Motivation vs. Discipline: Keeping Your Writing on Track

(c) Can Stock Photo/stevanovicigor
(c) Can Stock Photo/stevanovicigor

Are you a writer? Do you aspire to be one? Whatever your current status and goals, you have a set of motivations that drive you. Perhaps you’ve loved telling stories since childhood and the ideas are piled up inside your brain, pushing you to let them out into the world. Maybe you’re a wordsmith who enjoys crafting sentences and creating a beautiful flow of text. Or maybe your motivations are a combination of things, such as a love for storytelling, a fascination with research, and a  driving need to work a flexible job that you can perform at home or while traveling.

Whatever your reasons for becoming a writer, you likely have a list of things that motivate you — large and small — to sit down at your computer and work on your manuscript. There’s the bigger picture — which includes your desire to be a writer in general — and the smaller one, as well — which might be a combination of a challenging scene you’re dying to write and a deadline looming on the horizon. These things join forces to motivate you, to make you want to get down to the actual work of writing.

But what happens on days you don’t want to write? Days when you don’t feel like it? Maybe you’re not quite sure what comes next in the story, or you had a late night and just the thought of being creative makes your head throb. Or it’s possible your day job requires you to put in some extra hours this week, and the only way you can squeeze in your writing time is to stay up an extra hour before going to bed each night. And you really don’t want to do that.

It happens. No matter how much you love to write, no matter how strong your desire to succeed, you are only human, and it’s impossible for a human being to be highly motivated about something every hour of every day. This is where discipline comes into play.

Discipline gets a bad wrap in terms of the words we use. It tends to have more of a negative connotation these days, bringing to mind parents who believe in spankings, or long prison sentences. But somewhere among those numbered dictionary definitions is the one I need, meaning self-control, or orderly or prescribed conduct. Discipline is the thing that gets you to the keyboard when you’d rather not get out of bed in the morning.

People have two basic modes of conscious behavior: Things they do automatically, and things they think about before deciding whether or not to move forward. The things that come automatically didn’t always do so. Your parents reminded you to brush your teeth for years, most likely, before you truly adopted the habit. It probably took a few years of your childhood for you to get out of bed without prompting and get ready for school, but that habit helped train you for getting ready for work later on.

As an adult, you’ve developed your own set of routines, and it probably took a certain amount of discipline to put them in place. You may not always feel like hitting the gym, but you make yourself go because your health and fitness are important to you and because you understand the dangers of breaking that habit. Likewise, you don’t always wake feeling excited about going to your day job, but you go because you’re a responsible person who needs to pay their bills, and because your coworkers count on you. So where does writing fit on your scale? Is it something you do daily, automatically? Or is it something you think about and then decide to move forward, or not?

If you wish to make writing your career, if you want to be serious and professional about it, you need to treat it as you would any other important, nonnegotiable aspect of your life. Behave like a professional writer from the moment you determine that’s your ultimate goal. You don’t write because you happen to feel like it that day; you commit to writing because it’s important and you set the time to do it. Then you show up and do the work. Don’t wait to feel inspired. Don’t take time off simply because you’re feeling less motivated that day. You need to treat writing as a job if you wish it to become one.

 

Friday Links: Time and the Writer

Happy Friday! I’ll kick off this weekend with a reminder that tomorrow, April 30th, is Indie Bookstore Day. It’s a wonderful excuse to hit your favorite local indie bookstore and browse those shelves. Many stores have events scheduled and assorted special merchandise available for the occasion. It’s also a wonderful way to spend a few hours with the kids in your life, so be sure to take them along.

This weekend is also another good chance to check in with your writing goals for the year. End of April means we’re a third of the way through 2016, as hard as that might be to believe, so take a moment to assess where you are and where you’d like to be. Maybe set some mini goals for May — a task per week — to get yourself back on track or to make a bit of quick progress.

To help you on your way, I have both writerly and bookish links for you today. Several have something to do with time, and timeliness, and though I by no means encourage anyone to wait around for fate to determine their course of action, sometimes it steps in when we least expect it. I hope these links give you some inspiration for your own work, and maybe an idea or two of something to pick up on your bookstore visit. Enjoy, and have a wonderful weekend!

Shakespeare and His Stuff — As part of the ongoing celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, an interesting look into what he know of the man through his things.

Alexander Chee on What Writing Parties Reveals about Characters — How to make those group scenes really work for you.

Ondaatje: Embrace Creativity in Your Writing — The author shares his approach to creating. Please note that this site, rather than requiring registration or a subscription, asks readers to take a very short survey before loading the article.

On Finding the Right Book at the Right Time — An author shares two occasions when a book particularly entwined with her experiences.

Jonathan Coe on the Top 10 Books Written about Books – Pretty much as described.

Paula Hawkins: The Woman Behind The Girl on the Train — A brief background on the author and discussion of her break-out work.

Writing for a Better World — Author Christopher Golden shares his keynote speech from the recent DFW Writers’ Conference.

On Writing, Publishing, and Ideas

The last few weeks have been particularly busy over here, which means my brain cells are very slowly draining out of my skull from overuse. So rather than blabber at you myself, I offer you Neil Gaiman, with thoughts on where ideas come from and other writerly things. He will be far more entertaining than I will right now. So take a gander, then go write something. Enjoy!

Making Room for the Reader

large_open_book

As children, we fall in love with books that take us along for the ride, stories where we can close our eyes and easily imagine ourselves into the adventure. Book lovers never really lose that urge to join the story, to fall into the romance between the pages or head out on the dangerous quest. The writer’s job is to craft their tale in such a way as to allow the reader this mental insertion. But how does that work? What makes a novel that accessible?

Writers of otherwise polished, well-paced stories often hear back from agents or editors that they could not “connect” with the protagonist. Or that they weren’t “feeling” the voice. In some instances this is a case of personal taste, but in others it can mean that the writer has held back from really delving into their main character, especially if they are writing a limited third-person narrative. The character might be portrayed in great detail — lots of showing and not too much telling — but what’s lacking is the why behind the actions. If the reader is going to be able to walk in the character’s shoes and feel that connection, the writer must walk there first, and showing the details of that character’s journey includes conveying their thoughts and motivations and making sure they have direct correlation to their actions.

A writer who puts themselves inside their character’s head and asks whywhy are they doing this, why are they saying that — will soon find their story changing. Filler actions, such as smiles and sighs and other character twitches that often serve no purpose, will get deleted. Dialogue might become more meaningful, or more sparse, or more snarky, depending on the character and the point in the story. Emotions such as fear and anxiety get ramped up. Characters might be less likely to faint or cry without true provocation. Complications could arise, making the text richer and more layered. All of these things help pull the reader into the story. The character will no longer be shuttered and closed off, keeping the reader at bay.

First-person narratives might seem like an easy fix to this issue, but the truth is that writers can fail to dig deeply into the character even when writing in first person. The danger with first person can be the temptation to ramble on inside the character’s head, creating overly long monologues that cover every nuance of their thoughts. As with real life dialogue, which features far too much chit-chat to include in character dialogue, a real person’s thoughts include more tangents and fluff than is interesting in a novel. A writer must still crawl quite consciously into their character’s head and sort the important details from the detritus. Again, it’s important to ask why the character thinks these things, how they connect to their actions in the story, and to make these things shine through in the writing so that the reader feels welcome in that character’s head as well.

Knowing the character, drilling down, strengthening motivations, taking it further — all ways of referring to this opening up the details of the story in order to make it accessible for the reader. The goal is to pull that reader in on an emotional level, make them wish they were part of the action on the page. A well-written novel is an invitation to fall in love, to catch the killer, to find the treasure, to slay the monster. A completed novel might be an accomplishment, but it only truly comes to life when someone opens its pages and dives into the world the writer has created.

Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis: Webinar for Writers

typing

Long-time readers of this blog know I occasionally teach a course on synopsis writing through the Writer’s Digest webinar series. The course focuses on how to organize your thoughts in order to distill a full-length manuscript or the plot of a work-in-progress into a brief synopsis — either very short, to be used in query letters, or several pages that can be sent to agents or editors who request it or used to sell a project on partial. The live online format means attendees sign into the course and go through it in real time, but they also receive a file of the completed webinar later by email, including both audio and the slide presentation, to review at their leisure. Anyone who registers to take the live course may also submit a single completed synopsis for critique after applying what they learned in class.

Interested in whipping your synopsis into shape? Feel overwhelmed by the task, with no idea where to start? Join me for Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis: Construct Your Ultimate Sales Tool on Thursday, March 17, 2016, at 1pm ET. Please keep in mind that, even if you can’t attend live, you will receive the complete course and audio by email, and only those who register ahead will be eligible for the critique.

Check out the course description for complete details, including information on system requirements, etc. I hope to see you in class!

Looking for a New Writing Challenge?

(c) Can Stock Photo/alexskopje
(c) Can Stock Photo/alexskopje

Long-time readers of this site might remember the March Writing Challenge I issued a few years back. It’s designed to help you work on different areas of your writing each week and is fully customizable based on your schedule and your personal goals. If you’re looking for a new challenge this month, I highly recommend you zip back in time and take a look at the challenge. The weeks won’t quite line up to a Monday start, obviously, but you can still adapt it easily enough for you to apply the challenge to 2016. Good luck, and happy writing!

Steal Like an Artist with Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon encourages you to steal in the name of art. Not plagiarize — nothing so mundane (or illegal), but steal and remake, to borrow from the greats who’ve gone before, to take their ideas and make them your own. In his TED Talk below, he explains precisely how he steals like an artist, and how you can too. Wonderfully inspiring stuff, especially for anyone facing a bit of writer’s block — the circumstance that first led Kleon to steal like an artist himself. Enjoy!

Neil Gaiman in Conversation with Junot Díaz

Last November, Neil Gaiman sat down and had a long chat with author Junot Díaz, one of his final appearances before he takes 2016 off to be just a writer and a father to his new baby with wife Amanda Palmer. This interview kicks off with a great rundown of the history of Sandman, which is well worth watching whether you’re familiar with the comics series or not. If you prefer to just get right to Neil, you can jump to about the 6:30 mark, where the video moves to the interview venue. This is a longish interview — nearly an hour and a half — so be sure to carve out a bit of time to watch.

Recapturing Momentum: Don’t Let Your New Year Slip Away

Remember that list of writing goals you made at the end of 2015? Is it already starting to feel like a long time ago? In reality, it was probably about two weeks, but time flies when you’re facing the realities of a new year. Your shiny goals tend to get put on the back burner when they come up against your boss’s goals for the new year, or your kid’s flu, or the realization that you have no idea where to put all those books you got with your Christmas gift cards. Whether it’s real life or procrastination or a little bit of both, old habits die hard, and the most stubborn is likely your own inclination to put other things before your own ambitions. But only you can make your writing a priority.

So, I’m here to poke you. Check out that list of goals. Choose something. And do a little bit of work on it today. Whether that means making a point of actually writing, researching an agent, finding a short story contest to enter, or submitting your work to an online magazine. Go for it. One thing, one little step. I dare you to make this year different.

The Struggle for Success: What Are You Willing to Do?

I read an interesting article over the weekend that talked about the difference between asking yourself what you want and asking yourself what pain and struggle you’re willing to endure in order to get it. The first question demands you respond with a result, and we all have very similar results on our wish lists: money, health, love, a nice home, wonderful trips for vacation, and so on. The second question demands you think about what level of effort you’re willing to put forth, what struggle is required, what pain you must endure in order to achieve your goal — and it makes you consider whether you want that thing enough to do the hard work necessary.

At the start of the new year, it’s natural to set goals. I’ve discussed them several times here on the blog leading up to the end of 2015, as well as the importance of planning out the steps you need to take in order to achieve those goals. But we rarely discuss what those steps entail.

Most things don’t come easily. It’s a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Whether you want to train to run a marathon or write a novel, you’re going to have to put in hours and hours of effort, and say no to the distractions that might mean putting in less of the time your goal demands. And the reality is that you’ll spend far more time in the lead up to your goal than you will enjoying the goal itself. A marathon requires hours of training and at least a few hours to run the day of the event, but the joy and excitement of crossing the finish line will be brief, and the bragging rights you earn will be temporary (unless you want to drive your friends and family crazy). Likewise, writing a novel and getting it published is a long, difficult road, often with frustrating set backs. At the end, you have a beautiful finished book in your hands, but then comes the concern about sales figures and writing the next book and the entire process starts all over again.

Writing, like certain other careers, has this strange illusion of glamour attached to it. But in truth it is a hard job, one that requires a great deal of time and patience, and that, in most cases, yields a very small financial reward. If you don’t enjoy the process at least part of the time, if your primary motivation is that end result, you might want to consider carefully whether you love writing, or if you love the fantasy of having written. I don’t want to discourage anyone who truly wishes to write; the world would be a smaller, sadder place without all the stories being written each year. But I also want people to find their truest dreams to follow, the ones that light them up every step of the way. Whether that is writing for you or some other thing you’ve yet to discover, I wish you a fascinating and successful journey.

Still here? Then go write.