Motivation Station

August 13, 2011
Erik Johnson

Recently, I answered a question posed on a message board about how to stay motivated to write. The fact that I felt that I had some advice worth giving is kind of funny, really. But I have learned quite a bit about motivation in the last year, so I thought now was as good a time as any to discuss it.

One thing I struggle with is keeping a writing schedule. I’m not exactly a schedule kind of person. I tend to be a shotgun writer – I write 3000 or more words a day in a frenetic burst and then I stop. The problem with this is inertia. Inertia is my friend when I get pounding away on the keyboard, but once I stop, it’s really hard to get started again. If I can manage to write even a little each day it adds up to more overall writing that builds up over a period of time.

Okay, so how am I staying motivated?

1. Write every day. I have set a very small goal for myself right now. I write 250 words of prose a day, every day (and this blog doesn’t count). While I was working on big editing projects, I let that count, but that was a short deadline exception. Now, it’s go prose or go home. It doesn’t matter if I don’t feel like it, it doesn’t matter if I don’t have the time, I force myself to sit and write 250 words. When I do this, something wonderful happens: 9 times out of 10, I write a lot more than that. I can bang out 250 words in five minutes, if I’m in the zone. That’s only a page a day. Most days, I write 500 and sometimes 1000 words. I expect that when my day job settles down a bit, I’ll be able to write even more than that. It all adds up. If I do this for a year, then I’ll have at least a little shy of 100,000 words done. That’s not a bad sized novel.

B. Once something is begun, don’t stop till it’s done. This is another problem I have. I tend to write something for a while, and then either stall out and abandon it, or perhaps I’ll get another hot idea and drop what I’m working on in favor of the new project. Of course, that only results in a bunch of half-finished projects. So, I’ve been forcing myself to finish what I start. Sounds simple, but while I’m writing something, I have a voice running in my head telling me that it’s crap, and it isn’t making sense, and it sucks, and so on and so on. Well, I tell myself, it’s crap right now because it’s a first draft. Maybe some people can write perfect prose on first draft, but I sure can’t. I have to keep telling that voice to piss off. The revision and edit process will (hopefully) bring out the good parts and cut out the bad parts. Of course, if I never finish the work in the first place, then it’s going to be the worst kind of crap. Unfinished crap. I might be able to sell crap, but nobody buys unfinished crap.

III. (related to the previous) Sometimes a story needs killin’ but only as a last resort. There was one story I was working on that just would not come together, so I abandoned it. It was necessary in this case; sometimes they don’t work. But I try to understand that if I abandon it then it’s for good. Finito. Done. I don’t assume I will come back to it; the many story fragments in the file drawer laugh at that. That gives me a sense of responsibility to finish what I start. If I know that abandoning it means it’s going to die lonely and unfulfilled, it prods me to at least finish the poor thing. It may not be good, but at least it’s complete and it can languish in the “needs revision” file until I get to it. These stories have one thing going that the fragments do not – I don’t have to try to remember what I was doing with them. A half-finished story is like an old half-eaten slice of cake. I suppose you might go back and finish it a week later, but it’s all dry and crumbly and unappetizing.

Now I want cake. Mmm. Cake.

The hardest part is discipline and willpower. That’s something I can’t convey in words here; and I still struggle with it myself. You just have to decide to do it, and that it’s worth doing. The difference between published writers and talk-a-good-game-writers is that the published writers obviously sat down and wrote. That’s the kind of writer I want to be, so I’m making it happen. One page at a time.