Motivation can be a problem. I’ve talked about it before, but I’d like to think I know more about it now after a year of enforced writing. I’ve also been talking to a lot of other writers about what motivates them (and demotivates them) and I’ve come up with this list. Some of these pieces of advice are generic, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true and some I’d like to think are unique. Either way, give them a shot if you’re feeling more like watching TV and cramming chips into your face than writing.
1. Remember that every writer you love was once a newbie who had no idea what they were doing.
It’s easy to give up. Writing well is as hard as any other artistic skill, but like most skills it can be learned. At some point your favourite writer sat down in front of a blank page and made a start. And they sucked. No one writes well right out of the gate, not even people now lauded as geniuses. If you’re lacking the drive to finish something you know isn’t perfect it can be helpful to think of it as both it’s own thing and a stepping stone to something better. But if you don’t finish your work, the stepping stone will sink out of sight and you’ll get a pants leg full of cold water.
I’ve lost control of this metaphor.
Sometimes you just have to start. It’s much like going to the gym in that the hardest part is getting there. Tell yourself you’re just going to write ten words. By the time you’ve sat down, opened up your story and written out ten measly words you’re already set to do more. They don’t even have to be the right words, hell, copy the ten nearest written words if you have to, just get your fingers moving. It’s easier to keep going than it is to start.
Finish what you start. You probably won’t want to, there is nothing sexier than the book you’re not writing because that book is a concept in your head instead of a real thing and damn those concepts look good. It’s like a heavily Photoshopped picture of a model. It’s not real, but your brain still looks at it and thinks ‘dang’ (my brain is a prospector from 1845) while happily ignoring the fact that none looks like a cover model in real life, not even a cover model. When you actually sit down and write your concept it’ll have to do all those annoying things like ‘make sense’ and ‘not make people bleed from the eye sockets’ and when that happens you’ll look over the horizon at the next sexy concept. But there’s a trap, and it’s one I spent years in.
If you don’t finish what you start then you’ll never get to the level you want to be at, whether that’s published author or ruler of the bookverse. You” keep improving those first few chapters or half books and they’ll be great, but you still won’t have learned the equally important skill of finishing a book, making it as good as you can and then moving on.
4. Pick Up A Published Book That Sucks
This is where my advice starts getting off the reservation. One of the best moments in my writing life, at least in terms of motivation, was when I picked up a popular novel and realised that I could do better.
That doesn’t mean I actually am better of course, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that at least in my own mind I felt like getting published wasn’t impossible any more, I could do at least as well as someone who had gotten there and that was incredibly motivating.
There are plenty of bad books around, pick one and take a close look at the writing. If you can recognise where the writer went wrong, then you can push yourself to do better.
5. Internal motivation is great, but sometimes you need something external
My parents often told me that I needed to motivate myself as a kid, that their telling me what to do and the promise of punishment or reward was inferior to my wanting to do things off my own bat. They were right, of course being self motivated is better than being forced.
On the other hand, want to guess what got me to do more things?
I suspect this isn’t true for everyone, but for me sometimes I need the threat/promise of external consequences to get me going. The same seems to be true for most people. They need to be immediate, because the human brain is not good at long term consequences and they need to be serious enough that you can’t just shrug them off.
Deadlines are good, but there needs to be consequences for missing them and we as human beings aren’t good at dishing out our own punishments and we’re pretty relaxed about giving ourselves rewards to. If you can put the punishment and reward system in the hands of someone you trust, then that’s worth a try…just make sure you do trust them first.
I can’t say for sure what will work for you, but if anyone figures out a reliable and safe way to deliver an electric shock to writers who miss wordcount then I’d totally buy one.
6. Deal with underlying causes
I had to deal with my depression before I really made any progress on my writing. I simply couldn’t maintain any momentum on my writing while at the same time having all the get up and go of a sea slug. Once I got proper treatment for the depression, then I found everything became easier, not just writing.
It doesn’t have to be depression. It might be as simple as lack of sleep. If you’re experiencing low motivation even though you like writing then you need to take a hard look at what else is going on in your life and take steps to deal with that problem.
It might not be easy, and you may need help to deal with the problem that’s draining you of your motivation, but if writing is something you really want to do, then getting yourself in right place to write is worth it.
7. Ask yourself if this is what you really want to do
This will not be popular advice.
If you find yourself dreaming about being a writer, but not actually writing for long stretches, or obsessively reading online advice instead of writing at all then you need to ask yourself if writing is what you actually want to be doing.
Writing is hard. It can hurt. There are real consequences to choosing to spend your free time making up and writing down stories especially if you want to try and make it a career. You will have to give up some of your spare time, maybe most of your spare time, in order to get it done. If you don’t enjoy actually writing then you might have to admit to yourself that writing isn’t what you actually want and do something else.
It’s your life, and you owe it to yourself to do the things that make it both fun and meaningful. If that’s writing, then go for it and don’t let anything stop you, but if it’s not, that’s okay.
8. Get mad
“First you’ve got to get mad…” – Howard Beale ‘Network’ (1976)
Hate your day job? Angry that you aren’t where you want to be? Angry at me for even suggesting you ask yourself if this is what you want to do?
Get angry. Use that feeling that you can do better to motivate you towards the keyboard.
Recently I got told (in a group) by an editor of a small press that no one has any hope of making a living, or even a secondary income, from writing. That if we wanted to make writing our careers we should just forget about it.
It ticked me off. A lot. But it also motivated me to try harder, that night I went back and wrote for three hours fuelled just on that anger. I’m still angry, and I’m holding on to that anger because it’s helping me. And here lies the trick, if anger is helping you then it’s useful and you should use it. If it’s not helping you, say you get a bad review and want to rant at the reviewer, then for your own sake you need to let it go.
Easier said than done, I know.
9. Get calm
Sometimes what holds you back from writing isn’t a lack of energy, but too much anxiety. When your brain is thinking about fifty different things it can be very hard to settle it down long enough to focus properly. It can be easy to mistake this feeling of being all over the place for a lack of motivation.
Give this a shot.
Sit down somewhere quiet and do nothing but focus on your breathing for five minutes. When you breath in, think ‘in’ and when you breath out, think ‘out’. Get your breathing as slow as it can be and still be comfortable.
If you want to then you can look up mindfulness meditation on YouTube and follow along in a guided session. It might not work for you, but I find it helps get my mind back to normal I’m trying to do all the things at once.
So, did you try it? Feel better? I hope so.
10. Make a list
Maybe the most boring piece of advice ever, but one of the most important. Every day, make a list of what you need to do that day. Put down everything in order of importance, starting with the things you need to do to feed and clothe yourself and your family.
Then decide how important writing is to you. Because somewhere on that list you need to put down ‘write X amount’. I hope it’s important enough to you to be higher than watching TV or playing video games.
Once you have your list, start ticking things off as you do them. This stop your brain from getting confused about what’s coming next, ad serves as a constant mental boost that will stop you from bombing out on the sofa before you’ve done what you need to do.
Speaking of which, make sure you put down something fun and relaxing on your list too. You might not have the time for it to be much, but make sure there’s something you really enjoy on there as well as the things you need to push yourself to do.
I’m not always good at following my own advice, but right now I’m feeling very motivated, and I put it down to the things on this list.