I get quite a few messages asking me for tips on how to stay motivated while writing a novel, or even how to work up the motivation to start a project. And although what I have to learn about writing far outweighs the insights I can give, there are a few techniques that always help me out of a creative slump.
I’ve developed these strange habits without much thought over the years, so maybe they just work for me – but don’t let that stop you trying!
Keep your story in your pocket
In my phone’s gallery I have a photo album titled with the name of my novel.
In that folder I save any images I stumble across that remind me of my story – moody castles, a colony of seals haunting glistening rocks, autumn-haired girls in threadbare jumpers.
I also screenshot quotes that resonate with my theme or items of clothing a character might wear. In short, anything that contributes to the atmosphere of the story I’m trying to tell.
A Pinterest board would work too, but keeping a folder in my phone’s gallery means I can browse the visual atmosphere of my novel without relying on an internet connection.
(Or, to tell the truth - it removes the temptation to mindlessly browse the internet).
Anytime I feel my enthusiasm wane I take my phone out of my pocket and scroll through the images, steeping myself in the gloomy, magical atmosphere that the pictures create. Wherever I am I can look at the folder and feel inspired, so that by the time I get home I’m itching to start writing.
Choose a writing talisman
I think the biggest thing that holds us writers back is not a lack of motivation or inspiration, but fear.
We are afraid to start and afraid to finish. Afraid people will laugh at our ideas and that no one will want to publish our stories. We worry that we are not good enough. Sometimes we are even afraid of our own voice.
When I feel this kind of writer’s overwhelm I draw comfort from my ‘writing talisman’.
This could be a favourite book, photograph or object that speaks to me creatively.
For this novel it is O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker. It’s Gothic, unusual and every sentence sparkles with the kind of poetry and dark wit I could only dream of writing.
It doesn’t scream bestseller and hardly anyone seems to know of its existence but me, yet I will love it fiercely until the day I die.
If I can enchant one reader in the way O Caledonia continues to weave a spell around me, then I’ll be a happy writer.
When working on my novel I set it on the desk beside me and somehow its nearness helps me to write without fear or judgement. Sometimes if I get stuck I will flip through the pages and, uplifted, try even harder to perfect what I’ve written.
I admit that this tip is a bit fanciful, and feel free to disregard it, but having a ‘talisman’ in the form of a favourite book always motivates me to create the best art I can.
Become a spy
There is a page in my writer’s notebook that I use to record snippets of overheard conversations.
Many of them are transcriptions of auld Scottish ‘wifies’ I overhear in the library or café, whose speech can be dramatic to the point of poetry and full of dry humour - voices that are begging to be put down on the page.
The flavour and flow of real-life talk triggers my writer’s instinct and will inspire me to infuse a lacklustre bit of dialogue with more authenticity. I’m reminded that people very rarely say what they mean, talk in metaphors and reveal a lot about themselves by the vocabulary they use.
All useful observations if you want to avoid ‘on-the-nose’ dialogue and bring characters to life.
Try eavesdropping on real-life conversations. An argument, a declaration of love, a misplaced shopping list – all good starting points for a story.
The ten minute trick
There are days when facing my work in progress feels impossible, and these are the days I deploy the ‘ten minute trick’.
I can’t remember where I first read about this trick, possibly it was from a creative via My Morning Routine.
The basic principle is this: whatever task you are putting off, tell yourself that you are only going to work on it for ten minutes.
Not even the swampy murk of my novel’s middle feels daunting if I only have to work at it for ten minutes. I set a timer on my phone* and challenge myself to write as much as possible in the next ten minutes. Usually, I find that starting is the biggest obstacle, and once I begin I can write for hours.
But if I do only write for ten minutes then at least I’m another hundred words closer to the writer I want to be.
* I actually hate having my phone anywhere near me while I write so I’m going to invest in a sand-timer instead
Find a writing heroine
I have no shame in admitting that sometimes the biggest motivation for me comes from seeing someone else being a success at what I want to do. As an aspiring author it ignites a complex whirlwind of jealousy, admiration and creative hunger.
However, when you’re yet to ‘make it’, seeing professional authors excel at what they do can also feel unattainable. What mysterious rituals did they enact to attract a literary agent? How did they go from obscurity to New York Times bestseller?
Turns out no arcane knowledge is required – just stalk a famous author on social media.
With so many professional authors on Instagram it’s easy to gain an inside peek into how they achieved their success. (Usually by a lot of hard work, self-motivation and sticking to self-imposed deadlines.)
It was not until I started following V.E. Schwab on Instagram a few months ago that I got serious about my writing routine. Her output is phenomenal - it seems as though she has a new book every few months, plus a comic series, all while balancing an intense travelling schedule.
Schwab is very generous with sharing her writing process on her Instagram Stories and YouTube channel and I love her simple but sobering advice that no matter what stage you are at in your writing career you will need a book. Whether you are a new writer looking to break into the industry, a self-publishing indie author or an established bestseller with legions of fans eagerly waiting your latest release, you will need to write a book.
And there is only one way to achieve that: do the work. No shortcuts.
Some might find that disappointing, but to me it’s inspiring.
So, find someone in your field with a near superhuman work ethic, be inspired, copy what they do and see if some of the magic rubs off.
Am I alone in these strange rituals? How do you stay motivated to write?