4 Motivational Tools for Writers

One of the most difficult parts of writing is establishing a routine. One piece of advice I heard as a beginning writer was that I should write every day, no matter what. That advice is repeated as gospel in workshops, on convention panels, in writing advice books. I don’t believe that writing every day is the path for every writer–it doesn’t take into account writers with families and day jobs and can create a lot of anxiety and guilt for writers who struggle with mental health and may not always have the energy–but a routine that allows you to get in as much writing as you possibly, personally can is a great tool.

But let’s face it: sometimes internal motivation just isn’t enough. (Like that week when watching every Harry Potter movie in a week seemed like a better idea than writing, for example.) For those times I take to using external motivational tools.

Different motivational techniques will work for different writers. For me, a technique will work for a brief period, at which point I find I need to switch to a new system, or to take a break from systems altogether. Because of this, I’ve tried a lot of different methods. Here’s a few to sample for yourself.

1. Beads in a Jar

My friend Katie Crumpton first told me about this one. I like it because it offers rewards at various intervals, which helped me immensely with the long slog of novel-writing (since writing novels doesn’t offer as much immediate reward as, say, short stories, where you finish and feel that sense of accomplishment sooner).

To take advantage of this technique, first get a bag of beads from a craft store. Then paint a series of five or so lines up a jar. Assign a different reward to each line. Every time you accomplish a writing task–writing so many words in a day, submitting a story, updating your website, attending a conference, etc.–drop a bead in the jar. When the beads reach the first line, reward yourself with the first reward. When they reach the second, reward yourself with the second reward. Continue until you reach the top, then dump out the beads and begin again.

My levels from bottom to top: bubble tea, watch a movie, order dinner out, get a massage, free day off

2. The Check-In

When I started working on my first novel, I entered into an agreement with a friend of mine, Karen Bovenmyer, that every Monday we would email each other our goals for the coming week and would give a rundown of our accomplishments for the week previous. This helped me immensely with that initial motivation. Now, two years later, we’re still emailing nearly every Monday, and even if I no longer need external motivation, I love hearing what she’s up to.

3. Marking a Calendar

This technique works best for me to track how productive I’m being in a particular period of time. This one may also be the simplest: get a yearly calendar and mark every day that you write.  I also mark any days on the calendar where I know I won’t be able to write with an X. This helps me when I’m trying to finish a particular piece, writing so many words every day; knowing which days I won’t be able to write helps me calculate how many words I need to write those other days.

I used a free calendar and penguin stickers to mark days when I wrote

4. The Magic Spreadsheet

I haven’t personally used this one for any length of time, but I have heard from many writers that it helped them immensely. The Magic Spreadsheet was created by my friend Tony Pisculli and exists in a series of massive Google Spreadsheets. To check it out, join the Google + group here or the Facebook group here, where they release a new sheet for each month.

Serving to gamify writing routine, the Magic Spreadsheet allows you to track the number of words that you write each day. You must write at least 300 in a day to earn any points. If you write more, you get more points. You level up as you earn points.

There are no external rewards in place here, but if you’re a competitive person, the points alone may do it for you. I’ve also heard of some people who reward themselves when they level up.

Mur Lafferty talked about the Magic Spreadsheet on her podcast I Should Be Writing in 2013.

The Next Big Thing: Reviews

Though this is late-coming, I was tagged about three weeks ago for The Next Big Thing meme, though I have to admit I wasn’t aware of it until Zachary Jernigan tagged me. Zack is an acquaintance of mine from Stonecoast, where I met him my first semester, his last semester. His book, No Return, is coming out from NightshadeBooks in Spring of 2013, and I can’t wait to read it, but I guess I’ll have to.

So now it’s time for me to be the tagger. I’m going to do this a bit differently, in that, for the purposes of keeping this blog short story-related, I will briefly review the short stories of the authors I tag. All of these writers are fellow Stonecoasters, but all of them are also writers who I respect, read, and root for.

Adam Mills lives in a bowling alley in the Missouri Ozarks and writes some great stories. He is Managing Editor as Weird FictionReview and an editorial assistant for Cheeky Frawg Books. In December, his short story “The Artist in the Tower”was published by Ideomancer. Inspired by a Borgesian dream, the story definitely seems Borges-inspired; it has the same playfulness of all the best Borges, mixed with the dark and fantastic. The story’s narrator is a professor who wishes to tell the story — long considered mere myth — of a great artist, Armin, and his role in destroying the tyrannical reign of the fictional Campano regime. The professor’s retelling of the artist’s confinement in the tyrant Raoul’s tower is peppered with footnotes; these footnotes often give fictional sources for the information, but they also give more personal details of the narrator’s father. These details feel at first like digressions, until the ending, when the two tales intertwine in a goosebump-inducing final footnote. “The Artist in the Tower” melds our world, with references to Salvador Dali, Samuel Beckett, and religious mythology, with a fantastic world in which the artist’s paintings become a tool for his survival.

Adam also has work in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. You can find him online at his blog adamwmills.wordpress.com.

Caspian Gray lives in Columbus, Ohio. Two out of three stories I’ve read by him are nightmarish horror stories featuring insects, which I find unusual and refreshing . His story “Insect Joy” was first published in Interzone #237 and reprinted as a podcast by PodCastle in July 2012 — which you can download for free from their archives. “Insect Joy” is about a young woman who can hear the thoughts of insects. When her boyfriend returns disabled from the war, she is confronted with guilt over her urge to leave him, until she makes a startling discovery of the solution to her problems which, it turns out, comes at a heavy price. His story “Centipede Heartbeat” is about a woman who begins to suspect that the reason for her girlfriend’s coldness is the presence of centipedes nesting in her heart and desperately searches for a way to exterminate them; it is forthcoming from Nightmare Magazine. Both of these stories are eerie and sad, and both left me feeling the characters’ grief and desperation. Check out his stories at the links below:

—“In Bloom”
First appeared in the July 2009 issue of ChiZine. Reprinted in PseudoPod: http://pseudopod.org/2011/08/05/pseudopod-241-in-bloom/

—“The Robber King’s Wife”
First appeared in Scheherezade’s Bequest, Issue 13, May 2011: http://www.cabinetdesfees.com/2011/the-robber-kings-wife-by-caspian-gray/

John M. Shade is a fellow Texan and a graduate of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. I’ve read two stories by him, both published on Daily Science Fiction. “Selecting”, published in October of 2011, is a flash fiction which explores the fantasy trope of sword selection in an original way; it’s also a story about revenge. Published in August of 2012, Shade’s “The Colors” is, at its heart, a superhero story, and it is one of the most innovative superhero stories I have ever read. “The Colors” tells, in prose which reads at time as beautiful as poetry, of a traveling superhero circus where the performers are trapped; Mother Circus is the leader of the caravan, and she is a terrifying villain, both motherly and evil. The world of the circus feels tangible, while the world outside the circus — revealed in tiny, subtle snippets to be in ruins — feels far away, like a world we’ve only ever heard of in stories. The main character here is overcoming the grief of losing his first love, and when a new hero joins the circus, he is given a second chance. You can follow John M. Shade on Twitter.

Now here’s the part where I answer some questions about my own stories, two of which are forthcoming in the next year:

What is the working title of your next book or story?

I’ll answer this question for my two stories which will be coming out soon. “The Siren” is a short story coming out in Strange Horizons in April. “An Exodus of Wings” is forthcoming from Daily Science Fiction.

Where did the idea come from for the book or story?

For “The Siren” — which centers around a love triangle among a teenage girl, the girl’s mother, and the mother’s new girlfriend, all three struggling with grief — the idea came from a song: Bat for Lashes’ “Siren Song.”

“An Exodus of Wings” is told in three sections, each section a new point-of-view, and each part is connected by the characters and their inability to communicate and connect to others effectively as well as by the faerie pests which take over homes like insects. It was inspired by the roaches which infested my house when I first moved back to Texas last July, and also a phrase which popped into my head.

What genre does your book or story fall under?

I would call these stories slipstream or magical realism.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

You know, I’m just not sure. Right now I can only imagine them as I wrote them; it’s difficult to impose an actor’s face onto them, and I’m not sure I want to before anyone else has read them and formed their own images.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I wrote “The Siren” in about a week. I wrote “An Exodus of Wings” in one day; once I started, I didn’t want to stop.

What other books or short stories would you compare this story to within your genre?

Well, rather than compare these stories specifically to other stories in the genre, I’ll list a few authors who I admire for their ability to twist genre conventions and mythology/fairy tale into new and interesting shapes, which is what I am attempting to do in my own stories: Kelly Link, Theodora Goss, Aimee Bender, Angela Carter, Karen Joy Fowler.

What else about the book or story might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, “An Exodus of Wings” is written in three sections, three points-of-view. The first section is in 3rd, the second in 1st, and the third in 2nd (say that ten times fast). I was hoping, with this technique, to slowly decrease distance between the reader and the characters, so that in a story about connecting to people, the reader will slowly become more and more connected to the characters.

“The Siren” is a modernization of the old Greek mythology, which I always love doing and reading.