Motivation, according to my trusty Oxford American Dictionary, is “that which induces a person to act a certain way.” I like that definition a lot better than some of the others I ran across, including “inspiration,” “the desire to do something,” and “enthusiasm,” among others.
The reason I like that definition better is because it puts the emphasis on getting someone to act. You can be inspired, enthusiastic, and really want to do something…and still manage not to do it, as many, many writers can attest. Motivation is what gets people off their duff and actually doing something, rather than just talking about it.
Mind you, it’s pretty hard to get motivated to do something you don’t actually want to do (as the state of my kitchen sink will attest). Nevertheless, the sink gets cleaned periodically – perhaps not as often as my mother would have thought proper, but well before it starts growing blue fuzz. (OK, there was that one time…but it was an accident, really, I had to go out of town on short notice and…)
So when people ask me how to “get motivated” to write, I start with a couple of basic questions.
First, have you ever had a day job?
For most adults (and quite a few high school and college students), the answer is “yes.”
And did you always feel like getting up and going to work in the morning?
I don’t think anyone has ever said “yes” to this one, though a few folks have said “Almost always.” I think they’re balanced by the folks who don’t really wake up until they’re in the office and downing their second cup of coffee – sleepwalking your way to work does not count as “motivation,” in my book.
So what motivated you to go to work at your day job every single day?
This usually gets me some narrow-eyed looks, because people can see where I’m going. But if I can get people to answer honestly, it’s usually one of the following:
- They have to eat, pay the mortgage/rent, etc.
- Other people are depending on them for support/income.
- They were afraid they’d get fired if they didn’t show up and work.
- They have a responsibility (to the boss or the people they work with) to show up.
- They find the work challenging/satisfying/meaningful overall.
Motivation, in other words, is not always a positive, happy, upbeat thing that makes you like the work. Motivation isn’t about liking. It’s about doing.
There is no motivation in the world that is going to make writing quick and easy and painless, each and every day. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re pretty much doomed to disappointment. Motivation is what makes you sit down and work on the book even when it isn’t fun, when the prose is horrible and draggy and every comma looks wrong, when the characters won’t behave and the plot looks trite, and when you have the dismal feeling that something went off-track four chapters ago that means you’ll have to throw away 25,000 words or thereabouts.
Motivation comes in two basic varieties: external and internal. Having a boss or other authority figure who says you have to work is external; so is wanting to win a Pulitzer, or just wanting to get published. Wanting a challenge is internal; so is the desire to create, or just have fun. Most people find one sort more effective for them than the other (though really, for most writers it’s nearly always a mix. Everyone has bills to pay, and writing isn’t a field many folks get into if they don’t find it satisfying in some way).
Thus the first challenge for anyone who is trying to “get motivated” is to figure out what makes that particular writer willing to sit down and work. External or internal? Once that’s settled, figure out how to make that happen for you.
Every writer has his/her own tricks. Among the ones I’ve seen used successfully: Having one’s partner dole out one’s favorite cookies in return for word count (anywhere from one cookie per chapter to one cookie per paragraph, depending on how stuck the writer was). Taking a writing class in order to have a deadline. Participating in NaNoWriMo, ditto ditto. Having a partner/friend nag on a regular (daily, weekly, monthly) basis. Going to a coffee shop or library to write.
Making a “writing date” with a fellow writer, where you get together with your laptops and work for an hour or two before you have tea and scones (or Coke and a hamburger, or whatever rings your chimes). Joining a writing group (for crit, for support, for socializing – again, whichever supplies what you need).
Finding a “writing buddy” to check in with daily or weekly to compare progress. Taping pictures around one’s monitor that inspire or remind. Keeping a progress log (page count, word count, time…whatever works for that particular writer). Selecting a music “sound track” that suits the story. Getting “instant feedback” from dedicated first-readers who camp on their email.
Talking about the story to anyone who will listen. Not talking about the story to anyone at all until it’s completely finished. Getting up early/staying up late to write. Making a daily page/half-hour a habit first thing in the morning, like showering or brushing your teeth.
Reading bad fiction (“I can do better than this!”). Reading good fiction (“Oh, wow, I have to try that!”). Reminding oneself that “if I don’t write this story, it will never be told.” Telling oneself “it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be finished” or “I can always put a pseudonym on it” or “This is just practice.” Telling oneself “This is the best thing I’ve ever done; it’d be a crime not to finish” or “I can’t waste all this effort by not finishing!” or “This will change someone’s life, but only if I get it done!” Telling oneself these things regularly (like, every morning and evening, and before, during, and after writing sessions, and as often as one thinks of it at other times).
Basically, you have to figure out what works to get you to sit down and put words on the page, and then arrange to get it. And you have to be honest with yourself. You may like reading great books, but if you end up spending all your writing time head down in Jane Austen, it isn’t really getting you to write, now, is it?
So…have you written your page today?