To those of you who are scaling Mount NaNoWriMo, I salute you at your three-quarter mark, where the oxygen may be getting thin. Breathe deep! Stay hydrated! Dip into your trail mix! And here, again, is the link for Kitty’s support-and-encouragement forum: http://nanowrimo.org/forums/writing-groups-and-clubs/threads/260467. I’ve been lurking now and then.
On August 18, 2015, Li’l Ol’ Me wrote, Does anyone have some motivation tips? I get anywhere from 20-60 pages into a story/novel and I just give up after one too many bad scenes. My writing also always seems so, to quote your editor, Gail, “flat.” Same sentence structure, simply awful adjectives and boring characters. Help!
In Writing Magic, I talk a lot about the negative voice that afflicts many of us when we write or do anything creative. In the book, I recommend telling that voice to Shut up! And, nine years after publication, I haven’t changed my mind. Self-criticism is a potion that kills motivation. I’ve written this many times here, but it always bears repeating: we mustn’t sabotage ourselves.
The negative voice masquerades as valuable. How can we improve if we can’t tell whether our work is good or bad?
But the truth is that we will improve if we keep writing. That’s all that’s necessary. It’s just like learning a physical skill. Suppose I want to throw a ball farther for Reggie to chase. I throw and throw. My arm starts to figure things out, and I improve. If I’m dissatisfied, it doesn’t help to call myself a ninety pound weakling (I’m very tiny), but it may help to look online for advice on throwing and to watch videos of, say, pitchers. If I can afford to, I can hire a coach, and I wager she will not say, “Gee, you stink at this. How pathetic.”
Aside from many wonderful books on writing, there are lots of online resources in addition to this blog. But let me mention a few books that I found helpful when I was starting out. I haven’t looked at them lately, so to be safe, I’ll say they’re at the high school and above level. My favorite for dealing with the negative voice is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser. These that follow are more general, but most deal to some extent with self-criticism: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg, What If? by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays, and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (old-fashioned in tone, but modern in ideas).
So that’s advice for getting rid of or minimizing the buzzkill effects of self-criticism. As for positive motivation, I’d suggest imagining an admiring reader who really gets you, who delights in every twist of your fascinating mind.
Real, live people can help, too, friends who can be counted on to be positive if you say you might be feeling a tad fragile, or siblings when they’re in a good mood. And let’s not forget pets and stuffed animals. We’re looking for approval here!
It can help, too, to set goals, a length of time or page count that you want to accomplish in a day or a week. I love NaNoWriMo for this, and for the support contestants get. But–and this is critical–we have to forgive ourselves when we fail to meet our targets, even when we fail again and again. This is exactly what I do. When I start to write, I note the time. When I stop, I note the time. I may start and stop many times. I’m not looking for time in a single sitting, but over the course of a day. My goal is two-and-a-quarter hour minimum. Usually I make it, but sometimes I don’t, and I forgive myself. If I didn’t, starting the next day would be harder.
I rarely say what I’m about to, but maybe I should. Before I became a writer, I painted and drew, and had the worst negative voice in creation, which I also discuss in Writing Magic. When I started writing, I found that I was kinder to myself. It is possible that if you can’t quiet that negative voice, if you can’t imagine an admiring reader, if you don’t believe the praise that comes in from people who think highly of you (and from your pets and stuffed animals), maybe writing is not for you. Your creativity may be expressed more happily in another way. You can be a great reader; you can esteem marvelous writing–but you don’t have to be a writer yourself. You may be creative in another one of the arts, or in science, or you may be amazingly intuitive about people, which is an art, too. Writing is hard and sometimes miserable, but it shouldn’t always be so. There should be moments, possibly even consecutive hours, of exhilaration.
I’ve written a post about repeated sentence structure, which I won’t repeat. I’m sure I’ve also written about adjectives, basically that we should do without them whenever we can. We should question every one. If, for example, we describe a puppy as adorable, can we eliminate the adjective, and instead show the puppy and make the reader understand that it’s cute? But if we must have an adjective and we’re sick of the ones we use and reuse, the thesaurus is our friend. We don’t have to think up all our words. A thesaurus makes us more successful, not less original. I consult one often, just put the word vexed in a poem, which popped up as a synonym for chafe. I never would have thought of it on my own.
As for characters, I suspect that here Li’l Ol’ Me is being hard on herself, and this might be a good time to ask a sympathetic friend for an opinion. Have him read a scene and ask him to describe the character you want to know about. If he says boring–well, he won’t. But be sure not to prompt him.
Characters and people are interesting because of what they say, do, and think. If we’re having trouble making a character come alive, we can list possibilities. If she has to say something, we can list five possible lines of dialogue. Same with thoughts and actions. Once she comes alive, you probably will find yourself needing lists less and less, but you still may from time to time, which is not a failure.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Your MC discovers she’s a character in a book when all action ceases because its author is in the hospital, comatose, unlikely to survive. The story has been halted at a climactic moment. Give her the task of finishing the story, and fill her with self-doubt about the artistic choices she makes. Put her life at risk. (Years ago, I read Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull: Confidence Man–high school and up–which was unfinished because Mann died. If I remember right, the book ends in the middle of a sentence. Very bad for a reader’s health, too!)
∙ For the rest of the week, notice how often people apologize and what they apologize for. Then write a scene for a character who apologizes for inconsequentials. She is always sorry when she’s done nothing wrong. Make her actually do something bad or hurtful. Decide if she apologizes then. Continue with the scene.
∙ Do you think evildoers have high self esteem? Write a story with a villain who has a low opinion of himself. How does that play out?
∙ Now go the other way with a villain who loves herself. How does it go?
Have fun, and save what you write!