Two questions that have come up in just about every in-depth discussion of writing that I have ever had are the questions of inspiration and of motivation. The former rarely causes me any trouble. I freely admit the latter causes me more problems than it should. Of course as with most of the things I discuss and/or rant about on this blog, the discussion below is simply my approach — it’s by no means a matter of there being a right way and wrong way to approach these issues.
It’s such a cliché, but inspiration can come from anywhere. I mentioned once before a website called SciFi Ideas, where you can find a bunch of resources to help kick-start your imagination. There are a few different resources like that on the Internet, most geared toward role-playing games — spawing NPCs, locations and basic plot outlines for tabletop games — but many can give you at least some element that will get your imagination working. In my case, I used one of the location name generators at donjon RPG Tools and it gave me, among several other I didn’t like, the location name “The Shattered City of Kidai.” Now, I didn’t like the “Kidai” part, because it reminded me too much of the Disney resort in Animal Kingdom I stayed at last year (Kidani Village), but the “Shattered City” part I loved. At the time, I didn’t have anywhere I could use it, but the name conjured up such a vivid image for me, I tucked it away in my notebook and in fact I may now have a place I can use it.
Of course, role-playing resources will largely be applicable to those of us writing scifi, fantasy or horror. For those of us writing fiction set in present-day, real world situations, inspiration can still come from… well, pretty much anywhere.
A friend of mine carries a notebook with her all the time. When she seems someone with an interesting look — on the train, wherever — she writes a description of them and basically tells a brief story about them. She now has an entire notebook (maybe more than one) filled with fantastic character descriptions that can serve as the foundation of a story.
News articles are also a great source of inspiration — especially the more off-beat ones. A number of online news publications have sections devoted to these kind of stories. They all call it something different — CBC News used to call it the “Diversions” section — but they’re a collection of funny, strange and gross stories from around the world. In a similar vein, never underestimate the power of a good documentary. Whether it’s something relatively “happy” like March of the Penguins (which apparently inspired Happy Feet) or something with a more soul-crushingly depressing bent like Shake Hands with the Devil, a good documentary can really get the wheels turning.
And, it goes without saying, READ. It doesn’t even matter what you read, just read. Novels, biographies, comic books, screenplays, short stories, even… dare I say it? Even BLOGS. Especially this blog, because it’s awesome.
I can’t be bothered to write this section right now.
Just kidding! Well, not really, but I’m going to write it anyway. And that is actually my biggest problem, and probably the problem a lot of you face as well — sometimes I just don’t feel like writing. After all, those Reapers in Mass Effect 3 aren’t going to kill themselves, my dogs aren’t going to walk themselves and my nap isn’t going to take itself. This is a lot like the writer’s block blog I wrote a month or so ago, really.
Motivation can be a tricky thing, hard to find and easy to lose. With all the demands we have on our time these days, it can be hard to make time to sit down and write. We all have lives. There’s family, friends, some have pets that need looking after, most have day jobs to pay the bills. And the day job thing is probably the biggest black hole of motivation, given that many day jobs now come with the expectation that you’ll actually work longer hours and devote significant amounts of your free time to work-related endeavours. I know that when I told some of my coworkers that I stop answering work calls and emails at six o’clock every night and don’t even check email on the weekend, I got some of the most shocked looks I’ve ever seen.
My job it a motivation killer. It’s mentally and sometimes emotionally draining, so when I get home and actually have some time to myself… I have very little left in the tank. Weekdays utterly suck for writing productivity for me and I’m sure some of you have the same experience. Sure, I may get a page or two done on a weeknight, but usually it will end up being a half-page, if anything at all.
So, what’s my sage advice for this problem? Set realistic goals for yourself. When I did that guest blog on Ongoing Worlds about the importance of character arcs, I talked about setting “character milestones” so your characters are always working toward something developmentally. You can do the same for yourself. Writers tend to be very focused on page count and word count and how close they are to finishing their project. Seriously, how many times have you been asked by non-writers how close you are to being finished your project? And how many times have you wanted to punch the person asking?
Not everyone can or will write 8,000 words a day. And it’s not realistic to expect that you, the person with a day job, will be able to meet that lofty goal. and what do you get when you fail to meet goals? That’s right — demotivated.
Realistic goals can help keep you motivated because you can actually reach them. Whether you want to focus on pages or plot milestones, setting yourself a reasonable goal is always better than setting one you know deep down you’ll fail to hit. Instead of saying “I will write ten pages this weekend” and then being depressed when you can only manage four, say “I’m going to write the t-rex attack and get Janice to reveal her feelings about Maggie this weekend.” By doing it that way, you know exactly what you want to accomplish without putting pressure on yourself to do it in a specific number of pages. In a first draft, page count shouldn’t really matter that much — it’s just about getting the whole story out. If the t-rex attack only ends up being two pages, that’s fine. You can always expand it if needed when you get to second draft stage. In this example, as long as you’ve dealt with the t-rex attack and Janice’s feelings, then you’ve hit your goal for the weekend. And it probably felt awesome, because you frelling succeeded.
I used set massive goals for myself and fail at every goddamned one of them. Since switching to a “milestone” approach rather than page or word count, not only am I finding my motivation has improved, but I’m also much happier with what I`m producing. Odds are that if you’re continually struggling with motivation, it`s because you’ve set too many lofty goals for yourself.
To Yoda you listen.
Manageable, attainable goals. Do it.
You know what else can help your motivation? It’s kind of silly, but it works. Years ago, when I was doing some screenwriting, one of the writing books I was reading suggested visualizing the poster for your movie. Visualize walking into a theatre and seeing it hanging there. Or, if you or someone you know has some artistic ability, do a little mock-up and either print it out and pin it above your writing desk or save it as your computer desktop. The point is, visualize the end goal. And it does actually work. Try doing the same thing with the cover of your book.
And finally, you know what else helps with motivation? Joining a writers’ group. Go to a site like MeetUp and find a group in your area, then just start showing up. The good groups expect members to bring something, anything, each week for discussion. That can really help you as you now have an audience that`s expecting new material. Give it a shot — what have you go to lose?
Until next time.