What’s my motivation?

800px-Quill_penWhat motivates an author to write? What is it that glues our behind to the chair for countless hours when we have other things to do – the kids want to play football, there’s something good on TV?

During my recent debate with participants from the write a book in a month competition NaNoWriMo, one of the good reasons given by lots of writers for taking part in the event was that it gave them motivation to get the work done.

All writers are different and I’m not going to say someone is wrong if they are doing what works to motivate them but it struck me as surprising that some require a deadline to make them write.

I know the power of deadlines, I was a newspaper journalist for 20 years – I understand the way they concentrate your mind – miss too many as a journalist and you get canned.

But for me writing fiction has always been something where motivation has been the least of my problems. The urge to do it has always been there inside me and that urge doesn’t come in a short burst over a few brief weeks. It’s always there in the background – a call which needs to be answered.

400px-StreichholzThe fire is inside, it might be low at certain times or burning brightly at others. It’s the reason people write. Probably the reason they paint, make music, and so on. It’s the need to do it and that need doesn’t go away. It hasn’t done for me anyway.

There are periods when I don’t write anything at all – and others when I do so only slowly. But once I get my teeth into a project then I feel the need to focus and sit down at my desk for a period each evening to start producing words. It’s at this point that I find I start counting the words and the growing number in the computer file becomes an aim of its own. That’s a strange thing really because, of course, the number of words isn’t what’s important, what matters is their meaning. But I don’t think that word counting is a terrible habit during the writing of a first draft – it gives you a goal to aim towards, a line to cross. And you know you are going to be rewriting eventually so the polish and finesse comes then.

I’ve said before that it takes me around 12 months to produce a first draft. That’s a lot compared to the novel in a month brigade, but not an incredible amount of time given that I’m including the thinking period and pre-planning in there.

Once I have the concept for a book formed in my mind the urge to get it down on paper is fairly strong and constant. I also find it helps to break the task down – so many pages a day, so many until the end of the next chapter, just finish writing this scene for today. These are all ways I find to control and sustain my motivation to get to grips with the task.

If I sat down at the start of the process and thought about the huge amount of work involved in writing a novel good enough to be published I probably wouldn’t do it. So I don’t think about it. Instead I get on with it and take a little bit at a time – brick on brick until finally there’s a house.

At the end, when I’m done, I allow myself to think about the task, the effort involved. I allow myself that indulgence. ‘Look at what you’ve done’ I think to myself ‘give yourself a pat on the back.’

Perhaps in the end it’s that sense of achievement which is the greatest motivation at all.

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15 thoughts on “What’s my motivation?”

    1. Thanks Anne – it’s funny how it works, and I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone but for me the need to be writing is quite outside of any benefits it might bring financially or otherwise. For me there’s always been a need to do it, and answering that need has been my main motivation.

  1. I’ve been sitting at my desk all morning pulling my hair out, because I just can’t get the structure right. I keep going, though, because there is literally no one left to tell this story, and if I don’t tell it, it won’t be told. Not even my family knows the particulars anymore; the people who knew have all died off, and no one thought to ask my grandmother’s generation about the past except me. And it’s an incredible, unusual story. It really is.

    1. I guess having a story you believe needs to be told is another kind of motivation Nanette. It’s interesting what you say about structure – maybe you need to keep writing and shuffle things around later?

      1. It sounds odd, but I sometimes “lose the thread”. I have 200+ pages of vignettes, and now I’m fitting them together, like a jigsaw puzzle. Fortunately, the first 50 pages hangs together coherently, so it CAN be done.

        I think I’ll go tidy up and let things “soak” for a while. And when I come back…well, the story line might unravel like a reel of silk.

        Yes, needing to tell the story is a very, very powerful motivation for me. I am a Canadian of African American descent, and we were left out of history books when I went to school. I like to say that I am writing myself into history, that I am proving my existence–the very thought pushes me on.

      2. Women got pretty much left out of history books too of course – so I can see why you might want to squeeze in there somewhere 🙂
        It can be like a jigsaw can’t it? I try to write from start to end but I always end up doing it in a random order and piecing it together. I think in the end you have to get it as close as you can then read it through and start identifying the gaps as part of the first rewrite and making each bit work in a painstaking way – that’s what works for me anyway and you get there in the end I think.

  2. I think developing the discipline to write consistently is one of the hardest aspects of becoming a professional writer that newcomers face. They feed the fire for a bit, and feeling satisfied, put their work aside until the need becomes urgent again. Chris, I don’t doubt journalism has beneficially influenced your fiction-writing work habits, as scriptwriting has mine. I know when I first started–many years ago–I felt like I needed the perfect atmosphere in which to create a worthwhile piece of writing. Now, I can write in a bus station.

    What puzzles me about the speed-writing approach as a means to developing this discipline is its very design–write the work quickly in a brief span. Don’t really see how that prepares a writer for the long haul of a writing career. But like most things in life, I could be way wrong. Thanks for the well considered post; enjoyed your insights. Best, L.R.

    1. I think discipline is a key word – albeit something of an unfashionable one. I think it’s something you have to impose on yourself to get the job done. And I think it grows over time so that eventually, you don’t even realise that you have it on your side. I remember listening recently to the last interview John Updike did before he died, in it, among other things, he talked about his working habits and how he wrote a certain number of words every day as a minimum. He said he’d done it for so long it was no longer a chore – it was just what he did.

      1. Nobody wants to really talk about discipline–it’s not as sexy as powering through a novel in a month! Discipline, though, is what gets the novel polished and published.

  3. I like what you said about it always being in the back of your mind, Chris. I find that’s the same for me. I don’t write every day. I can’t. I have too many other commitments that have to take priority, but the books are being written in my mind. Motivation is never an issue for me either!

  4. You and I work in a very similar way …. it takes me about a year to do a first draft — mainly because I am a bit OCD about wordage, and tend to prune viciously as I go. And yes, onece the genus of the story is there, it never goes away, like a literary earworm. If only those who purchae ebooks for negligeable amounts of money, and believe ”they could write a book if they had the time” actually knew what the processes involved……

  5. I agree about ‘the fire within’. It has come upon me only recently and I wonder about that. Actually I’m amazed by it. Almost from the day that I decided to answer the question……’What do you do for a living?’……… with, ‘I’m a writer’. From that day forward I didn’t have a choice.

    1. Thanks Terry, I’ve always kind of thought of myself as a writer even before I was published. I think it’s a state of mind and you put the work in knowing it will come good in the end.

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