You’re at the point where you really want to do this. You’re going to write as much as you can. You’re going to be an author whose genius is revealed through what you produce.
For about six months you dive voraciously into your work.
Then something happens. Where did all your motivation go? Sapped. The grand idea you once had now seems absurd or insurmountable. It’s not just writer’s block. It’s a lack of motivation to sit down and do work.
I found myself lacking motivation when I was eighty pages into my novel. The six months of voracious writing I brought up earlier? Yeah, that was me. Alone in a cabin in the woods, I had finally written myself into a corner: I dosed the main characters of my novel with acid, and I didn’t know how to bring them down. The world I was writing about was huge, and an accidental acid trip is no small thing. I needed to avoid clichés, nail a ton of accurate drug trip details to make it believable, and write my characters through the trip. But I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next.
I was overwhelmed and lost my motivation.
I had to figure out how to re-motivate. It wasn’t easy. But now I have a first draft of my book. In the process, I discovered some simple truths:
Completing a project is really about how you are using your time.
Matt Rissell is the founder of a startup called TSheets, based out of tiny Eagle, Idaho. In just under 10 years, against the odds, he landed in a Forbes article for having the most successful time tracking app for small businesses. Matt has these wise words to say about accomplishing your goals:
“Many of us have some lofty goals ahead of us this year. Don’t let those daunting tasks overwhelm you. Let the adventure ahead motivate you to the core of your being. No one is asking you to climb the mountain overnight. One day, one hill, one step at a time.”
“One step at a time” sounds cliché, but it makes sense.
You can expect to achieve your ultimate dream of writing that great novel if, and only if, your expectations are realistic on a day-to-day basis. The same applies to shorter projects. Anything can seem overwhelming, especially if you have a deadline and aspirations to make it great.
Set simple daily goals, such as writing five-hundred words, or write for an hour per day, and go from there.
Is the writing terrible but you hit the goal? Good. Build up incrementally. Continue to hit the small goals and you’ll improve.
One of my college professors, Alan Heathcock (author of Volt), impressed this advice upon me: it’s a matter of putting words on a blank page. Write and don’t think about whether your writing is good.
In my novel, when I dosed my characters with acid, I started to wonder, how did I get here? My inner critic flared up. I’d made a risky move and wasn’t sure if it was the right one.
Your inner critic might tell you your characters are flat or unbelievable, your plot is weak, or your details are arbitrary or insufficient. It’s easy for the inner critic to critique your writing when you are evaluating the work as a whole–you’re pulling away from the process and focusing on the results.
But this is the first draft. You don’t actually have any results yet. You want to get ahead of yourself, because you are constantly evaluating what you read and watch in terms of how it works as a whole. Instead, your mind needs to be immersed in the world you’re creating, as if you are the character in the story.
Get as much down on the page as you can. Take it one sentence at a time. The voice inside you, the drill-sergeant whipping-post voice, isn’t the one you want to listen to. Think of yourself as a child on a playground. How much fun can you have with the materials at hand? Not having fun? Gather more materials.
However you look at it, motivation is motivation. Finding your rhythm and balance is key for maintaining motivation. Think about it in terms of music. You’re playing in a band and the drummer keeps changing the tempo. It’s frustrating. Your band won’t be motivated to finish playing the song unless the drummer gets the beat down.
For rhythm, try the following from “The Zen of Working in Comfy Slippers”:
The right rhythm is unique to each writer. The above suggestions prescribe a balanced daily routine, a rhythm to facilitate the act of writing.
When I was working on my novel, I noticed establishing rhythm is a matter of persistence. The more I wrote regularly and established the beat of my daily routine, the more the sentences flowed rhythmically onto the page. An objective rhythm based on the clock makes for a subjective rhythm based on your thoughts.
Healthy rewards help reinforce your rhythm.
At first, when you’re really striving to succeed as a writer, you want to do nothing but write. This can lead to burnout and a lack of motivation.
To maintain motivation and promote creativity, try diversifying your activities. It’s a lot like following through on New Year’s resolutions:
When I was struggling to continue my novel, I got down on myself about it, which didn’t help my desire to continue. When I decided to keep going, I realized it’s important to create positive associations with the act of writing. Healthy rewards improved my workflow and helped me feel better physically and mentally.
Learn your peak productivity time. One method for doing this is called energy mapping. With a spreadsheet or a journal, use a scale of 1 – 10 to rate how productive you feel at different times of the day. Over a period of weeks you’ll notice a pattern of high productivity times. Schedule your writing time accordingly.
Since I’m not the spreadsheet or journal type, I had to take mental note of when I was feeling especially productive each day. I had to be mindful of my own energy and focus. Then, I did my best to arrange my schedule.
Learn how much sleep you need. Each person’s internal clock is different.
In Psychology Today, Joanne Cantor discusses a study that links sleep and creativity. “Sleeping on a problem” is a strategy for solving that problem, because it sets the stage for you to gain insight while you’re awake.
To determine sleep needs, researchers from Harvard’s Division of Sleep Medicine recommend paying attention to your sleepiness, keeping a sleep diary, and taking a sleep vacation. These are all methods of self-monitoring, a form of mindfulness you can use to adjust your sleep habits based on what you observe.
But what about procrastination? If you know you’re a procrastinator, try thinking or saying ‘no’ when the impulse flashes. After you finish writing, reward yourself for not procrastinating. Learning to recognize the procrastination impulse and shut it down is tough, but oh-so-important.
There is no final product, which is a great thing. I’ve learned that the writing is never finished. There’s always another possible draft.
Now I’m motivated because I don’t expect anything but to sit down and have fun. What would I do if there weren’t more writing to do? That said, I’m going to get back to playing around with my second draft. Happy writing!
Daniel Matthews is a thirty-three year-old freelance writer and musician from Boise, ID. He drafted his novel in the mountain town of McCall, ID, where the famous Seven Devils theatre workshop takes place every spring. Daniel's biggest passion is for poetry and music, which he considers to be the same thing. Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.