Motivation Is Not the Problem

Recently, a gentleman new to my neighborhood posed a question that every writer must grapple with at some point.

Over the last few months, our interactions have mostly been of the greet-in-passing variety, until recently, when he stopped me and asked an important question.

“How do you find the motivation to write the next book?”

He seemed genuinely flummoxed, and it wasn’t as if he’d never finished a book. He was published and knew which book came next. He just couldn’t seem to find the gumption to write it.

We didn’t have more than a few seconds to talk that time, so I tossed out some suggestions as my family pulled me along. (Deadlines can work wonders, I told him. So can accountability partners.)

His question has been percolating in my head ever since, and a recent phone call that reconnected me with a high school friend brought it to fore yet again. Turns out that she’s a writer too, struggling to finish that first novel.

At first glance, the two wouldn’t seem to have much in common. One is a man, the other is a woman. He’s in the business world, and he has an empty nest and grandchildren. She’s a mom with several children spanning elementary school to the teen years. He’s published. She’s not yet.

Yet when you look closer, they’re facing the same challenge.

Unlike the original question he posed, I don’t think the issue is about motivation at all.


What IS the actual issue, then?


Fear vs Motivation - TTOF

Chances are, they fear slightly different things, but many of the fears probably overlap and relate to whether they can do the work at all.

Likely fears for him:

What if my next book is terrible? What if I can’t replicate the quality of my first one? Maybe it was a fluke. What if this new topic isn’t something anyone cares about but me? What if it won’t sell at all? What if it gets horrible reviews? What if people hate it so bad that it ruins my career as a public speaker, and I get booed off the stage?

Likely fears for her:

If I finish the book, I’ll have to try to sell it—and it’ll get rejected. What if it never gets accepted? I like what I have so far, but maybe I’m too close to it and it all really sucks. What if the next scene I write turns out monumentally awful and ruins the whole thing? What if I write the book, and it sells, but then I end up with this successful career but totally neglected kids?

Realistic Fears

Some of fears have at least some basis in reality. For example, if you look for an agent and publisher, you will get rejected at some point, often many times. It’s inevitable. Even NY Times bestsellers get rejected—after becoming NY Times bestsellers. Rejection is part of the game. And you will get bad reviews. Everyone does.

(For fun and/or comfort: Look up your favorite book of all time on Goodreads. Chances are, it has bad reviews. Yes, even Pride and Prejudice, which has 56,007 1-star reviews as of this writing.)

Those kinds of fears are part of the war zone that is the writing industry. Those fears are based in reality. They’re job hazards that require writers to develop thick skins.

But they’re not a reason to avoid the work.

Unrealistic Fears

If he wrote one great book that helped a lot of people, and another idea for a great book came to him that he was quite sure would help people too, he can do it again. Granted, in the middle of the project, you’ll probably think the first time was a total fluke. Just know to expect that.

In her case, if she’s worried that her children will be neglected, chances are awfully good that she’s a great mom and will absolutely make sure that they’re cared for, no matter how successful she becomes. (And yes, fear of success is a real thing too.)

What if her next scene totally sucks? That’s what revision is for. And no, a single bad scene isn’t going to ruin an entire manuscript. We’re used to reading polished books that have been thoroughly edited and proofed (by many people, in several developmental stages), but then we compare those polished pieces to the drek coming out of our fingers as first drafts.

Remember Anne Lamott’s advice (paraphrasing for a family-friendly readership):

The only way she can get any writing done at all is to let herself write really, really, really crappy first drafts.

Fear Affects All Writers

The brilliant Neil Gaiman has talked about how once he called his editor and said that the book he was working on (Anansi Boys, I believe) was a mess and wouldn’t work, and he had to trash the whole thing and on and on. The editor’s response? Laughter, followed by something like, “Oh, you reached that part of the book.”

He was taken aback and asked what she meant. Turns out that he’d made the same phone call bemoaning the very same kinds of things at about the 75% mark with every book they’d worked on together.

Of course, every time, the book turned out great. He hadn’t seen the pattern because he’d been mired in the trenches.

If fears (or Imposter Syndrome, or perfectionism, or whatever it you want to call it) rears its ugly head, acknowledge it. Yes, it IS hovering just out of sight, ready to pounce. That knowledge can help you fight it off when (not if) it strikes again.

Fear can briefly paralyze even Neil Gaiman. You’re in good company. That is, if you push past it.


Some Truths:

FEAR is part of the process.

FEAR lies.

FEAR will say anything to get you to stop writing.

Why? Because fear is the single easiest weapon Resistance has in its arsenal—an arsenal created entirely to stop you from doing the work. If it can lob a single fear grenade and blow up your project, it totally will.

If you’re too afraid to do the work, Resistance has already won. And it gets to claim victory by hardly lifting a finger.

You’re stronger than that. You have to fight.

Being aware forearms you but won’t actually win the battle for you. The only way to vanquish fear (this time) is to sit down and actually do the scary work.

Next time, you’ll have sit down and do the scary work again.

And next time.

I’ll write more about Resistance in another post soon, but for now, look at your fears and put them into perspective:

  • Are your fears based on real things? Some are, such as fear of rejection. Find a way to stare down that fear and do the hard stuff anyway. Write that next chapter and set aside worries about queries for now. One step at a time.
  • If the fears are NOT real, climb out of the pit and take a good look at the landscape, as Neil Gaiman was able to do after his editor pointed out that he gets caught in the same trap every time . . . but he finds a way out of it, too.


Just Do It.

Write in spite of a palpitating heart.

Write even when you’d rather have bamboo shoved under your nails.

Write when a friend just sent you a link to an awesome TED talk.

Write when you’d rather be on Facebook and Twitter.

And if you need specific ideas for conquering your fears, check out THIS POST from our own Rosalyn Eves.

To my neighbor, here’s my real answer:

You don’t find motivation to write your next book.

You realize that the problem isn’t motivation; it’s fear.

Then you write the book in spite of your fears, typing even as they sling arrows and doubt and terror at you. 

You write, one word after the other, until you’re done.

As Neil Gaiman says, it’s that easy. And that hard.

head-shot-annette-lyon-croppedAnnette Lyon is a USA Today bestselling author, Whitney Award winner and League of Utah Writers winner of several publication awards, including the Silver Quill. She has won Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction five times. When she’s not writing, knitting, mothering, or eating chocolate, she’s typically ignoring the spots on the kitchen floor and binge watching Gilmore Girls. She has four kids and a Siamese flame-tipped cat with an attitude. She (Annette, not the cat) is represented by Heather Karpas at ICM Partners. Check out her newest book, SONG BREAKER, a retelling of a Nordic fairy tale.

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