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Writing Tip #10: When You Need a Kick in the Pants

Thursday, June 17, 2010

There are going to be days (weeks . . . months . . .) when we don’t feel like writing. We may sit in front of the computer for an hour and write six words—and then delete three of them. Or during our designated writing time, we find that’s the best time to scrub the toilet and clean out that dark corner cabinet that’s been emanating a funky smell for at least three months.

We’ve turned into Rick Castle staring at his laptop for hours on end and then jumping to grab the phone when it rings and, instead of hello, saying, “Please tell me there’s a dead body,” so he can get away from the writing he’s supposed to be doing.

What we need is motivation. So where do we get it?

Writing Tip #10. YOU are your best source of motivation.
No matter how many writing groups you join, no matter how active you are in them, no matter how many blogs you write and read and comment on, no matter how many writers’ forums you participate in, when it comes down to it, writing is a solitary venture. Unless you put YOUR butt in YOUR chair and start committing words to paper (whether electronic or wood pulp), your story will not get written.

And, yes, I need this lesson as much as or more than anyone who may be reading this post.

Yes, there are external stimuli that can put the pressure on you to write: school, critique partners, readers expecting the next chapter (contracts, deadlines, agents, editors). But the truth of the matter is, they aren’t in control of your writing, you are.

If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work, and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.

~Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Remember the most famous line to come out of the movie A League of Their Own about baseball and crying. Well . . .

There’s no whining—there’s no whining in writing!

But I don’t feel like writing.

Tough. Do it anyway. Sure, you may find that you’re writing drivel that you’re eventually going to edit out in a future revision—but as our guru Ms. L’Engle said, more often than not, you’ll find that once you make yourself sit down and do the work, the inspiration will come.

I’ll double up my word count tomorrow.

“You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.” (from The Music Man)

That’s a really slippery slope—I don’t feel like writing today, so I’ll double up tomorrow. And then tomorrow—I don’t feel like writing today, but I can get three days worth of words written tomorrow. And soon, you’re pressed up against your deadline (whether it’s self-imposed or external) and you’re having to write 28,000 words over Thanksgiving week to make your deadline. (Hello, Ransome’s Crossing.) Or you’re sitting on about 22,000 words on June 17 with forty-four days in which to write the remaining 83,000 words. (Hello, Ransome’s Quest.)

So what are some ways in which you can keep yourself motivated?

1. Pick a project you want to work on. For those of you who are not yet under contract, you’re at a beautiful, glorious time in your writing journey—because you can choose to work on anything you want to. So, hearkening back to Tuesday’s post about writing your passion, make sure you choose a story that’s going to keep you motivated to write it. Yes, there are still going to be times when you don’t feel like writing it; there may be times when you hate it. But if you choose something that interests and intrigues you, you’re more likely to stay the course and get it finished.

2. Take a moment to remember why you started writing in the first place. Remember Writing Tip #5? I posted this in the comments:

I asked this question at the writers group I spoke to last week: Why did we start writing in the first place? Was it so that we could get our wrists slapped and be told “no” and “don’t” and “you can’t do it that way”? So we could sit at the computer and stare at the screen and feel so inadequate and full of self-doubt that we’d never be able to do it “right” that we’re unable to write at all?

Of course not. We all started writing because WE LOVE TELLING STORIES!

3. If your story has lost steam, stop writing and sit down and read it. Not to edit it, but to see if it’s your story or you that’s lost steam. If it’s your story, see if you can find the place where it went off track—or see if there’s a place where you can introduce a new character or a new plot twist. I couldn’t get rolling on Stand-In Groom after three full drafts (written, not revised) of the first ten chapters until I came up with the hidden-identity plot. Do the “what if” exercise. Get out a notebook/legal pad and your favorite pen or pencil (or do it on a white board or easel pad on the wall)—and just start brainstorming. What if instead of George being resentful at having been sent to Louisiana to plan his boss’s wedding, he’s having to pretend to be the groom? What if instead of butting heads with George because it’s obvious he doesn’t want to be there, Anne’s conflict is that she’s afraid she’s falling in love with a client? What if the last time William and Julia saw each other wasn’t when she was ten, but when she was seventeen? And what if when she was seventeen and he was twenty-two, they fell in love and he almost asked her to marry him?

4. If you can’t come up with any ideas on your own, brainstorm with a few trusted people. These can be other writers, family members, friends, anyone who is creative and with whom you’ve talked about your writing before. No, you probably won’t be able to use 90 percent of what you come up with, but it may stimulate you to come up with some new ideas on your own (but be sure to write everything down just in case).

5. Set daily goals. Whether it’s a word count goal, a goal to write one scene, one chapter, one page, one paragraph, whatever, per day, set a standard and make yourself meet it every day. I know, I’m the world’s biggest hypocrite in writing that. After each book deadline, I always say the next one’s going to be different. I’m going to write 1,000 or 1,500 words a day and get the first draft finished early so I actually have time to re-read it and edit it before I have to turn it in. And do I? (Shall I refer you to the June 17 and forty-four days example above?)

6. Reward yourself when you meet your goals. Did you meet your daily word goal today? Great, now you can watch Castle. Did you exceed the number of pages you wanted to get written this week? Excellent, enjoy dinner out and get the biggest, gooiest, fudgiest dessert on the menu—as your appetizer. Have you reached a total word count higher than anything you’ve ever reached before? Superb. Go get a mani/pedi. Did you finish your first draft? Pop open a bottle of wine, go get a massage, meet the girls (or guys) for a fun night out on the town. Go see that movie you’ve been wanting to see. Take a mini-vacation. (Try to not make all of them food rewards.)

7. Develop a routine/create a schedule. AND STICK TO IT! Yesterday, Regina asked about carving out writing time. I answered: I would imagine that for someone with other people in the house, it’s all about setting rules and boundaries. Rules about what time certain things will be done, and boundaries to let the other people in the house know that during those certain times, they aren’t allowed to cross certain boundaries (like the threshold of the room you’re trying to write in). Make a DO NOT DISTURB sign and hang it on the door of the room in which you’re working—or if your writing space is in a common space in the house, hang the sign from a string and wear it around your neck. Let the people in your house know what your schedule is and what their boundaries are (Unless someone is bleeding and needs to be taken to the hospital, do not talk to me for the next forty-five minutes.) Once you establish your routine, the rest of the people in your life will adjust to it. As long as you stick to it.

8. Unplug. A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a link for some software she’d purchased that will block her access to the internet for a specified period of time. Now, I’m bad about keeping Outlook and Twitter turned on when I’m sitting at the computer—unless I go somewhere (like the library at my undergrad college) where I can’t access the internet—and reading each e-mail as it comes in when I’m supposed to be working. We complain about how addicted kids are to their smartphones—there is actually evidence that it is an addictive disorder. How many of us have the same problem, it’s just hidden because it’s coming in on the computer where we’re “working,” instead of on a more obvious hand-held device? Try working away from the computer (writing longhand) or try unplugging/turning off your modem (most laptops have a key which will sever a WiFi connection—mine is on the F2 key). Turn the TV off—or move out of the room where it is. Turn the sound on your phone off (if there’s another parent/adult who can be the designated emergency-dealer-with’er for that span of time). “Writing is a job, so treat it like one” (Randy Ingermanson, Writing Fiction for Dummies). You’d be amazed how much you can get accomplished when you don’t allow yourself to become distracted. (Though you may need to shoot the neighbor’s dog who barks constantly underneath your office window.)

9. Take regular breaks. When I worked at the newspaper, I was the ergonomics specialist for my department. One of the things that I was tasked with training everyone to understand is that you must take regular breaks while you’re working to stay fresh and to stave off physical strain and exhaustion.

      Every fifteen to twenty minutes, look away from your computer screen or notepad for at least a minute and up to two minutes at something in the distance, at least ten to twenty feet away. This cuts down on eye strain and on headaches.

      While you’re taking your eye break, give your hands a break, too. Put your pen down or take your fingers off the keyboard and rest your hands in a relaxed, flat position. Your wrists and fingers should be straight. If you’d like, you can stand and stretch or just move around your desk area for these few moments.

      Don’t go longer than an hour without taking a real break. Get up from your desk. Walk into another room. Get a glass of water. Go to the bathroom. Do something else for about five to ten minutes. But time yourself. Don’t allow this to distract you from your writing.

      If you’re going to work longer than two hours, do some stretching exercises at least once an hour.

      Make sure you’re working in an ergonomically correct position.

10. Believe in yourself. You’ll have enough rejection and negativity rolling in from the outside. You don’t need to be another source of it.

You know it takes courage to write. It takes courage to write when you’re not published and you don’t have an agent.

It takes courage to write when you are published and you do have an agent (this is why so many writers drink to excess or anything they can think of to drink to).

You have it inside you to fight this fight. Write, think about what you write, then write some more.

Day by day. Year by year.

Do that, and you’ll jump ahead of 90 percent of the folks out there who want to get published.

~James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers

  1. Thursday, June 17, 2010 12:30 am

    I LOVE this post!! I write everyday and have a pretty healthy routine. My problem is I avoid the computer because I hate typing. I write longhand. The computer is cold and sterile for me. I even email from my mobile phone. I guess I could reward myself with an episode of ‘Castle’ each week I sit down to type.

    I’m going to print this post off and see how I can apply it to my avoidance of typing.


    • Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:41 am

      So glad you found it helpful! And yes, an episode of Castle is a wonderful reward for a good weeks’ work!


  2. Thursday, June 17, 2010 7:04 am

    Thank you so much for this series, Kaye. This is exactly what I’ve been needing to hear right now from your post on not making “perfect” first drafts to this post. I’ve been setting weekly goals for myself, but I’m resounding with your tip on daily goals. I think it will help me stay more motivated to keep daily goals. Instead I end up doing a whole lot at the end of the week to make up for my laziness at the beginning of the week.


    • Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:42 am

      If you set daily goals for yourself, rather than weekly, they’re a lot harder to put off. Plus the goals are smaller, which makes them feel more manageable.


  3. Thursday, June 17, 2010 9:43 am

    I don’t unplug completely from the internet, but I do find that closing my email and anything that gives me an alert that a message or post has come through does help me focus. So for the hours of 9am to 12noon, I turn off those things. There’s still facebook and my blog to tempt me, but just limiting those options helps. I usually write in the afternoon too, but I’m most likely editing what I wrote in the morning, and that level of concentration isn’t as easily broken by reading an email or a quick peek at FB.

    But you’re so right Kaye. It comes down to me, in the end. Most days there comes a moment when I’m tempted to walk away from the computer before I should, and I literally tell myself, “No, you don’t. Stay in this chair and WRITE. One more hour. You can do it. You are tough. You are focused. You are a WRITING ANIMAL!”



    • Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:43 am

      Positive self-talk is something that they discuss at Weight Watchers all the time. It’s something I’ve got to get much better about—both with making healthy food choices and with writing!


  4. Thursday, June 17, 2010 10:16 am

    I needed that kick in the pants, Kaye. We had a situation come up at my house in April that has had me distracted ever since. I try to sit down to write, but then I start feeling sorry for myself and find myself clicking on that little Firefox icon and checking everything I can to keep from writing. Oh, I write on my blog and read all the blogs having to DO with writing, but I don’t write.

    No more. I’m going to play the “what if” game. Or I’ll start a new story. Actually, in the last few weeks, I’ve started trying to brainstorm a totally different storyline to give myself a break from that first one. But it keeps invading my brain. Maybe that’s God’s way of telling me I’m not finished with it yet.

    Thanks so much for being here.


    • Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:44 am

      It’s okay to work on two stories at once. Don’t try to force yourself to do one or the other. There’s enough of that once you’re under contract!


  5. Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:05 am

    Kaye, Is there a way for us to retweet your posts on Twitter? I may be overlooking something you already have in place as I’m not very computer savvy. I know on some author sites they have a retweet button. Anyway, these posts of yours are so excellent they need to be “out there.” You really know your writing stuff:)


    • Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:45 am

      I think I figured out how to add a social media button bar to the end of the post. It worked for me to post it to Facebook. See if it works for you.


  6. Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:49 am

    Kaye, I stepped away from my writing and let other things take priority. I had given out my WIP for someone to read to see if I was on the right road (because of some military information I wanted in my story). I was waiting for them to get back with me before I started back up. Now…I have no excuse but to put my butt in the chair. I’m really going to get focused again and would love to attend the next MTCW meeting and the conference coming up, if I can. I really enjoyed the ones I had been to before. Thanks for your encouragement.


  7. Judy permalink
    Thursday, June 17, 2010 12:38 pm

    I don’t write fiction so may be completely off base. However, it would seem to me that it might be wise to plan something each week to get you AWAY from your writing – to do something very different for a good chunk of time. Not TV or movies or anything involved with a “story.” And not only when it is a reward but something that is a time of refreshing and renewing. Take the kids on a picnic or to the zoo. Go on a hike or bike ride. Go shopping (this is mine – the restaurant supply store, the outlet kitchen store, etc.) if you can control yourself!

    Yes, I understand that you aren’t writing all the time – but people don’t spend all their time at work and we still recognize the need for weekends or other planned days off so that they don’t burn out. Um, I think there is something in Genesis related to that … 😉

    So, Kaye, rebuttal?


  8. Thursday, June 17, 2010 1:34 pm

    Awesome! It works! I just did it:)


  9. Friday, June 18, 2010 1:39 pm

    Great quotes, Kaye. That Madeleine L’Engle quote was direct and to the point. I’ll be saving this post and referring to it often — sooner rather than later, I hope.



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