ReaderCon23 Part 2: Motivate Me

Motivation is like momentum. When you have it on your side, it feels like nothing will stop you. But when it’s gone, it’s like your legs have been cut off.  Writing ceases to be a joy. Instead it’s like dragging bloody leg stumps over asphalt while feeling every little bit of broken glass dig in.

So how do you keep the motivation going? How do you find it inside yourself?   Luc Reid spent a lot of time, and most of his website, pondering this. Combined with puncturing the myths about writing discussed in my other entry, he and Steve Kelner provided some really practical ways of helping out when you are stuck.  Steve brought data to his side when he let the air out of the creativity myths, and Luc has backed his ideas with research as well.

Is it all a panacea? Not really. But they have worked on a lot of levels when it comes to motivation in general. I’m going to cherry pick and group a few together, but I want to start with a point both Steve and Luc made in their panels. And it’s about setting goals.

Please don’t run when you see this: SMART – Anyone who’s been in the business world knows what it means, and if you don’t, I’ve got a handy link for you. Setting goals and sticking with them is vital, yes And this is a good guideline. But also remember this – part of making goals attainable is to realize what is in your hands, and what isn’t. Take these two goals:

“I will finish and submit six short stories during the next year.”

vs.

“I will finish and get six short stories published during the next year.”

There is a difference between the two statements. One of them is an attainable goal. The other is not. “Finishing and submitting” a short story is very different from publishing one. The first statement is bound by what you can do. As much as we wish it were true, we don’t have much control over the stories we submit actually getting published. You can certainly submit six (or more) but don’t set publication as a goal. You can’t control it, and when you fail… well, that kills your motivation again.

So how do you get it back?

  • Get a little exercise / take a walk / go somewhere else – it may seem strange, but exercise reduces stress, aids relaxation and builds endurance. Not one for a trip to the gym? How about a long walk or two, just you and a notebook? I’m trying to add short walks to the end of my day so I can purge stress and get some head time. Listening to an audio play as well helps divert me, too.
  • Visualize success / pretend your finished / revisit your motivations / skip ahead – Stephen King famously said he had the infamous hotel room scene in The Shining in mind when he was writing the novel. It was a keystone. He’d visualize that scene, and write towards it. The scene was his reward.   Keeping motivation is sometimes a matter of picturing the end result, or a pleasant byproduct.
  • Choose a first step / track your word count / turn off the mental debate and internal editor – Too much time in our head leads us to arguments. Where do I start? Should I fix this? What should I work on next? Picking a first step and breaking things down into smaller tasks will help you get going. Tracking your word count, especially in a running tally, will help you distract the part of you which wants to debate every decision made.  It’s kind of like watching a pendulum swing to hypnotize yourself.  It helps you quiet the mind.
  • Warm up / write about writing / converse / create or ignore an outline – These are all ways of doing some mental stretching. A warm up exercise is a good way to get yourself into a writing headspace. Writing about writing helps you think things out, as does conversing about it or getting a beta reader. Creating or ignoring an outline can also help. There are some authors who write outlines, and immediately shelve them. The outline was just to give them the waypoints to follow and help them figure a general plan. It’s always there if the want or need it again.
  • Try something new / introduce a change – Luc recommended trying Scrivener or Write or Die if you want to change your work environment and habits a bit. But it can also mean using longhand for a while. or deciding to not write in the office, and instead write on the kitchen table. Even if it’s sketching out notes, writing down snippets of dialog, it’s still good writing. I finished Running Black by hand in Baton Rouge, in a spiral bound notebook. Writing “The End” was the strangest sensation, because it wasn’t how I visualized ending the book. And yet, there it was.

The last item was to write every day. This seemed to be a stumbling block at first if you only thought of ‘writing’ as adding word counts to your project. But writing is more than that – it’s writing out drabbles of dialog, noting down ideas, thinking about and organizing scenes. Just as you give yourself permission to write a terrible, really broad, needs to be worked on first draft, you have to give yourself permission to see writing as more than just upping the word count, especially if you’re stuck.

I’m rather infamous in my circle of friends for my endless notebooks. David Byrne would not approve. But it helps me knowing I have a place where I can jot down ideas, write down bits of dialog and get something down, even if it’s just a paragraph or two.

Every little bit helps. And I hope I helped a little here.

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Lessons from ReaderCon23 Part One: Why We (don’t) Write

On my other blog, I have personal notes from ReaderCon23, but as this one focuses on my creative efforts, I will focus on the lessons I pulled from the various panels there. I think the first, and greatest lesson, is “You are not the only one, boyo!”  It was a theme in the “City and the Strange” panel which also resonated with all the writing panels as well. Every writer, from the newcomer in the back row taking notes on his “Clarkesworldmagazine.com” spiral notebook to the vet sitting on the panel. The troubles anyone who writes, professional, semi-professional or aspirant, are the same.

The first panel, Managing Motivation to Write, was hosted by Steve Kelner, who wrote Motivate Your Writing. He started with a quote from Kipling: “There are nine-and-sixty ways of composing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!”  Through this panel, and his “Seven Deadly Myths of Creativity” he charted different ways we motivate ourselves to write, or to do anything, and the ways we sabotage that motivation.  The first point he kept coming back to is writing has to be something we love, and something which brings us happiness.  We wouldn’t do it otherwise.  But when we start buying into the myths about how one should be a writer, or what one should be doing with their time, it can remove motivation and undermine desire. That which made us happy can start to make us unhappy.

So what does keep us going? Setting realistic goals, managing them, and learning to spot motivation degradation and turn it around.  But most important of all, we have to remember none of us take the same path to a final destination. Isaac Asimov famously wrote ten hours a day, six days a week, and then rested for a few hours on Sunday. That’s not a disciplined writing style – that’s obsession.

But let me break this down by the myths he described (with my own comments):

  • The Muse: “I have to wait for my muse to arrive before I can write anything of value!”
  • Solitude: “I must have total, monastic silence when I write!”
  • Discipline: “I must sit down every day and write 500 words of polished prose, lest Micky Spillane come in and break my knees.”
  • Similarity: “If I don’t work to the same pattern as Hemingway, I’m a failure!”
  • Spontaneity: “Writer’s don’t doodle! Words are lightning strikes of creative perfection.”
  • Heredity: “I come from a long line of chartered accountants. It’s just not in my genes!”
  • Worthiness: “Obviously, I am not worthy of a muse, as words do not flow onto the page like phlegm from my nose.”

Hopefully my less than loving commentary has pointed out how amazingly silly and yet downright dangerous these myths can be. They will kill your motivation.  Writing is not easy, and no one has the same patterns for doing it. Joe Haldeman told me about a colleague of his who had seven (SEVEN!) typewriters in his house. If he was having trouble getting started at one, he’d grab the page and start writing at another. Others would take a long walk to think out the writing before starting, or do a little longhand work before typing it up.

Jeff VanDerMeer collected an entire book of strategies on how different people invoked very different methods to work writing into their lives. It’s called Booklife. The fact there is a book about different ways to live the writing life just proves the point: there is no one way to write, and keep writing.  Everyone has their own way of doing it, and follows their own path.  We are not bound by the rules of convention when it comes to writing we are bound by that which helps us write and makes us happy.

And if writing like Mr. Earbass fromThe Unstrung Harp or settling down while big-band era jazz plays in the background and a cup of tea cools beside you works, then follow it. Just remember this:

Happiness and pleasure are not the same thing. It’s easy for us to get caught on the immediate rewards (pleasure) and forget about the long-term joys (happiness). I get caught in this trap, hungering for a short term reward and forgetting a longer term joy.

Writing is more than putting down prose on the page – it’s also planning, researching and other acts of creativity. If you need to spend a paragraph or two writing out what happens next, or discussing with your character why they need to do XY and Z, then go for it.

Give yourself permission to just write – you do not have skip right from your first draft to perfection. That’s a trap. Imagine your first draft as the big splashes of color Bob Ross first used when creating his paintings. Your next draft is just another layer. And then you put another atop of that. And then another. And lastly, happy trees.

You’ll find your way to the page, eventually. And the trip is often very worthwhile.

Next time: ReaderCon 23 Part Two – Motivate Me (and get me out of bed)

ReaderCon – Night the First

Where to begin?

This is my first ReaderCon. Two names drew me here: Peter Straub and Caitlin R. Keirnan.

Straub wrote Mystery, one of my all-time favorite novels, and Keirnan I’ve been following since the 90’s. Her story “Faces in Revolving Souls” continues to create a great ache of recognition inside me.

And then I saw the panels and the guest list… The trip is costing me a pretty penny. Somewhere I hear my family howling as only they can about the hotel and the rental car costs, etc.

The first night alone made it worth it. This small hotel, the Marriott Boston Burlington, contains a nice restaurant, and a pub. I had my first Guinness in over a year there. Yes, I paid for it thanks to the lack of a gall bladder, but writing in a pub for once made it all worthwhile.

And then there were the panels. The first I attended was “Managing Motivation to Write.” Hosted by Stephen P. Kelner, it pointed me to a great book which I have to recommend to my writing group, and provided me a new quote on my quotes page from Alexander Jablokov.  Many notes were scribbled into a legal pad during this presentation.

But the next panel “The Visual Generation” – about the impact of fantastika films on literature – had as panelists Keirnan, Elizabeth Hand, Gillena Files (former film critic!) and artist Lee Moyer. The panel was born when many complained about how modern horror stories stole the language of horror films, and wondered how people wrote horror in a world where there was no film.   Hand pointed out the original Gothic writers would travel abroad to see great sights – like Alps, or the cities of Italy, in order to feel a sense of the sublime and a sense of terror as well. These landscapes, and the feeling of being dwarfed within them, inspired modern horror.

The discussion veered to how many times Blade Runner was viewed by the various panelists, and how films influenced them, and lead them to find other influences. Martin Scorsese was given a name check, to my delight. (One never truly leaves film school). But in the end, no one – author, filmmaker, artist – creates in a vacuum.

Scorsese himself is influenced by great artists, like Van Gogh, whom he played in Akira Kurasawa’s Dreams. There is a reason he got the director’s guild to change its rules so every time you see his name on screen, it says “A Martin Scorsese Picture” – he’s painting with film.  No one creates alone, untouched. We feed off the world around us and each other. And this is going to be a big meal.

Penmonkey Get Up, Get Coffee…

We all have our collections of books on writing or photography designed to inspire and educate us. For writing, for me, it’s the three pillars:  Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King, and Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. For photography, it’s Hot Shoe Diaries by JoeMcNally.

Now, I add a new set to the list: Everything on the websites/ebooks/blogs of  Chuck Wendig and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. In their own ways, through their writing and commentaries, they give an in-the trenches view of the craft and art of writing.  Following them is like joining a war correspondent, camera in hand, as the great conflicts of the world are traversed in painful, stunning detail. I can’t recommend their works enough. And I encourage you to support their efforts with ebook purchases and site donations.

For photographers, I can’t recommend David Hobby’s original Strobist.Com website and Michael Zelbel’s SmokingStrobes enough.  David Hobby started a revolution when he used his photojournalist experience to recreate studio lights on-location with a new generation of high-powered flashes. He and Joe McNally went on the “Flashbus” tour together to spread the word about how to create beautiful light with portable strobes, a few bits of lighting gel, and practice.  Michael’s site, though, has some of the funniest and most enthusiastic how-to videos I’ve ever seen. Watch one of his videos and you’ll be infected with the sheer joy he takes from his work.

It is hard to get up in the morning, drag oneself to work and try to survive on crumbs of creativity you sneak through the day. It’s exhausting. Let these authors and photographers help add a little espresso shot to your day.