Sep 26, 2011
How to not give up when writing
Today I thought I’d answer a question that I often get from readers and aspiring writers: How do you stop from getting discouraged or losing motivation while writing?
Answering this question1 requires thinking about writing at various different levels:
1. The idea stage
2. The drafting stage
3. The revision stage
Let’s begin at the beginning. One of the most important decisions any writer makes is choosing the right idea to write about. The idea behind the story must do more than interest you (the writer); it must grab you by the throat and demand — forcefully, doggedly — that you tell that story.
The idea doesn’t have to grab everybody; it only has to grab the writer. It can be about anything, really, as long as you think it’s an amazing, fantastic idea. And it doesn’t have to grab you immediately. It could be kind of a slow burn idea. It might come to you on Monday, and then simmer a bit for a week or two or three. You’ll recognize it as a solid idea when it keeps coming back to you: when you think about it while brushing your teeth at night, or when you first wake up in the morning, or when you see something random on the street and think, that is in this story.
Then again, the idea could grab you right away. The book I’m working on right now grabbed me immediately. In fact, this is going to sound incredibly stereotypical, but I had a dream (I swear!) and I woke up knowing it could be the first chapter of a novel. I wrote down the dream immediately. For months it chased me around, coming back over and over while I was working on other things, until I knew that this one had to be the next book I wrote.
Lots of ideas can seem super exciting at first. That’s why I encourage you to wait before you jump in and start drafting a new novel based on a new idea. Wait a few weeks. See if it lingers. If it does, then think about it more actively. You might sit down at your desk and make some notes about it. See if you get bored with it after some noodling around on paper. See if your idea has legs and can stand up through a whole book — or if it peters out after an opening scene or two.
The thing to remember is: If you’re going to write a novel, you’ll be working on it for a long, long time. The central idea of your book had better be so fascinating to you that you want to think about it, on your own, inside and out, repeatedly, for what could be years.
I’m spending so much time focusing on the idea stage because I think most discouragement/lack of motivation can be avoided if you are working on the right idea. So, dedicate some time to this stage. Don’t rush into drafting until you’ve been living with the idea for a while. Remember that before you start writing, the idea is perfect because it’s entirely in your head. Enjoy that stage while it lasts!
Discouragement while writing a first draft can be due to many things, among them:
- Your initial idea wasn’t big enough to last through a whole book.
- You’ve encountered writer’s block.
- You’d rather be doing something else.
- Your computer just died and you lost everything you recently wrote.
While that last one can be solved relatively easily (back everything up!), the other causes are trickier, and they are by no means the only things that can cause discouragement. But I think the main thing that causes discouragement during the drafting stage is the idea that writing a novel is an exciting, fun-filled, joyful experience full of blissful, genius inspiration and creativity. Any writer who sits down expecting this experience is going to be thoroughly disappointed and will probably want to give up.
In truth, writing can be like that, but usually only in brief bursts. Those moments of joyful creative genius come after long bouts of struggling with words and trying to puzzle out how the hell you can describe person A doing task C without being excessively dull. Now, I am a writer and I actually do love to write (I think most writers are masochists to some extent), but for years and years I struggled with discouragement because those moments of genius came so few and far between.
I’d have fabulous ideas and launch right into writing novels, and a few chapters in I’d come to a screeching halt when all the fun seemed to get sucked right out of the story. I’d struggle with continuing for a little while, but soon I’d give up.
In retrospect, I know why I gave up. Those story ideas weren’t exciting enough. The characters weren’t interesting enough. And I expected writing to be fun, because it used to be fun.
While I was a child and a teen, I loved to write. I wrote all the time. I wrote poetry, stories, dramatic diary entries, even three fantasy novels. Writing was freeing, and it also allowed me to escape into worlds that I could control. I don’t remember it ever being hard or boring or frustrating, and I think that’s because I wrote only for myself, without much intention of having it read by anyone else. (Being published was a dream so distant I just fantasized about it, the way you might fantasize about being an astronaut; I didn’t take many actual steps toward getting published.)
I know exactly when writing ceased being 100% fun and games for me: when I decided that I wanted to get published. This started sometime during high school, and from then on, the fun began to leak out of my writing. It was replaced by a generalized anxiety that basically suffocated my creativity.
In my late twenties, when I decided to try writing fiction again, I had to find my way through that anxiety to a new kind of writing experience, one in which I gave myself freedom to write anything and did not judge whether or not it was “good enough to be published.” It took me several years to reach that attitude. That meant a lot of false starts and a lot of giving up.
In my case, this is how I learned how to not get so discouraged that I wanted to give up:
- I chose to write a story that I’d wanted to write forever: a retelling of Cinderella.
- When I encountered things in life that forced me to stop writing for awhile, I tried to not beat myself up about not writing.
- When I felt ready to write again, I picked up from where I’d left off.
- I stopped expecting writing to be 100% fun and games.
- I didn’t give myself a deadline; I let myself take my time.
- I didn’t start other projects when things got difficult.
- I didn’t allow myself to think about getting published while writing the first draft. I wrote the story for me.
It took several years, but ultimately, I finished the first draft of my Cinderella story. (It became Ash.) After that, I knew that I could finish anything I wanted to, and that’s key: if I wanted. It’s in your power to finish a book if you want to. You are in control here. I know that a story can sometimes seem like it’s controlling you, but don’t be fooled. It’s not. You’re behind the wheel. It’s just that sometimes you encounter traffic or construction along the way, and it’s your task as a writer to not get so frustrated that you pull off the side of the road.
Have I taken that metaphor far enough yet? OK.
If you’ve already finished your first draft, congratulations! I’m someone who finds writing the first draft way harder than revising, so I think that once you’ve got that draft down, the hard part is behind you. But I know that lots of writers (including me!) also get bogged down during revision.
If you’ve never revised anything before, this can be a really tough thing to learn how to do. If you have the option to do so, I advise you to take a writing workshop somewhere, or find a critique group. This is the stage where you will be immensely helped by having other people read your work and offer suggestions on how to improve it. These readers can also be great cheerleaders, encouraging you to turn out the best story you can.
It used to be really hard to find critique partners or writing workshops, but the internet has made that so much easier. I’ve heard of many writers finding supportive critique partners at places like the Absolute Write forums and Verla Kay’s blue boards (for children’s and YA books). SCBWI and RWA also have great resources for writers looking for critique partners.
I think that if you have an idea of how to revise, you’re less likely to give up during revision. So I also recommend reading books about writing craft to help you hone in on how your manuscript might be improved. I recently read and highly recommend Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight. I’ve also enjoyed Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and Stephen King’s On Writing.
Finally, revision is where all the really hard work of writing gets done. This is where your characters come alive on the page; this is where you make that setting three-dimensional; this is where you fill in those pesky plot holes. It can be grueling! And sometimes you just don’t want to do it anymore. I totally understand that feeling. Wouldn’t it be great if our books would just spring out of our heads fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus?
Yeah, it would be great, but that’s a myth (literally). No manuscript is ever perfect in the first draft. Even Jane Austen revised.
So if you want to be a writer that other people want to read, you have to put in your time. I’m reminded of this well-known quote:
“Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” — Gene Fowler
It’s hard for everyone. But if you can stick with it2, you will join the ranks of those crazy, masochistic loners who talk to themselves all day: You will be a writer.