This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 16,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
I did the following interview with Jim Rubart via Skype and then transcribed it. We started out talking about motivation, which is a terribly dull-sounding topic. But by the end of the interview, I realized I’d been thinking about motivation completely wrong. Here’s how things ran:
A Novel is Mount Everest
Randy: A lot of writers I know have a problem with staying motivated. Writers love writing. So when they finally have a chance to write, what is it that would cause them to lose their motivation?
Jim: They don’t realize what kind of mountain they’re climbing. They think it’s one of the hills in the Blue Ridge Mountains, when in reality, it’s closer to Everest. I love the old anecdote about the brain surgeon and the author who were chatting one day when the surgeon says, “I’m going to take six weeks off this summer and write a book!” The author looks at his friend and says, “What an amazing coincidence! I’m going to take six weeks off this summer and become a brain surgeon.” Writing is hard. Which is good news for those willing to keep climbing, because most toss their gear halfway up and trudge back down the mountain.
Randy: Yeah, come to think of it, I’d like to try brain surgery sometime.
Jim: Let’s do it!
Randy: You bring the brain; I’ll bring the knife.
Jim: Umm …
The Silent Killer of the Soul
Randy: I do think it’s true–writing a book is a major challenge. What keeps you going when you’d really rather watch Netflix?
Jim: There’s a number of specific techniques I’ve developed that kept me motivated early in my career and also ones I use now, but for the sake of brevity let me mention a quick thought that might help your readers, Randy. Regret is the silent killer of the soul. Whether it’s having that extra piece of apple pie when you’re trying to lose weight, or wasting time watching a show when you promised yourself you’d write instead, regret sits inside us and eats away at our spirit. So imagine yourself a day into the future. Maybe two days. And consider what you’ll be saying about yourself a day or two days from now. Will you be saying, “Well done, another ten pages closer to the dream!” Or, “Another nail in the wall between me and stepping into my destiny.”
Randy: So if I’m staring at the screen trying to get started for the day, how do I take the leap forward to type that first word? And what is this vendetta you have against apple pie? Apples are very nutritious.
Writing is Playing
Jim: I want you to know the rumors of me eating half an apple pie at one sitting are almost entirely false. When we were kids, drawing with crayons or building with Legos or creating tea parties with friends, we weren’t working. We weren’t judging ourselves. We were simply playing. Often I find writers staring at that screen, judging their words even before they’ve typed them. They’re working! Stop working. Start playing again. Create sandcastles and if you don’t like them, knock ‘em down and start over. Another way to say this is, “Kill the editor,” but it helps me more to think of being on the playground, reveling in the joy of playing with stories.
Randy: I think that’s really key. To remember that this is all about having fun. I went to my critique group last night and was kidding one of the writers about her tendency to judge her own work and prevent herself from writing. I told her, “Stop crushing your soul by telling yourself that your work is terrible! That’s our job!” And she laughed and promised to stop. But it’s a tough habit to give up–crushing your soul.
Randy: But I like your insight there about playing. Great writing comes out of just playing around. Writing something that you don’t have to show anyone because it’s just for you.
Jim: Many people speak of getting great insight when they’re in the shower. Why? They’ve turned their minds off and ideas flow from their hearts. Same with writing. When we get past the mind, our heart often give us wonderful stories. Play gets us past our minds
Randy: Yes, showering, shaving, and driving–the three great fountains of inspiration.
Jim: You gotta do that book, Randy.
The 20-Minute Club
Randy: But I’ve also discovered that when I’m really angry at someone, that’s also a great source of inspiration. I used to tell myself, “Write your rage.” Meaning that if you find something that makes you angry, you can tap into that and say something deep. Of course, then you also have to tone it down a little, because raw rage is not all that interesting. It’s the thing that the rage drives you to say that’s interesting. Do you have an exercise to prime the pump and get you going?
Jim: For me, that binding, legal contract I signed with my publisher always seems to motivate … I think for many writers, the idea of completing a 90,000 word story is overwhelming. They see the hours and days and weeks in front of them and it becomes too daunting. The trick I used for myself was commit to writing just 20 minutes a day. That was it. I figured I could do anything for twenty minutes. Didn’t have to be good, no set word count, just give me twenty. I wrote the majority of my first book that way. So the exercise would be reduction to the ridiculous. For other writers it might be half an hour, others might say they can only do ten minutes. Great. Just do it. (And I probably should let you know that 20 often turned into 40 ‘cause I was having so much fun.)
Randy: That’s a powerful tool–setting the bar so low, making it so ridiculously easy, that you know you can jump it. Because once you’ve jumped it, you want to raise it a little and jump higher. And then you’re off and running.
Randy sez: This concludes the part of the interview on motivation. Let’s review the four key points Jim made that resonated with me:
- Writing a novel is a Big Project—an Everest. Don’t approach it like it’s a nothing-burger.
- Regret is the silent killer of the soul. Live your life so that your future self won’t regret what you didn’t do today.
- Writing is playing. If it’s not fun, then stop taking it so seriously and get back into making it fun.
- Set the daily bar low. 20 minutes. Or 500 words. Something so ridiculously easy that you can get started. Don’t be surprised if you jump FAR over that bar.