Maintaining Motivation to Finish a Novel

posted in: Writer's Life | 4

I just finished a major draft of At World’s Edge, a historical novel set in the Viking era. Putting words together in sentences and paragraphs was easy. Sitting at my desk and facing the blank page, however, was brutal. I learned a great deal about maintaining motivation to finish a novel in the process. I’d like to share that with writers who haven’t yet reached the stage I have.

Writers of historical fiction usually recognize the genre can require vast stretches of time in order to complete something. I first conceived of my story about four years ago. I researched it for eight months before writing a word (this part required little motivation, since I love research). I’m a planner, so I then sat down and wrote a detailed outline. Three weeks later, I faced the first blank page. Now, after two drafts and three years, I have committed to having it ready for publication in the next three months, after several rounds of revision.

There are as many ways to jumpstart your motivation as there are writers. Here are some that have worked for me. I write full time, but most of these can be adapted to part-time writers as well.

Establish a daily writing habit.

It seems as if every website for writers makes a point of saying this, but it bears repeating, especially if you are a beginning writer. If you want to write seriously, you have to establish a routine for it. Without a routine, we tend to allow ourselves to make excuses that are actually based in fear (fear of the blank page, fear of exposing oneself, fear of failure or success – the list is endless). Knowing you will write something every day helps to circumvent both the excuses and the fear.

Have a daily word count goal.

I write at least 500 words every day. They often come slowly in the beginning. Usually, once I reach about 450 words, I realize I have many more words in me, and they come pouring out. But some days, I quit at 500. A daily habit like this means I can write an 80,000 word novel in less than six months, if all 500 words are stellar. Of course, not all of my words fit this description, and I find I have actually written about twice as many words as will end up in the actual novel. My rule on exceptions: any day I don’t write 500 words must involve either blood or an ambulance.

Work with a critique group or writing partner.

Having a supportive writer’s critique group not only can teach you a great deal about writing, but it can provide a lot of motivation when you might be tempted to give up on your novel. My critique group is genuinely interested in what happens to the characters in my novel. If I let myself slide and don’t submit my usual chapter to the group every two weeks, I hear about it. At the same time, they faithfully comb through each chapter, telling me what works and what doesn’t. I firmly believe few things will make you a better writer than a group such as this. If you’re not sure how to find one, Felicia Lee of the Writers Alliance has some good advice on what to look for in a writing group.

I also have a writing partner with whom I write twice a week for two to three hours. We meet at a local café, open our computers, and turn the word spigot on. Sometimes we discuss difficulties we’re having with our writing, but the focus is almost entirely on putting words on the page. Unlike in my critique group, we never critique or even show each other our work. We write for a few hours, close the laptops, and go home. The commitment we both make to showing up for each other ensures that we are also showing up for ourselves. The end result is a considerable number of quality words are written.

Use time management tools.

In the early days of my writing full time, I discovered that it was quite easy to waste huge swaths of time just by looking up an answer to an obscure historical question. I could spend whole days looking for the answer to: “How long can 30 stranded men live off the carcass of an average-sized walrus?” Days. Then I got wise to some time-management tools, and reeled myself in. One of them was the Pomodoro Technique, a method for allocating time to small, achievable tasks (think 500 words). The other was Rescue Time, a Windows app that will tell you how much time you’re spending in your favorite writing tool (say, MS Word, or Scrivener) and how much time you’re wasting on Facebook, and many other things besides. Knowledge is power. Once you know your time management is running amuck, you can fix it.

Explore your procrastination.

The best way (in my mind, anyway) to defeat a natural tendency to procrastinate is to explore its psychological roots and learn what it really is. If it’s fear, when you are most tempted to skip your daily writing practice, ask yourself what you are afraid of. You might be surprised by the results. And again, knowledge is power – once you know what it really is, you can conquer it.

Embrace your mediocrity.

Everyone is a beginner at some point. In fact, you’re probably a beginner until you have several published novels under your belt. When we as beginners start learning something new – whatever it is – we generally are not very good at it. And that’s a big motivation killer. But if you accept the fact that your early writing might not be your best, then you can learn what works and what doesn’t. Leo Babauta beautifully explores this concept in The Gentle Art of Trying Something and Sucking at It. He suggests that it’s only when we can be okay with the level of our writing that we can make progress toward improving it.

Writing a novel is a long haul. What have you found helps keep your motivation level high for the long term? Share it with us in the comments.

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Robin Ingle is a writer and former statistician in Gainesville, Florida. She currently writes historical fiction set in the Viking era and is working on a novel. Her short stories can be seen on Amazon. Her non-fiction work has appeared in The Washington Post and other newspapers, and she posts regularly on her blog, Subsequent Chapters. To learn more, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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4 Responses

  1. Joan
    | Reply

    Already I’ve benefited from your blog. I have a strong negative reaction to anything ahead of me that looks like work. In a version of the Pomodoro Technique, I’ve found I can break a job up into little tasks rather than units of time, I quit looking ahead and tackle just the first little step, like sitting down in front of the computer and opening the document. Then I get absorbed in accomplishing the task I’ve set for myself.

    • Robin Ingle
      | Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Joan. I’ve experienced this myself — if I can get totally absorbed in something, then time sort of falls away and I’m home free!

  2. felicialeewriter
    | Reply

    You’re so right about confronting the root causes of procrastination — for me, procrastination often comes down to low-level writers’ block or dissatisfaction with the current bit I’m working on. For that, I remind myself that just because my final story will be presented in chronological order, it doesn’t have to be created that way. I just write something that I hope will fit in somewhere — sometimes, that in itself is enough to get me back on track.

    • Robin Ingle
      | Reply

      Thanks for commenting, Felicia. I do that too — creating whole scenes out of order (sometimes scenes that occur long before the current story starts!). I also keep multiple projects going at once, so if I get stuck on one, I can still make my daily word count even if it isn’t on that project.

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