This question has been on my mind for a while. Last week, I did a keynote for another university on motivating and engaging students in higher education (a facet of my day job I won’t go into here). After my talk, someone who knew I was also a novelist said to me, “You know, I used to be a really good writer. All through school, from elementary school through college, everyone thought I would be a novelist. But as an adult, every time I’ve tried to sit down and write a novel, I just can’t do it. How did you do it?”
Obviously, this person wasn’t asking me how to write a novel—I’m sure she is well aware of the scores of books that explore the craft of novel writing. But she was asking me a more fundamental question about motivation. “I want to write a book. I have the skills to write a book. I even have a great idea. Other people have written books, some far less skilled and imaginative than me. So why can’t I actually complete something I want to do?”
The day after I delivered that keynote on motivation, I traveled to Raleigh where Bouchercon, the world mystery convention, was getting underway.
There, I heard variations of the same question being posed over and over to authors everywhere, in panels, in the book room, over drinks in the bar. How did you do it? And underlying that question, the more desperate ones: Why can’t I do this? What do you know that I don’t? To be clear, I am focusing here on the questions posed to novelists about how they complete a book-length manuscript (or do it more than once), not about how they got their books published (a process which generally transcends self-motivation).
I began to pay more attention to how authors replied to this question. Setting the flippant replies aside (“Lots of chocolate!” “Wine!”), a lot of them said things like “Find the kind of writing style that works for you and stick to it.” “Write a set amount of words a day!” “Just keep going!” or most succinctly, “Butt. In. Chair.” Everyone has heard this sincerely intended, tried-and-true advice a million times. The questioner would dutifully nod, but the puzzled look would remain. How do I actually do that? I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t actually do it. Why can’t I do what you do? [It's like trying to lose 15 pounds. We all know we're supposed to exercise daily, eat vegetables, avoid sugar, and watch our portions. Or whatever. But it's hard to do.]
On the flip side, when I was chatting with some of these writers, I’d ask them what they thought was keeping them from finishing their novels. Here, there were a few variations on a set of themes. Sometimes they focused on time. I have a full time job. I’m taking care of my children, aging parent etc. I can’t find a set time every day to write. I don’t have time to do the research.
Or sometimes, they focused on the story itself. I don’t know where to begin. I have writer’s block. The middle is completely confusing. I don’t know how to end my story. My critique group has confused me and I don’t know what to do.
Sometimes, they focused on doubt or self-worth or other emotions. I’m just not sure if my story is any good. I don’t know if readers will like it. People are expecting something really great from me, but they’ll know I’m a fraud. I’m not really a good writer.
All challenges. All difficult and stressful things. All things that can keep a person from completing a novel. But I’m telling you with some confidence: Every writer who has successfully completed a book-length novel has probably experienced all or most of the same constraints, challenges and boulders in the road. But the difference is, they successfully managed to navigate the obstacles. So the question is: How? Or maybe, Why?
[And the answer is not, I assure you, that they are somehow better or more talented than everyone else!]
- Why do you want to write a novel?
- What will completing a book-length manuscript mean to you? What if anything, does it mean, for your sense of identity/sense of self? What do you lose or gain?
- What keeps you from starting/working on/finishing a novel?
- How do you frame your goals as a writer?
- What kind of feedback, if any, do you accept as a writer?
- Do you think your ability as a writer is generally set?
- Is your sense of worth and value as a writer determined mostly by yourself or mostly by others?
Go ahead. Think about these questions. Write down a few thoughts. I’ll wait.