The image above was the first “demotivational poster” I ever saw – back in 2009, according to the date I saved it on my hard drive. There are many sites devoted to these satiric little beauties, including Despair, Inc., where the motto is: MOTIVATIONAL PRODUCTS DON'T WORK. BUT OUR DEMOTIVATOR® PRODUCTS DON'T WORK EVEN BETTER.
I had my own experience with demotivation last month. Having resigned my teaching position (due to despair in the workplace, ironically enough), I was faced with the task of making writing my full time job. A fairly well-known YA author suggested the “calendar method” for staying on task. It basically boiled down to giving yourself a sticker for every 1000 new words written. At first I laughed at the idea of a former teacher giving herself stickers. But – I did find some shiny stickers when I cleaned out my desk at school. What the heck? I thought. I’ll try it.
At first it was great. I usually write late at night, so my family checked the calendar every morning to see if I’d earned a sticker the night before. They high-fived me when I got two stickers in one day.
Then, the inevitable “stuck-point” happened – the thing that occurs several times in every one of my first drafts where I’m not sure what needs to happen next. I might know the next plot point – just not how to get there. Days went by. No stickers. Usually, when I need to stop and think about my draft, I know I skip some writing days, but this time I knew exactly how many days I’d missed. Because of those damn stickers.
No stickers meant I wasn’t writing. No stickers meant I obviously couldn’t hack it as a full time writer. No stickers meant I was an idiot to quit my day job. No stickers probably meant I would never finish another book again! I’d been a full-time writer for less than a month, and I’d already failed!
Incidentally, during this time period I was conducting a series of a paid gigs as a visiting author at a summer camp for student writers. One of the most frequent questions I got was, “How do you combat writer's block?” My answer was always, “Walk away from the project.” I don’t know how many times I gave that answer before I realized I wasn’t allowing myself to follow my own advice!
As Matt McNish and Marissa Burt expressed in their excellent blog posts earlier this summer, writing doesn’t always mean putting new words on the page. The most commonly given advice for full-time writers (in fact, for all writers) is to write every day.
But “writing” can mean:
- Blogging and making new contacts
- Creating a promotional package for school visits
- Looking up contacts to send the promotional packages to
- Updating your website
- Taking out old stories you never intend to finish just to play with voice and POV
- Re-reading a book that uses a POV-switch you hope to emulate in a future project
- Brainstorming ideas for another story
- Researching Colonel Percy Fawcett’s journey into the Amazon just because you might model a character after him some day
I ignored the demotivational stickers and did all those things above, which furthered the business of writing. After about ten days, I started adding words to my WIP again. And I threw out the stickers.
Goals are good, and so are schedules. Writers should have those things, but only to the extent that they motivate us and make us feel good about ourselves and our work. The instant they start to demotivate, they need to go. If I don’t write new words for a week because I decide to binge-watch all 4 seasons of The Killing on Netflix, then yes – I need a kick in the butt. But if I don’t write new words for a week because I need time to think about my story, then that’s just part of being a writer.
I am with you, Dianne! I know for a fact that your work often includes MASSIVE amounts of research. And it is so fun! I love it. Writing historic-minded or myth-minded work requires knowing what you're talking about. It is better to get info before the book comes out instead of finding out later- though I always find something cool I wish I had known before so I could have include. That research (when not, like me, getting caught up in some cool historic tome or falling into the vortex of tangential web hunting) is vital to the wonderfully compelling books you create! This is my way of giving you virtual stickers for the work, not the words. Of course, I am waiting (not so patiently) for your next literary offering so thumbs up for letters on the page!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Eden! I am actually thinking that to solve the problem of "What is wrong with this story?" I might have to do more research on the basic premise ...Delete
I totally agree. There are glorious things about setting one's own schedule and very difficult things. It reminds me of the faculty directed courses I took in college - I actually ended up doing WAY more work compared to typical classes because I was the one driving myself.ReplyDelete
Congrats on making the move to writing full-time. M
P.S. LOVE despair.com
Thanks, Marissa! I hope I can settle into some kind of regular schedule soon and be comfortable with the "new job." :)Delete
At last, a breath of fresh air and words of wisdom about the "I need to write x thousands of words per day--or else I am lost" writer mentality. (Sorry, I've just finished A Dance with Dragons and am sounding like Daenerys Targaryen.) Thinking about one's story is just as important to the writing process as getting words on the page.ReplyDelete
First of her name? Queen of Foreshadowing and Exposition? The Unwritten?Delete
FYI - this is an inside joke for readers of ASoIaF.
Michael -- Sometimes, when I see a writer post on FB that he/she wrote 9k in a single day, I wonder: "Yeah, but how many of them will end up in the final version?" Even when I do produce 1-2k in a single day, I'll spend the next 2 days polishing/editing/revising them before I move on, even in a first draft. That's just the way I do it!Delete
You make an excellent point, Dianne! Writing is hard enough as it is; I see no need to make it harder by giving ourselves rules and goals that we most likely will simply fail to meet.ReplyDelete
And when it comes to writer's block: I don't really believe in it. I can always sit down and write something if I want/need to. What I think is more accurate is story block. I definitely have run into that problem, and it can be paralyzing at times, but usually I find it happens because something in the story that brought me to that point wasn't quite right.
Anyway, thanks for the shout out!
Oh yes, it is absolutely "story block." And I know I did several somethings wrong! I often fight with myself whether I should keep plunging forward, knowing it's wrong, or start over with a new draft.Delete
In the past, I have re-started several manuscripts because I realize, halfway in, what's wrong and how to fix it and didn't want to continue in a flawed version of the story.
This time -- I know what's wrong but not how to fix it. So I think I have to keep going and hope I see it by the time I reach The End!
This is so interesting, Dianne. I wrote a blog post yesterday that I plan on running on my personal blog sometime soon about this exact thing. I even linked to Kell's post a few days ago where several mentioned how unhelpful word count can be.ReplyDelete
As a verse novelist who squeezes out drops of words when I work, word count basically stinks. But. It was very motivational when I tried my own version of NaNo last year. I was back at prose, and it was good to see my numbers grow and hold myself to a goal. Now that I'm working on that book again, I am continuing to track my numbers out of curiosity more than anything. There have been days I've added 500 or 700 words to my book. There have been days that after hours of writing I've had -16 or even -722 words at the end of the session. If this were my only measure of progress, it would be incredibly discouraging. The thing is, though, I'm moving forward. Word count at this point with this piece is a not a true measure of my work, but it is an interesting side note.
Linking this post to mine, as well!
I was recently on a forum where people were discussing this calendar method and -- in a related thread -- NaNo. I was one of the few dissenting people who did not like marking the calendar for words written and did not think NaNo would fit my writing style at all. If it works for some people, super, But just because everybody talks about it, that doesn't make it good for all writers!Delete
I don't have much to add but completely agree. :-) All best as you forge the way to your best practices as a full-time writer, Dianne!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Joy! I'll figure it out sooner or later!Delete
There's an important truth at the heart of this post. In fact, I posted about it on the Ambitious Enterprises Facebook page on Monday, because it was relevant to the work I did during my writing group on Sunday. I spent about two agonizing hours staring at the page, trying to figure out how to write a scene I thought I'd already figured out.ReplyDelete
Then I spent the next two hours actually writing.
Were I paying attention to word count, I'm sure I'd find that I didn't get a lot done. But a successful day of writing isn't about word count. A successful day is powering through a singularly difficult scene, or brainstorming the next sequence--or even writing a bunch of bad pages, because you need to learn from them to figure out what you *should* be doing. A good day of writing is taking the time to write. It will come eventually.
I don't know if I'd substitute writing with just anything related to publishing a book--making such plans can easily become distractions rather than forward progress--but the regular time is far more important than the specific amount of work accomplished in one day.
I have definitely learned that I shouldn't rate my success by word count per day and for me, at least, finding the way through a troublesome sequence of scenes often occurs when I'm looking somewhere else. This first draft has been particularly troublesome, and there are many times when I complete a chapter or two, look back and say to myself, "Yeah, that's all going to change." Does counting words I know I'm going to cut later motivate me? Not really. But hopefully writing bad words will help me learn what I'm doing wrong in this story ... and get it right eventually!Delete
Writing is tough but also a whole lot of fun. Many people write in different ways and for different reasons. Everyone needs to find out the reason they are doing something. Plus that Star Wars Demotivational Image was hilarious.ReplyDelete
I am learning that every writer writes in a personal style that is not accountable to other people - barring contractual deadlines, of course. We just can't let ourselves get sucked into other people's motivations if they don't work for us!Delete
And what works for one book might not work for the next. It's been tremendously freeing for me to realize each of my books needs to find its own way.Delete
Great advice! And I can't stop laughing at the storm trooper poster...ReplyDelete
Thank you, and I agree. That was one weak-minded storm trooper ...Delete
This is the best advice for any level of writer! You can get so discouraged by all the stuff thrown at you on what you should be doing and how to accomplish your goals. Too much social media was part of my problem. I got see all the success stories and I wasn't going anywhere. What works for one person might not work for another. I guess once you realize that then progress can happen. Thanks so much! This is a breath of fresh air. Also, love the stormtrooper.ReplyDelete
I was feeling the same way for a large chunk of July and August! I think I'm over it now. I write the way I write. Any change in the way I work will come from within (and probably at the behest of some story or other), not from a sticker chart.Delete
Yay for throwing out the stickers! I face failure often enough without those evil shiny things taunting me. What Matt says about story block is so true. It's happened to me with each novel (now working on #4), but now when I reach that stuck point I whip out a picture book idea or two to work on. It gets my creative juices flowing nicely. Forget word counts and artificial forms of motivation. Just open your mind to any kind of writing. Some of the suggestions on your list, Dianne, are what I would consider the business side of writing, but that's important too.ReplyDelete
Joanne, I guess my point was -- if I'm a full time writer, then I have to do the business stuff too. I might as well work on it while I'm feeling stuck, because when I get unstuck, I'll (hopefully) be so immersed in my writing I won 't want to stop for business. Also, as I mentioned in my reply to Harrison, I often find the answer to my problem while I'm looking somewhere else. :)ReplyDelete
I love when that happens, Dianne! And yes, of course, you have to do all the business stuff too, so you might as well tackle it while you can. I've only ever met one writer (Dan Gutman) who claimed to write every day from 8 to 11 am. After doing that, he said, his brain is mush, so the rest of the day he deals with the business stuff, answering emails, doing publicity, etc. But of course what works for one writer may not work for another.Delete