Writing Advice #47: Motivation

Hey, it’s the return of Writing Advice, the once-weekly-now-ad-hoc BLog series in which I tell y’all stuff about writing! Didja miss me???

This week, we’re going to discuss motivation. Why? Well, because I got this e-mail a little while back…

I’m a young writer. I love writing, and I love creating stories, and fiction….Anyway, I love to write, and I know that even though my level of knowledge and experience in writing novels is very limited, I could come up with a great thrilling story. I’ve actually had this one bit of a story written up…. But I have a motivational problem. I always seem to want to sit down and write when I’m away from my computer, but when I get in front of the computer, I’m blank. I suddenly am not motivated to write, and because of that I’m not putting in nearly as much effort into the writing as I should be. So I’ll [sic] two paragraphs which are half-ass written in about an hour. I don’t know why. I would love to send you what I have of my current project, but I know you must hate when you get others works. And quite frankly, I’m insecure about it. But I would just love to know what motivates you to write when you’re sitting in front of that blank document on whatever writing program you use? On your first book, when you had nothing, what motivated you to write and create such thrilling stories? Please share this with me. I’m a huge fan of your work, and it would be a big deal to me if you could give me suggestions or help me. Thank you very much.

Okay, there’s a lot going on here, so let’s talk.

First of all, you say you’re “a young writer.” Unfortunately, I don’t know how young you are. A young writer could be a twelve year-old or could be someone in his thirties who’s just getting started. I dunno. In any event, the advice is roughly the same. The first thing you should do is go read the old Writing Advice entry on Inspiration. That’s Step One.

Step Two is everything that comes after this sentence.

Someone (I can’t remember who) was fond of saying, “I hate writing; I love having written.” This is a common sentiment among writers. It’s wonderful to look back on a piece of writing that is finished, but the day-to-day physical and psychological work of actually writing can sometimes be torture. But hey, you have to do the one to get to the other. There’s no shortcut. Check out the very first entry in this series, about A Million Bad Words. It ain’t easy or fun getting to that point. But it’s necessary.

Of course, this is all well and good, but you’re probably seeking practical advice on how to overcome your particular problem. And I imagine that this is a very common issue, one that many other young writers face. Why do I imagine this? Well, because it’s the very same issue I once faced!

When I was a “young writer” (so many millennia ago…), I, too, would have my imagination and skill take a powder when I sat down to write. Those stories I’d been imagining and compiling in my mind all day just seemed to float away when I was in front of my computer. I, like you, would crank out maybe a paragraph or two and then give up.

So, what’s going on here? Well, it’s probably a couple of things. First of all, do you talk about your stories with people? If so, it’s possible that you’re burning off all of the excitement you feel about the story by describing it to people. When you verbalize the story, your brain goes through the same general process as it does when you write it. As a result, when you sit down to do the actual writing, your mind gets bored, thinking, “I did this already.” And boom — you can’t write.

Second of all, maybe you’re just approaching this wrong. “Writing” is not simply sitting down at a keyboard and typing. The process of writing involves everything that you think, imagine, and develop in your mind before you ever sit down. If, as you say, you’re motivated to write when you’re not at the computer, then take the computer out of the equation. Carry a notepad or a recorder or use the apps on your phone — blurt out your ideas and thoughts when you’re not at a keyboard and then the next time you are sitting at your computer, you’ll have something to start with. “Oh, right — I had that cool idea for a scene when I was standing in line at the store. I’ll start with that.” And you can transcribe or transfer the information into your computer and that will be a nice little kick to get you going. It’s priming the pump.

Here’s a third thing: Don’t be so damn hard on yourself. You say you can write two half-assed paragraphs in an hour. Okay, fine. Do that. Then write two more. And then two more. As long as it takes. However long it takes. The universe doesn’t care how long you take to get to those million bad words, as long as you get to them. Maybe you’ll look back on those half-assed paragraphs in six months and realize that they’re not that bad. Or maybe they’ll suck ten times more than you thought. So what? Who cares? They suck in private. No one is grading you on this. Everything you write that sucks gets you that much closer to something that doesn’t suck.

And here’s one last idea: Maybe you’re just not all that enthralled with the story you’re trying to tell. It happens. I’ve started projects in the past, then realized partway through that my enthusiasm just wasn’t there, that I needed to move on. If you’re not excited about a story, how can you expect a reader to be? Maybe try something else.

Writing is like anything else: It takes practice. You have to keep the muscles moving in order to build them. If you set your expectations too high, thinking you’ll produce gold from the get-go, you’re going to psych yourself out of the game before you even play. At this stage, your motivation should not be “I need to write so that I can publish this and become rich and famous.” That’s putting a lot of pressure on yourself and, quite frankly, it’s just not realistic. Your motivation should be “I need to write so that I can learn how to write in the first place.” Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t tell yourself you’ve failed already, when you’ve hardly begun.

This isn’t a short game; it’s a long game. It takes time. Those people you hear about who publish the first thing they ever wrote? They’re flukes. You hear about them because they’re flukes.

I wrote dozens of short stories, a handful of bad comic books, and three-and-a-half novels before I wrote The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl.

I published nine novels before my tenth hit the New York Times bestseller list.

What motivated me to write that first book? Easy — it wasn’t my first book. It was my fourth. But no one wanted to publish the first three, so I kept writing. What motivates me every day to write? Well, this is probably less helpful to you, but… Writing is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life, and now that I get to do it for a living, I’m sure as hell not going to squander that opportunity.

You’re not there yet. This takes time. You describe yourself as young. That means you have time.

Use it.


  1. Great advice. I never thought about the hazards of talking about your story-in-progress to someone else. Heck, I talk to myself about it during my daily walks. Do you think that’s a bad idea?

  2. Thank you for this, Barry. I have always loved writing, and working on my book for going on four years has been a constant struggle. I understand the part you mentioned about talking about scenes/writing them twice because of that, and it totally makes sense.

    I confess I tell everyone about my plots and scenes, and pretty much everything. You could call me a blabbermouth writer. I never stop talking. So perhaps I will keep it all in my head now.

    Thank you for all of these wonderful tips, and your story to becoming a writer is quite the journey. It’s very inspiring, really.

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