Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Stoking the Fire

by Stephanie Black

A friend asked me the other day how I got motivated to write my first book. She’s interested in writing, but the problem for her is that “gap between thinking and doing.”

I find this a very interesting issue.

I wonder if sometimes the difficulty in getting fingers to keyboard can stem from the difference between wanting to write and wanting to have written. It’s very possible to want the finished product—a book—but at the same time to lack the motivation for the actual lengthy process of writing it.

I have the same motivation problem with a lot of things in my life. For instance, I’d like to be organized. I’d like to have my library books back on time and to always be on top of everything, and so on. But I don’t want these things badly enough to go through the process of getting organized. It’s not until something becomes painful enough that I want to change more than I don’t want to bother that I take action. For instance, I passionately hate trying to find all the forms we need for our taxes. So each year, as tax documents start arriving in the mail, I put them into a Ziploc bag. Then when my husband is ready to do the taxes, I can hand him the bag. There’s always something I still need to find—for instance, the paper showing how much we paid to renew the car registration—but it makes it so much easier for me to have most of the papers all together. Because the problem bothered me so much, I was motivated to fix it. And, of course, there’s the classic example—I’d like to be skinnier. But I only want to BE skinnier—I don’t want to go through the process of GETTING skinnier. And until I want to lose weight more than I want to eat what I want when I want, it’s not going to happen. The motivation just isn’t there yet. I’m motivated enough to exercise, but not to count calories.

Back to the original question—for me, finding the motivation to write my first book was NOT a problem. Stepping away from the computer when I really needed to stop writing and go pay attention to something else--THAT was tougher. I was so excited about the story that I rushed for the computer every chance I got. I had young children, so the baby/toddler naptime after lunch was my golden writing time. Unless there was some unusual situation—like visitors coming to town—no way would I spend that precious time doing housework. If a friend came to visit during naptime, I would be internally twitchy because this was my writing time slipping away (but I would have been way too embarrassed to say, um, hey, I really want to write right now; could we visit later?) If my husband was gone on a business trip, I would sometimes stay up very late writing. Since I was not yet published, I had no one waiting for my book—no editor, no fans. There was no need to hurry so there wouldn’t be a huge gap between releases, and there were no deadlines. I could take as much time as I wanted, and I did. I spent years learning how to write and working on that book, and the fire didn’t dim. I loved it.

Subsequent books—well, that’s a somewhat different story. I’m still motivated, but the roaring fire has cooled a bit. I still love writing, but I don’t rush to devote every spare second to my story like I wanted to when I was working on my first book. I admit that I'm not as disciplined as I should be. But I am motivated enough to keep those books coming, knowing that if I want to be successful, I need to keep on typing.

So how can you motivate yourself when the fire alone isn’t enough to get your fingers to the keyboard? Here are a few suggestions to stoke the flames:

*Set small, concrete goals. Instead of a big monster-goal of “I am going to write a book”, break it down. “This week, I am going to write 250 words per day.”. That’s about one page. Or if you’re really feeling stymied, set a goal to write just 100 words per day. Or, if you prefer to set goals in time increments instead of by word count, you could say, “This week, I will spend twenty minutes a day working on my book.” Or an hour, or whatever works for you. Bestselling author and Whitney Award winner Josi Kilpack said the following about getting out of a writing slump:

“What works best for me is forcing myself to write. I will set a timer for a prescribed amount of time and make myself write, no matter how much I don’t want to. I do about 30 minutes. Sometimes by the time the timer runs out I’m on a roll and I keep going. Other times I am so glad to leave the computer, but I am glad I did it.

"I think most writing slumps, at least for me, come from lack of confidence—either in my story, my ability to write it, or that I’ve taken care of other things in life enough to be able to feel good about writing. But it’s brutal trying to gain confidence when you’re not feeling it. I find making myself write gives me something to feel better about: “I’ve written three days this week, that’s better than last week” and eventually I find myself back in a groove.”

Following up on Josi’s comment about lack of confidence, my next tip is:

*Don’t demand perfection in that first draft. Get those words written and tell yourself you can fix them later. Of course you want to write your best and stretch yourself, but I think perfectionism can be the death of a first draft. If you worry too much that what you’re writing is awful, pretty soon you’ll sputter to a halt, or you’ll revise chapter one forty-seven times and never get anywhere near The End. Repeat after me: First drafts can be dorky. First drafts can be fixed. That’s what revision is for. There’s a lot to be said for gaining momentum, so don’t keep screeching to a halt to criticize yourself and redo everything. If you realize something in the story isn’t working, sometimes it helps to just make a note saying “fix this” and then keep moving forward.

*Give yourself little rewards. I’m an e-mail addict, so I often use that to kick myself in the pants, telling myself I have to write 200 words before I can look at my email again. It really works for me, and those 200 word increments add up. What little rewards might work for you? Chocolate? A favorite TV show? That novel you’ve been wanting to read? The chance to check your favorite blogs?

*Get a writing buddy or join a critique group. If you have to regularly submit pages to a critique group, that’s some serious motivation to get to work. Or if you have a writing buddy, you can share your goals and follow up with each other—a little accountability can go a long way. Or join a writing challenge, like the ones author Tristi Pinkston holds regularly on her blog, where you post your progress.

Now I’d love to hear your suggestions. What helps you stoke the fire and get that story written?


At 2/03/2010 6:33 PM, Blogger Laura said...

Honestly, right now it's the goals I have set. I have a specific thing in mind. When I start a story, I know approximately how many pages it's going to be, and I'm always right. Then I decide when I'm going to be done with the story. Once I've broken it down into how many pages per month, it just goes from there.

I totally relate to the afternoon twitching- THAT'S MY WRITING TIME. Yeah, and if I find an excuse in the evening...

It's sad to admit that I was looking forward to writing this week late at night while my husband's in Texas. It's sick, I know. I think I'm addicted to writing. Maybe that's the only secret.

At 2/03/2010 6:41 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

I loved what you and Josi said about confidence because I think that's where my current drain is. I'm just not feeling confident in myself. Annette Lyon also once said that a writer is never truly happy unless they're writing. Sounds obvious, right? Not always. Sometimes, when life overwhelms me and I begin to lose that confidence, I realize it's because I'm not writing.

Basically, a HUGE thank you to you, Josi, and Annette. Brilliant women all around.

At 2/03/2010 7:04 PM, Blogger Traci Hunter Abramson said...


I think you're my kindred spirit! Only I refused to answer my front door if a friend tried to come visit during my writing time. That's what those "Do Not Disturb" signs are for. Little ones only nap for so long!

At 2/03/2010 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I rarely put down a book once I’ve started reading it. I have a need to find out who-dun-it, or see the bad guy get caught, or find out how the romance ends up. Now, I have been know to take a peek at the last page of a book just to find out if the journey is worth the effort, or skip a chapter here and there when my patience wears thin with flighty or shallow characters, but that insatiable need to know the ending is ever present.

It’s the same when I write. When I start a story, like I did this past November, along with a couple of thousand other people during the NaNoWriMo challenge, I have to find out how it ends. And since I have total control over ever turn, mostly, I can end it any way I desire. Of course the journey is what keeps me interested in writing. If that curiosity disappears and my energy lags, then a change of course is needed. The cut and paste feature on a program is a wonderful feature, never losing the scenes completely, just sending them to a special file in case I change my mind again.

I share a blog with another writer. It’s private and can’t be accessed by the outside world, so only we two read what we’ve posted. We don’t necessarily critique each others chapters as we write them, but having them up we’re encouraged to continue, and also it’s a backup file just in case our computers crash.

I’m also a member of a writing association where I can post chapters to be critiqued by writers seeking their first publication, and by published authors willing to give of their experience and knowledge. I don’t take advantage of that application only because too many cooks spoil a stew. When you get a dozen women offering their opinion on a chapter, you get a dozen different ways of writing that chapter.

I finished my book last week, typed “The End” at the bottom page of the last chapter, but this wasn’t a unique experience for me. I’ve done it a hand full of times before. I know I can do it, and my writing buddy likes this story. But that’s probably as far as it will go. I’ve completed my challenge.

That is until the next plot pops into my head and that urge to write gnaws at the back of my mind again.

I agree with Laura. It’s the writing in which I’m addicted.


At 2/03/2010 8:34 PM, Blogger Josi said...

Thanks for the shoutout, Stephanie, and for the other great advice. I love hearing what works for people--you never know when you'll get that grain of an idea which makes thins better for you. Great post.

At 2/04/2010 2:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its the sheer, overwhelmingness of the task. You've forgotten. You have published novels. You've been in the forrest, seen the trees, and found your way through. You've seen the light at the end of the tunnel. A few times. Aspiring authors have never seen the light. They've never seen the forrest for the trees.

I'm in the middle of remodeling an entire house. Because of deadlines, and contractors schedules, and the require ordering of painting before redoing floors, and removing cabinets before laying down wood, but then needing to install new cabinets and counters before sanding and finishing the wood, but also needing to do all the electrical before the floors go in, and also finish the tile so you can interface with the wood...

well you get the picture. The whole house is torn apart. Each project requires hours and hours of work. You do a little here, a little there. And after a full day of work you look at what you've accomplished and it doesn't look any different than when you began. You end up apologizing to visitors. Especially repeat visitors by telling them, hey it doesn't look like much has been accomplished, but you had to spend the entire week pulling electrical wires in behind the walls or tearing out and replacing some water damage in the wall.

Its frustrating. And if you've never built a house or remodeled one before it can be daunting. The guys at Home Depot run when you enter the store because you have to ask SO MANY FREAKING STUPID questions.

But if you don't give up or give in. If you ask a lot of questions. If you have to paint the mantle five times (including the sanding) because you're just no good at selecting colors to match the stone in the fireplace or the carpet. But if you keep at it, sooner or later you'll see the light. The house will get its face lift. You'll write that novel.

It isn't so much about wanting to HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED. Its that building as house has a lot of heavy lifting that no one will ever notice. Not even you.

So does a novel.

At 2/04/2010 10:49 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thank you, everyone, for the comments and ideas!

Laura, I don't think there's anything sick in being excited to use your husband's away-time as writing time--hey, he's going to be gone on that trip regardless, so why not be excited to be able to log some extra word count?

Aww, thanks, LT! And I do find myself getting restless if I don't have a current writing project--I want my creative outlet!

Traci--a Do Not Disturb sign is a great idea! Think kids would heed it?

Deb--congrats on the newly completed novel!

Josi, thanks for letting me quote you!

Anon, the remodeling comparison is a good one--both writing a novel and redoing a house are long and sometimes painful projects, so it's no wonder that while the desire might be there (for a nicer home or a finished book) that sometimes the motivation to keep moving along that path flickers and fades. Any suggestions for what you do to motivate yourself if you hit a rough patch in your work?

At 2/04/2010 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's something that may help:

When you've got your entire home in a state of total disrepair. Wires hanging out of walls, some walls painted, others with primer on, paintings taken down, trim unfinished, furniture removed...everything looks like a bomb just hit. And you're left with a sense of disorder. That everything is always going to be a mess.

What do you do to give yourself a life? You pick a room, finish off the walls, hang the paintings, replace the furniture, finish off the fixtures, add a dimmer switch so you can get just the right light, make sure all the trim is done just right, caulk the last few places, go back over the room and touch up the few spots that need some paint. Then you sit down, look around, and say, wow, this looks great. The color choices work really nicely. You hung the paintings a littler higher so you can put that floral pot on the table without cover up the bottom of the frame. And the new lighting sets everything off just right. It was worth it. Its beautiful. And since you've done it here, you know you can do it in every other room.

So, if your thousands and thousands of words into an ms, and your frustrated, and you think that the entire novel stinks, and you're never going to finish. Pick a scene, any scene. Finish it off. Fix up the dialogue. Re-write the narration so that the voice is stronger and more in line with the character's point of view. Re-write some of the action to fit the emotional content of the scene better. A nail of exposition here. A caulking of foreshadow there. Then go back and read through your creation and enjoy. And say to yourself: This was worth it. Its beautiful. And if I did it here, I can do it everywhere.

I know some of you are big on NOT going back to rewrite. You just plug on through. But sometimes, especially if you've infrequently OR NEVER written a hundred thousand word novel before, you need to stop and smell some of your own roses.

So take some time off of the grind of pushing forward, find a disorganized, in-limbo room in your novel, dig in for a while, finish it off, and enjoy it. Having that one little corner of your novel organized and in perfect (for now) shape, can help you get centered. It can help you feel like you're accomplishing things. It can give you that sense of purpose, all of which if you lack can eat at you until you're so frustrated that you think the whole writing thing stinks.

Go finish a room.

At 2/04/2010 11:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...And just a little more of a hint.

An additional benefit to finishing off a room in your novel is that you find plot twists and character development that could make your novel even more interesting. You know a lot more about your story and your characters now than when you wrote this particular chapter in your novel. So when you go back your mind is better able to pull out the deeper levels of plot, you're more prepared to plumb the depths of character. So by going back and fixing up that one scene, you end up generating all sorts of plot ideas and character ideas that you were lacking. And that has the effect of inspiring you on to new writing, essentially breaking your writer's block.

You can go on a walk or go to the gym or go back a cake in hopes of finding your muse. But I don't think there's any better block buster than finishing off a room in your novel.

Try it. You may like it.

At 2/04/2010 11:28 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks, Anon! Great insights.


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