be richly rewarding but at the same time mind-numbingly frustrating. I have ended days with pounding headaches brought about by heavy thinking over ten hours of writing an emotional scene. I’ve gotten so frustrated with my inability to articulate an emotion or event that I’ve gotten up and gone on a bike ride to clear my head. Writing is work, and just like any other form of work, it takes constant, dedicated focus.

But why am I motivated to do it? Well, in the early days it was harder. I wasn’t sure there was going to be any sort of reward. I had a carrot dangled on the end of a stick, but it was a carrot that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get. But I did love writing, even if it was hard. And I loved the result of my writing. If I had to answer what motivates me now, what keeps me writing, I could answer a number of things in no particular order: the reaction of readers, the feeling of satisfaction I get when they enjoy my stuff, the satisfaction of getting a full story out and where others can read it, the satisfaction of milestones, the payout (I do make money at it), and of course, the fact that I enjoy writing, even when it’s making me slap my face against a keyboard.

Make no mistake, if you’re pretty sure that you don’t enjoy writing, then don’t become a writer. If the idea of writing is just abhorrent to you, but you think that the moment you get that one idea, you’ll acquire motivation … no, you won’t. You’ll acquire a fleeting burst of motivation, but it will leave you the moment you sit down at a keyboard and start typing away, because you don’t enjoy it. And if you’re looking for advice on how to motivate yourself to do something you hate, well, I’m the wrong person to ask.

Because I love writing, and that’s where a lot of my motivation comes from. I already have a passion for the art of laying words down in sentence to form worlds and stories. I love coming up with new worlds, characters, and ideas. I enjoy that process, and I enjoy looking at the way I do it. Which means that even when I find myself at the end of my rope with a story or a scene, I push on. I love pushing past that moment of being stuck. I love seeing people react to the finished result, exploring and wondering at the world and characters I’ve created. I love seeing readers comment about how the characters seem like friends, or about how much fun they had reading my books.

And you know what? That can be a motivator too. There are authors out there who don’t actually enjoy what they do, just like anyone else. They write simply because they can and they’re being well paid to do so, but they don’t enjoy it. It’s a job for them, just like any other, and they’re motivated by a paycheck. There are other writers who are motivated for other reasons.

But here’s the thing, and the answer that so many people who ask me don’t want to hear: If you’re not motivated enough already to at least try and sit down and write something, writing may not be for you. That’s it, plain and simple. Like those who buy a guitar but can never find the time to actually learn to play, you may just not have the love and drive to push yourself to see the idea through. Because no matter how good your idea is, no matter how complex and amazing your story is, if you can’t ever convince yourself to sit down and write it, you never will. It’s never not going to seem like work. Make no mistake, I’d love it if writing for me felt the same as some sort of luxury enjoyment. But it very clearly isn’t. Despite my love of the art, there is no “luxury” about it. It’s an enjoyment, but in the same way some people love working in the great outdoors felling trees or landscaping. I may enjoy it, but it’s still work, from start to finish.

But I love it. I love the feeling of satisfaction I get at the end of a long day when I look back at an entire chapter that’s moved me one step closer to finishing a story. That motivates me. I love the satisfaction of writing a scene that I know will help readers better understand a character. I love the feeling of writing a scene that I know is going to make readers lose their minds when they hit the big reveal.

I enjoy all of that, and it’s stuff like that I look forward too. Does it motivate me? Well, it all helps. But sometimes those things don’t happen. Sometimes no one is blown away. Sometimes the chapter doesn’t work the way I planned. Sometimes readers even hate what I’ve written. Crud, sometimes I look at what I’ve written and realize that it’s terrible. There’s probably a good quarter or more of writing that I do that my readers will never see because it isn’t good enough for my own standards. At that point, none of those feelings above are coming from that work.

But I keep typing anyway. Because I honestly love writing, even when it’s hard and not satisfying. Even when it seems like I’m accomplishing nothing. Even when I’m getting bombarded with messages that tell me that I’m terrible and should give up writing altogether. I don’t stop. Because I love it. I know I’m good at it. And I want to write. I want to get that next book done, that next short story out.

Does that answer what motivates me? That I love it? I don’t know. Maybe some authors have a more clear-cut answer.

But I do know this: If you’re looking for a solid, simple answer to how to find motivation on your own, I don’t have it. No author is going to give you same answer. If you’re hoping that one day an author will say the magic words that make you want to sit down and write that story that you’ve never been able to well, it likely won’t happen. They can inspire you, but honestly such inspiration can be short lived, especially once the going is difficult. You’re better off sitting down at your computer, shutting down facebook, and forcing yourself to write, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, until you find for yourself the thing that motivates you. Each of us is different, and we’re all going to bring different things to the table. What motivates me is not what motivates other authors, though I guarantee that there are similarities. Maybe one of the things I’ve listed up above will end up being one of your motivations. And if so, then I’m actually wrong in my own assertion that I can’t just grant anyone motivation.

You have to put yourself into it just like anything else. You have to find your own drive, your own reasons to keep going when it becomes work. And rest assured, it will be work. You’re going to struggle. You’re going to be challenged. And you’re going to have to find within yourself your own reasons to keep going. Because of the fans, because you love it, because it’s doing good … I don’t know what those will be for certain.

But you’re going to have to make the effort and push yourself through to even find them. I used to offer myself monthly rewards for hitting word goals. Now the thrill of hitting such a high goal is all I need. I still occasionally reward myself, but I’m not doing it for the reward anymore.

So, to those of you who are seeking motivation, I give you this challenge: dedicate yourself. Set a start date and an end date, and sit down for six straight days, and write a thousand words for each of those days. In a six-thousand word story. Take away distractions. Force yourself to work those six days, and at the end, when you’ve done a thousand words per day, in six days (not all at once, I want six contiguous days here), ask yourself why you did it. Look at what motivated you to finish that challenge. And from there, look at what you learned about yourself that you can put towards your own possible writing path.

I doubt I’ve reached the end of this particular topic, and I’m certain that I’ll continue to hear the question “How can I stay motivated?” as long as long as I’m writing. Maybe one day I’ll have a better answer. But for now, I’ll once again just have to reiterate: There is no magic bullet. It’s work, and you’re going to have to push past that on your own.

Best of luck to you in figuring out exactly how.

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