Anyone who has tried writing fiction over a length of time has probably faced periods with evaporating motivation and looming doubt. Why do you even bother to set yourself up for failure?
You write alone in whatever space you have dedicated to this pursuit. Hopefully, you have folks close to you who support you. Yet this can be a lonely task.
Ups and Downs
I am a slow and unfocused writer, and recently I hit a wall. By late April 2020, as the Covid-19 virus soared, it appeared the isolation finally got to me. Suddenly working my day job in a home office and then working evenings on my creative writing in that same chair caught up with me. Working from home was far more draining than I thought it would be. Getting out of the house, even a simple lunchtime walk, had become more important than ever.
Where do I even begin? It’s easy to just say, “maybe I’ll just play Diablo instead.” Creative pursuits are supposed to be fun but ended up just being exhausting instead.
Also, privileged as I am, guilt crept into this already murky cocktail.
On the one hand, I’ve sorted lots of old notes, finished some maps, and actually had a few good ideas. On the other hand, my work is all over the place, a few lines here, some updates there. During a period that seemed perfect for solitary work at home, I go nowhere near completing anything, not even a blog post for over a month.
I finally broke rut when I actually finished something, even if it was just a few simple maps, cleared my head, and actually wrote fiction again.
So that was a nice change. How can I keep this up?
Who Keeps Track of Time Anyway? Fun With the 10 000 Hours of Practice
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10 000 hours of practice to excel at a skill, quoting a study by Anders Ericsson, and providing many compelling examples.
To make it clearer, ten thousand hours is three and a half years of work, working ordinary days with no vacations, ten years if I work twenty hours per week, or twenty-eight years if I work for one hour every night. Or roughly a hundred playthroughs of Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Granted, there are other factors to success, and timetables certainly vary, something Gladwell draws attention to in abundance.
Ericsson criticized Gladwell’s simplification of his study, and other quoted criticisms are both amusing and poignant, but that is not my point here.
My point is, practicing my skill is a factor firmly under my control, and indeed, somewhere I should focus. I clearly have a long road ahead of me, so how can anyone stay motivated with that prospect?
Five Ways to Stay Motivated
- Return to the Wellspring.
- What is Success Anyway?
- See Improvement.
- Finally, Reading the Story I Wanted to Read.
There are two kinds of structure in my writing. First, there is the story structure, and then how I structure how I work. Both are important, but for me, the second perhaps more so.
I am clearly a plotter. First, my pose will never win any awards. I need to stick to Stephen King’s advice to write as plainly and honestly as I can. Writing is a craft, and following the advice of Ericsson and Gladwell as cited above, I will be able to tell my story.
For instance, as much as I love J.R.R. Tolkien, I love the story and world-building more than the actual words. Or, J.K. Rowling, whose craft I admire, it is the well-though-out world and attention to detail what pushes you to complete all seven Harry Potter books.
Second, I love exploring the story. To make the current scene work, I need to know the characters and what the future is going to be. Sure, I do a fair bit of pantsing, I always find surprises once the characters start interacting, but the plot sets the stage and comes first. I need to structure my story, and I realize my current dwindling productivity is also due to the sheer size of the files and the complexity of the story. I am on the verge of being overwhelmed. Working on a better structure will motivate me.
Returning to the Wellspring
My love for art, and the reason I write, comes from music, comics, and fantasy books. Whenever I feel lost, I can return to that source, go back to what spurred my creativity in the first place, and try to recapture that first sparks.
This not about quality or objective truths. This is about me, my formative years from early teen to a young adult.
My shortlist is The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds (1980), Jamie Hernandez’s The Death of Speedy (1989), J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954), David Lynch’s Dune (1984), and Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000).
This is where I return if I feel lost and need to be recharged.
Sometimes old favorites are best preserved as fond memories and not revisited. However, if you can find the old sources that once sparked your creativity, the ones that have passed the test of time, revisiting these sources may help.
You have to find your own list, and you should, because this may help you stay focused on what and why you love creating art.
What is Success Anyway?
Returning to Gladwell’s book, I realize I will never accomplish the kind of success his book discusses (as if there was any doubt). Doing some math and applying the 10 000 hours, I’ll be an old man when I can finish a book at the level I strive for.
Also, I will never be the runaway success on the level Gladwell discusses. I currently write fairly traditional fantasy, so unless I somehow break new ground, it’s already been done. Gladwell discussed the opportunity and a head start as factors for extraordinary success, so when the world was ready for traditional fantasy, Tolkien had practiced his craft for decades.
The conditions for J.K. Rowling’s success for Harry Potter is for me unclear. She famously spent five years planning and writing the series.
Rowling clearly honed her craft. Also, my guess is that the other conditions for her extraordinary success can be attributed to the kids of the early 90s, the children of the burgeoning geek culture of the 70s and 80s, combined with corporations in place to ramp up the hype.
With the Star Wars prequels and the Lord of the Rings movies right around the corner, the mainstream was more than ready for fantasy for kids.
Finally, disregarding the outliers, even 99% of ordinary books are financial failures. Most writers are not “successful” in a capitalist sense. At all.
So, where does that leave me? How can writing be a worthwhile pursuit? Am I willing to give up all those Dragon Age games? I must figure out what success means to me for this to work.
- Learn to enjoy my 10 000 hours of practice.
- Enjoy entertaining others, even if it is just one person.
- Learn to enjoy creating art for art’s sake. Even mediocre art is better than nothing.
Which leads me to my fourth and fifth way to stay motivated.
Two months into Covid-19, at the beginning of summer 2020, I exported my entire story, 144 000 words in a series of related stories, and read through it on my e-reader.
This was a particularly fun and harrowing exercise as my oldest writing (about three years old) is also the last part of the chronology.
Meaning as I got further into the story, the writing got gradually worse. This was both a cringe-worthy and oddly satisfying experience. First, my writing is horrible. Second, I have actually improved.
I have spent lots of time pondering story structure and what exactly my genre is, and I have a clearer picture of what I want to write.
The practice has paid off, my writing has improved noticeably. The first chapters are better than the last. Seeing this improvement makes me want to continue.
Finally, Reading the Story I Wanted to Read
A final uplifting realization is that I increasingly enjoy reading the story I am working on. There are many obvious sources of inspiration, for sure, but I have yet to find one quite like this.
The story is growing, and I enjoy it more as I make progress. To my great relief, I actually enjoy reading my own story, bad as it currently may be. This is encouraging and keeps me going.
Stephen King’s Top 20 rules for writers, on BNReads, is lifted from his On Writing (2000). The book is worthwhile, and these twenty tips are a great start.
Art Matters (2018) by Neil Gaiman and Christ Riddell is a delight, and probably a book anyone toiling with creative work should reread every now and then.
Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) is well-written, interesting, disheartening, and encouraging.
I own much of my progress to Kirsten Kieffer as I often found myself back at her Well-Storied blog when I began mapping out the tools and how to get started.