Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Finding the motivation

A writer friend of mine, about to embark on another re-write of his current manuscript, posed the following question to a group of fellow authors: What techniques do you use to motivate yourselves when you're rewriting the same book for the umpteenth time? How do you summon up the enthusiasm to do a great job rather than just churning out the words? It’s a good question.

Most published authors go through many revisions before a manuscript is ready. Each time, the book gets better – the story clearer and stronger. It’s a myth that great writers get it right first time. When asked why he re-wrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, Ernest Hemingway replied that he was simply “Getting the words right.”

But it can be hard, if you’re revisiting a scene for the third, fourth or even the thirty-ninth time, to stay fresh and do a great job, rather than just churning out the words. If I find myself in this position then the first thing I have to do is ignore the impulse to just get it done and out of the way. To do this, I tell myself that the scene I’m revising is actually a new idea – a short story perhaps – and try to conjure that tingle of excitement of something fresh waiting to be told. Not easy, but I've found a few tricks that help. 

First I try to forget what I’ve done before and see if there’s a way I can tell the story from a different angle. I need to find a way to entertain me while I write, because a leaden hand produces dead words. Maybe I can set the scene in a different location, somewhere more unusual, funnier, scarier. Is there anything else that could happen to add a bit of life and colour? A cameo character or background action that will add an dash of the exotic, an element of danger, or humour. If two characters need to have a conversation in order to move the action along, can this conversation occur in a different way? Via mobile phones with intermittent reception perhaps, or scribbled notes passed under the glance of an adversary, or written in the steam on a window, or even shouted through a toilet door? 

The key is to find something that will re-awaken my interest, my excitement in the scene, so I can't wait to tell it. Usually all I need is something to get me started. Once the words begin to flow, the story takes over and if I’m lucky, the magic happens. 

Failing that, a bribery/reward system works a treat. A large pot of tea and one shortbread finger (substitute your own guilty pleasure here) for every 500 words works for me.


  1. Why stop at a large pot of tea? Chocolate all the way! Nice post, Dave - glad you toldus about it on SCBWI - I'll add you to the blog list on the NIng!

  2. Thanks Candy. Yeah, the odd square of Cadbury's Bourneville has been known to accompany me to the loft on occasions.

  3. My motivation technique while rewriting is usually telling myself: "Don't die and leave this book less than the best it could possibly be."

    Very morbid. Very effective!

    Joe Craig

  4. I can see how that would work Joe. Only now I'm starting to worry about all those early novel attempts and half finished stories stored away in boxes in the corner of the loft …