7 tips for keeping your motivation as a writer

I’ve had an interesting email from Zoe that sums up some typical challenges of the writerly life:

I started writing two years ago. I’m bored with my story. I have outlined every scene and character and I know how it will go; but I find while I am writing that I change it completely and like that better. Do I stick to my outline?

1. Outlining to flatlining

Outlining is essential. Very few writers can make up a whole novel on the spot as they’re typing. Even if they don’t plan in writing, they’ve usually done a lot of preparation in their heads.

We all have a greater or lesser need for a formal plan. You may be discovering that if you outline exhaustively you kill the idea. In that case, don’t write a detailed synopsis, just put a few notes on cards and set sail (more on outlining methods in Nail Your Novel). Or you may be discovering that detailed outlines free you to take turns you wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

2. Have you let the book rest?

Are you changing stuff because you’re stale, or because you’re having better ideas? We all get to the stage where it’s impossible to tell. Change if you’re improving the book, but not for its own sake because you’re no longer entertained.

Sometimes working on a novel is like hearing the same joke over and over. We need a break before we can tell if it’s funny.

3. Is this your learner novel?

You mention you’ve been writing for two years. Is that on this same book? Most of us start writing because we’ve had an idea and we hurl ourselves in. A few years later, that novel has had a lot of pummelling as we learn what to do.

Sometimes we should let that learner novel go.

We might grow out of it, but cling on because we like the familiarity, or we refuse to be beaten by it, or we worry we won’t get another idea.

Some learner novel ideas are so ambitious we won’t have the wisdom to write them for many years.

On the other hand, some learner novels turn out just fine.

Again, the best cure is to let it rest.

4. Going in new directions

Don’t be afraid to take the book in new directions if the muse suggests them. Novels evolve all the time – as you understand the characters more, fill logic holes, make new discoveries in research or fix things you’ve fudged. These realisations make your book stronger and you shouldn’t try to force the book back on track.

But I find that if I go totally off piste I can get in a fearful muddle. So if I need a new direction I stop and work out the consequences. Redraw the map and continue.

5. Get your enthusiasm back

When you take a break, give your book the best chance to win you back. Read some novels that are like it, to remember why you love that kind of story.

Do you still have the very first notes you made? It’s always worth keeping notes from the honeymoon period. Dig them out and find what got you excited in the first place.

6. Writer’s block

Zoe also asked:

What do you do when you get writer’s block and don’t feel like reading over what you have written?

If I’m blocked it’s because there’s a problem I haven’t diagnosed. Like you, I don’t want to open the file. But this reluctance is my brain’s way of telling me I’m sending my story in a direction I don’t like. So I figure out what that is and find ways to change it. Once I have, I’m happy to continue again.

7. Confidence

Zoe’s final question was this:

Do you ever feel like no one will like your work?

What do we mean by ‘like’? Do we mean ‘where’s the market’? Will agents, publishers, readers in their millions like our work?

We can’t write with fashions in mind because they’ll have changed the next time it rains. We can only write the books that would satisfy us as readers.

There’s another question here – will you like your own book?

All the creatives I know – artists, animators, game designers, musicians, choreographers – worry that we are creating rubbish. We’re hoping we can fix it before anyone finds out. I look at my finished novels and cannot imagine what super-brain made them so coherent – because now I’m on a new idea (The Venice Novel) I’m splashing blind.

Our sense of perfection can paralyse us. But it’s also the spur that makes us raise our game. So like most things in writing, polish the book until you’re satisfied, have a rest and repeat. When you can’t go further, find beta readers, polish until they’re satisfied… approach an agent or an editor… and spread out wider and wider until you have a comfortable majority who agree it’s good to go.

For more on outlining and editing methods, see Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence

It’s a year since I launched My Memories of a Future Life and I’m planning a very special giveaway. To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to my blog (somewhere in the sidebar) or sign up to my newsletter (somewhere in the sidebar and also here)

What saps your motivation as a writer? How do you beat it? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by karensdifferentcorners on September 2, 2012 - 2:14 pm

    Great post and good tips. I am stalled on the second book in my series. The story’s in my head, but I just can’t seem to get it down on paper. So I have set it aside for now and have started working on a new series to save my sanity.

    • #2 by dirtywhitecandy on September 2, 2012 - 6:13 pm

      Thanks, Karen. You’re probably just waiting for the piece that will release the story in some sort of order. In the meantime, working on something else is a good strategy – if nothing else, it will stop you worrying your other idea to death!

  2. #3 by cydmadsen on September 2, 2012 - 2:25 pm

    Hi Roz. Like your book, this is great information. It’s especially refreshing seeing someone say we might need to give our WIPS a rest now and again, and the idea of a learner novel. I often wonder why people think there’s no apprenticeship in the craft of writing. From my perspective, becoming a brain surgeon might have required less education, practice, refinement of skill, and dedication. The path towards neurosurgery would also have demanded breaks be taken so the aspirant’s mind and body doesn’t turn to mush.

    What saps my motivation? Reading works by outstanding authors and “seeing” their mastery at work–those wizards of language, story, and thought. I turn pathetic in my self-pity of never being able to write to that standard. There’s a book called Van Gough’s Blues that addresses the 100% probability that all artists will go through periods of profound depression. They can see the ideal, imagine the perfect, yet their artistic sensibilities tell them those ideals can never be met, especially by them. Color me blue, and do so far too often.

    What pulls me out of it ? My daughter. I’ve raised her on a slew of motivational prods, and the one she throws back at me when I’m feeling inferior to my goals is: If it’s not impossible, why bother with it? And the runner-up to that one is: What makes you think you’ll ever build the muscle you desire if you don’t keep raising your personal chin-up bar? She stirs my brew of self-competition and brings back the excitement to be found in defeat.

    I’m sure there are better ways of finding motivation than giving birth and spending so many years nurturing a child to adulthood, so I do appreciate your wisdom and look forward to what others have to say.

    • #4 by dirtywhitecandy on September 2, 2012 - 6:18 pm

      Cyd, you’re so right.
      You’ve really hit on something there with the point about goals and self-competition. I am pathologically concerned with originality. I can’t buy a new coffee mug without making sure I have the most special one that will be the one I truly want to buy. These sensibilities mean I drill away at an idea to make it truly mine as well – but it means I also have to scratch my head in frustration because it’s not yet perfect.
      Our muses are rods for our own backs…. to mix a metaphor…
      Your daughter sounds very well trained – thanks for sharing her wisdom here.

  3. #5 by Philippa Rees on September 2, 2012 - 2:25 pm

    I think one of the impediments to retaining confidence for writers who suspect they will have to publish independently, is the (necessary but intimidating) emphasis on the ‘market, the ‘readers’ the ‘genre’. Ultimately for a book to stand any chance of engaging is for the writer to remain engaged and stimulated, ie to write the book you would enjoy reading, and the one that surprises you by taking turns you never envisaged. So ultimately we have to write for ourselves. Given the pressures mentioned above that’s difficult to remember. The work I have just spent four years on (a poetic history of science) I tried to write in a more orthodox prose and six different attempts all reached chapter three before I realised I was bored and therefore sure-as-hell- going to bore my reader. This alternative kept me challenged all the time. I was an explorer in a new country. It may fail spectacularly but only now am I thinking about possible likely readers and markets…and as for ‘genre’…there isn’t one! NOw I face the necessity of polishing, and considering, and realise that one can polish any silver that might exist until it disappears! It is at the writer/market interface that uncertainty creeps in and how one longs for a publisher to step in and say ‘let me do this bit’. But if they did, would they know the book as well as the writer does? Would it be better if they didn’t?

    • #6 by dirtywhitecandy on September 2, 2012 - 6:25 pm

      Hello Phillippa!
      This point about being interested yourself…. it was something I was going to cover at greater length in the post so I’m glad you’ve raised it here. Absolutely agree – if you’re not interested the reader sure as hell won’t be. One of the fundamentals of good writing is communicating why something is important, why it matters, why it appeals to you or why you think it is magical. And if we’re not doing that, why are we bothering?
      Your point about getting a publisher involved is good. The more singular the work, the more careful we have to be about partnering.
      Just a thought, but have you tried Dystenium Press? They’re a tiny publisher who do ebooks as first editions, then followup with print if sales are good enough. I came across a poet who was published by them and I think they’re in the market for unusual books – find them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/dystenium and tell the MD Don Odom I sent you. (And he’ll probably say ‘who?’)

  4. #7 by mgm75 on September 2, 2012 - 3:46 pm

    Plans…? Plans are for breaking. The ability to improve what you write as you write is the sign of a good writer.

    • #8 by dirtywhitecandy on September 2, 2012 - 6:26 pm

      Writing is rewriting… certainly is. But without a plan, I have nothing to change!

  5. #9 by evilnymphstuff on September 2, 2012 - 4:50 pm

    Great post! It’s truly great to read books of the same genre and fall in love again into them and thus into your story. Works well for me!

    • #10 by dirtywhitecandy on September 2, 2012 - 6:27 pm

      There’s nothing like good writing to get me scribbling ideas again!

  6. #11 by annerallen on September 2, 2012 - 5:30 pm

    Excellent advice. Especially about over-outlining. I’ve killed novels that way. I always have a sketch of the story on paper when I start–then completely rewrite it half way through. And up to the very end I have to be open to wild turns, because they usually happen.

    • #12 by dirtywhitecandy on September 2, 2012 - 6:28 pm

      Hi Anne! What a good system – I might try that. And there’s usually a stage where I go through the book and say ‘that’s too easy’ or ‘too obvious’ – twist harder!

  7. #13 by Laura Ritchie on September 2, 2012 - 6:08 pm

    You are right about the ‘learner novel.’

    After completing mine, I went through months of edits and revisions, only to end up shelving it. There were just too many things I didn’t understand about writing at the time. So, it’s my second novel that will be the first I publish. (Release date is March 1, 2013- Yay!)

    But I did drag that first one out again recently… just to take another look at it. I believe that when my current series is complete, I will dust it off and put it through a major rewrite. There’s a good story in there, and by the time I can focus on it again, I believe I will have the tools of craft necessary to make it what it should be.

    • #14 by dirtywhitecandy on September 2, 2012 - 6:30 pm

      Laura, you might find you’ve got a gem in there yet. Especially if you’ve finished a whole series before you go back to it. Best of luck.

      • #15 by Laura Ritchie on September 2, 2012 - 6:38 pm

        I certainly am hoping so, and thank you! 🙂

  8. #16 by suzannepurewal on September 2, 2012 - 6:12 pm

    While I was writing my 2nd romance novel, my husband left after 20 yrs together. I started killing off too many characters, so my mother suggested I work on something else for awhile. So I switched to poetry and released an anthology. Thank you, Mom! Now I have picked up the romance novel again. And I’ve decided to let most of the characters live. Sometimes my muse (and Mom) leads me down a different path, so I can get where I need to go.

    • #17 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 2, 2012 - 6:35 pm

      Suzanne, that is awful. Glad to hear you got through it and regained enough faith to let your characters enjoy life. Quite a journey.

      • #18 by suzannepurewal on September 13, 2012 - 11:35 pm

        Thank you. My journey isn’t quite over yet. But it’s definitely colorful. I hope to start blogging about it soon.

  9. #19 by Gene Lempp on September 3, 2012 - 1:55 am

    Great post, Roz! And, excellent advice all through. Totally needed to read this today. Thanks.

  10. #21 by Richard W Scott on September 3, 2012 - 7:46 pm

    Some good points here. Glad I found your site.

    I find that often, when I get tired of a story, it is because I’ve already explored every direction I want it to go. In other words, there SEEMS to be nothing more to discover about the characters, the plot line, the sub plots, etc.

    For me the answer is moving on to another project for awhile, as there are no end to WIPs that are whimpering in a pile somewhere, sobbing for attention. I guess it’s a bit like a pallet cleanser. After a break, I can go back and see the novel with new(er) eyes and perhaps get a little more excitement out of it, after all.

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 3, 2012 - 8:15 pm

      Thanks, Richard! It’s good to keep several novels in the queue. We don’t want to waste the urge to write or the precious hours we’ve managed to squirrel away.

  11. #23 by Valerie J. Long on September 4, 2012 - 8:29 am

    I’m motivated everyday by my readers’ feedback. That’s the good point of continuous online publishing – one chapter per day, six years running – I’m receiving encouraging comments almost every day. To know the people feel entertained is reason enough to keep on writing.
    Of course, it also helps that the stories, once completed and formatted and published as paperback or e-book, sell to new readers, too.
    I try to stay at least one or two books ahead – I have to, as any new story must be checked for logic and consistency and then has to go to the initial edits before any one chapter may go up.
    The story may then rest and mature during the online posting process – occasionally I may change a sentence or two for the final print. As a little advantage, my readers may spot a typo (about once a month) that I have missed.
    When my books go to print, they’ve been checked by many critical eyes – and those readers still want the paperback, too.
    All this feels great, and as long as I don’t run out of ideas (won’t happen soon), I’m taking the challenge!
    (If I really need a break from writing, I change to translating the next sequel…)

  12. #24 by katmagendie on September 5, 2012 - 11:57 am

    I am a die-hard panster – not because of stubbornness, but how my brain works. However, I noticed with this new novel that I do “plan” more than I realize . . . at least with this one. I do write out the first draft of my book and that is my “outline” but during the writing I am thinking and thinking and dreaming and before night sleep or napping I consider this and that and let my brain work out things in my sleep. And I completely believe in letting the book rest – and as well, sometimes taking the book and shaking it and turning it upside down and inside out — sometimes drastically changing a book is scary, but good results can come out of it (it did for my Sweetie novel!).

    Great tips!

    • #25 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 6, 2012 - 6:13 pm

      Aha, Kat – that’s interesting. I think the more experienced you are, the more you do in your head so that your written process is more streamlined. But there is still a ferocious amount of processing going on.
      I’ve drastically changed books. One tip I give in Nail Your Novel is to ask yourself at the editing stage if the book is written from the most exciting point of view. Should it perhaps be another character’s story? Some readers have thought it was insane to ask that question at that stage, but if your first draft was very exploratory, you might well need to do this.

      • #26 by katmagendie on September 6, 2012 - 6:47 pm

        I do write my novels much more organized now – unlike the first one or two, especially the first one! It didn’t even have dialogue -the very first draft I did – lawd! *laugh* — now, they come out with paragraphs, and dialogue, and chapters with beginnings and endings — it makes my work so much easier! I do lots of editing and re-writing, but I don’t have to juggle around things and cut and paste so much and add in dialogue and etc. 😀

        My POV’s are just right in this book! I’m happy with where/how i decided to go with that! But I did do that with Family Graces — it was the third in the trilogy and I was trying to write it just as I had with TG and SG — then one day KABONG! it hit me — and I completely changed how I told that story – or how VK did – I love that book now, whereas at first I wanted to throw my laptop across the room 😀

  13. #27 by acflory on September 5, 2012 - 11:54 pm

    Thanks so much for saying what writer’s block truly is! I used to think it was just me, or my brain, or something ‘out there’. I felt like a victim and feeling those first few twinges of unease would really scare me. However once I worked out that my subconscious was trying to tell me I was heading in the wrong direction, writer’s block stopped being a problem and became a powerful tool for making my story better.

    • #28 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 6, 2012 - 6:09 pm

      Took me a while to work it out too – and it is quite alarming. But this approach seems to fix it.

      • #29 by acflory on September 7, 2012 - 12:43 am

        lol – I still cringe when I feel those first, vague tendrils of warning but now I’ve learned to stop, listen, go back and find the point at which something has started to go wrong. Oddly enough for me that point is often a bridging section between one clear idea or point and another. In trying to get to the next point that’s clear in my mind I often fudge the bit in the middle and then find that it impacts me more and more later on.

        I just wish my subconscious were a little better at alerting me to the problem /before/ it happens.

  14. #30 by otun temitayo on September 6, 2012 - 6:48 pm

    Thank you for this, its encouraging, just as if you wrote it for me.

  15. #32 by Julie on September 6, 2012 - 7:02 pm

    Great Post! I agree #3 about the “learner novel” Sometimes you just have to let that one go and move to bigger and better things!

  16. #34 by Marni Scofidio on September 9, 2012 - 11:19 am

    Fantastic post! What helps me is a) seeing so many fine writers going through the same processes – I collect quotes on writing, and b) a quote from the book Writing a Novel For Dummies:

    ‘A writer worrying about whether their story is original is like a potter worrying whether clay is an original medium to work with. It isn’t what you choose; it’s what you do with your choices that matters.’

    Think of music. How many notes does a musician work with, is it twelve? And the depth and breadth of genres and works never fails to blow my mind. How many more building blocks do we as writers possess in words? The permutations are endless! Perhaps because we are so close to our own writing we don’t always see its originality ourselves.

    Thanks again, Roz, and everyone else for the encouragement. :o)

    • #35 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 9, 2012 - 11:46 am

      Thanks, Marni! The music comparison is excellent – and as you say, we writers have even more ingredients at our disposal. (And it’s funny you should mention music – as this week I’m having a cross-creativity special featuring musicians who are inspired by novelists’ work!)

  17. #36 by julierkendrick on September 11, 2012 - 10:55 am

    I really loved this post. I like your style of writing and I can identify with most of your 7 points. Oops it looks like I’ve got lots of work to do. I’ll definitely be following you from now on. if you feel like having a look at my blog you’ll find it here.
    Julie 🙂

    • #37 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 11, 2012 - 4:00 pm

      Thanks, Julie! No matter how many years I’ve been writing, I find it reassuring to read posts like this from other writers. It’s funny how we can start something as a hobby and then tie ourselves in such knots.
      Thanks for making contact – and I’m off to check your blog.

  18. #38 by jadwriter on September 24, 2012 - 12:46 pm

    I totally agree with no 1. When I first started writing novels I never did outlining and got blocked half way through it. I only carried on with it after a rest and writing other smaller stuff, and then got ideas on how to continue the story. I now always outline novels and stories I write and find I work better that way, and don’t get blocked as I know how I want the book to work for me.

    • #39 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 25, 2012 - 6:25 am

      Julie, that phrase of yours ‘because I know how I want the book to work for me…’ Absolutely! Once we work out what will satisfy us, we’re much better able to write it. That probably sounds like stating the obvious, but if you don’t know it, you can get into deep, dispiriting trouble.

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