I was sitting in front of some uni students on the bus yesterday and listening to them talk. (I’m a writer! It’s called research!)
They were having a conversation about grades, and one of them was saying how happy she was she’d finally broken through and gotten a High Distinction after a long string of credits and distinctions.
And for a moment, I longed for it terribly – that feeling of satisfaction that comes when you achieve a good grade. I longed for it with a kind of a guilty ache, in the same way I occasionally really want a cigarette when I pass a pub and take a breath of second-hand smoke.
The sudden, unexpected nostalgia for being graded made me think about my writing. Specifically, one of the things that’s hard about writing: you can work for a long, long time with no external validation of your work.
One of the wonderful things about National Novel Writing Month, or Nanowrimo as it is affectionately known, is that it creates a pressure-cooker environment in which you can test what factors motivate you to write. And if they work for you in November, there’s a good chance they’ll work for you (even if in modified form) for the rest of the year round too.
And the really great thing about Nanowrimo is that takes the concept of being graded and THROWS IT OUT THE WINDOW. Because as lots of wise people have said (including me, though I was probably paraphrasing someone else), if you want to write a great book you have to be willing to write a really shitty first draft.
If desire for perfection motivates you, if you try to hold your writing to that standard each and every day, there’s a good chance you will flounder in deep, icy oceans of despair fairly quickly. And please don’t do that, because you might be about to write something wonderful. It’s just that it won’t be wonderful straight away.
So, back to motivation.
Nanowrimo provides the following, all of which I have found to be extremely useful over the past five years of writing:
If you’re a Nanowrimo participant, you will never be able to get the number 1667 out of your head. That’s how many words you write every day for the month of November in order to reach your goal of 50,000 words.
Some days that may feel like a breeze. But if you have a slow day or two, or skip a day or two, you’ll start to feel the strain.
On a side note, I particularly love the bar graph that is provided in the Nanowrimo portal that gives you a visual indication of your progress over the month against where you need to be (the line! The ever ascending line!!)
Word count is a great motivator for me. It removes all consideration of quality which is, for a first draft, a useful thing. And it can be scaled.
The most I’ve ever written in a day is around 10,000 words. (That was a for a micro-event as part of Nanowrimo called ‘The Rabbit Hole’ that our DLM created).
I wouldn’t try to do that on a regular basis.
Being willing at times to set myself a really low word count goal has enabled me to keep writing almost without a break, even in the crazy months after my son was born when I was getting no sleep at all and could barely string a sentence together.
I’ve worked for periods of time with a 300 word daily goal. Three hundred words feels like a dose of gentle medicine. When my goal gets so low it’s because life is difficult or out of control, or I am exhausted. Doing something rather than nothing, and allowing myself to feel that I have achieved what I set out for, even if what I set out for is tiny, has been a real comfort to me.
When life is flowing better my goal is generally 1000 – 1500 words, a bit under Nano pace but still a count that allows the pages and chapters to accumulate quite rapidly if you keep to it every day.
The great thing about Nano is that it ends. But you’re not only aiming to make it through to the end of the month, you’re also aiming to FINISH YOUR BOOK.
Having the end point of finishing the book I’m working on is a great motivator for me, though I always have the next one brewing, and usually only allow myself a day or two of not writing before I turn around and start working again.
I have a rough timeline in my head for drafting, re-drafting, and editing. I also have a restless queue of books waiting to be written. For me, this is highly motivating because those books WANT to be written and in the span of life, time is limited.
Such broad goals can be very helpful but it’s also good to keep them realistic.
After my first Nanowrimo in 2012, I thought I’d give myself a couple of months to edit my novel and then decide what to do with it.
Fast forward to 2016. Ignore a number of unsuccessful attempts at editing in between. Finally, after an intensive six months’ work, I finished the damn thing. And I’m really happy with it. And I don’t think I could have done it anyway.
I almost gave up, but I couldn’t let it go.
So it turns out, I was completely misguided about what the process for writing this particular book would be. But the main thing is – I wrote it. Which means I can now move on to the next one in the queue.
Find your people:
Sometimes writing can be lonely and isolating. I have been part of a loose writing group for a few years. I also have friends who are writers, who I’m able to send drafts to for feedback or just share the highs and lows of the process with. Finding people who understand what you’re going through, and are willing to share their own experiences has been a source of great strength and encouragement to me.
A lot of my writing buddies I’ve found through Nanowrimo – through attending events, rather than just in the online forums. But as mum to a two-year-old, I struggle to get out of the house for the social stuff, so am discovering some great and supportive networks online, through Twitter, and in the Goodreads forums as well, I’m sure, as I will in the Nanowrimo forums.
Let’s do this together! Don’t try and do it alone!
Find your poison:
Sometimes, a very simple and immediate reward loop is extremely effective. Chocolate. And wine. Either during or after the writing. Thank you.
So these are some of the things that motivate me to keep writing every day.
You might notice that ‘FEELING INSPIRED’ is not on the list. Because that’s something that you cannot rely on at all. It’s something you can’t control.
But in my experience, if you work with the things that motivate you, keep doing what you do, and allow yourself some space in your life to let ideas brew, the inspiration will come.
What motivates you to write?