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Ulterior Motivations

 

In the writing life there are two kinds of motivation. One is the kind that gets you to apply your backside to a chair and get some writing done every day. The other kind is the reason why your characters do the things they do. Both motivations can be difficult at times, but let’s start with the more basic: why do you write?

Most fiction writers, it seems, like to be read. Writing for yourself is interesting but not ultimately satisfying, so if you write for publication the communication continuum is complete. Editors give you feedback, reviewers give you thumbs up. You hear from readers, they like your novel, they hate it, whatever. They read it. Fifteen years ago I would hear successful writers talk about their “brand.” You still hear this, about branding yourself. Back then they said it with a touch of regret. “I write about this character, that’s the brand.” This usually meant their publisher wanted only their series books, a known quantity, and didn’t want them to veer off into the unknown. Stick with success, baby. Don’t mess it up. Since a significant amount of money is riding on that success, for both writer and publisher, everybody’s happy if the brand is continued. These writers are motivated by their own success. They worry about doing better on this book than the last. They worry about their publisher turning sour on them. They worry about their next three-book contract.

Actually I have no idea what they worry about because I am not one of those writers. So I’m not motivated to write by the contract deadline. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a good living as a bestselling writer! But I find it a bit sad when writers refer to their books as their products and their career as their brand. Writing is so personal. (Good writing anyway.) It comes from a place you don’t even understand, the subconscious, and informs your story in ways that are surprising and sometimes even magical. If you are pre-determined to write about a specific character ad nauseum, doesn’t this take away from the joy of writing? (This is probably why I no longer have a New York publisher!)

What motivates a writer when there is no one clamoring for that next book? Your love of the process. For me writing a novel is like  putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle whose picture is fuzzy. As some of the parts come together the picture clears up. But then other pieces don’t fit with that part so you take it apart and start over. Novel-writing is an organizational challenge, and a big challenge it is. If you like to see the big picture, work out how to make sense of characters’ actions, think hard and then re-think and re-think, then novel writing is for you. If you’re in love with words, write poetry. If you want to write about a slice of life, a moment or a day, write a short story.

 

It can be extremely frustrating to write a novel, especially if you’re trying to do something new. And (you knew this by now) I don’t like the old. If I’ve conquered a type of novel, at least in my own mind, I want a bigger challenge. I want to dig deeper. Every novel I write touches me in a new way, makes me see the world afresh. I don’t know why you would be a writer if you didn’t have your own ulterior motives for writing. Mine is to see life from a different angle, to explore what it means to be a human being in a certain place and time, to figure out what’s going on inside my own head and my own heart.

Which leads us to the second motivational challenge, getting characters to act in a way that appears rational. If characters have no motivation to do certain things, your story falls apart. Back to the drawing board. This is another hurdle you have to cross yourself. Good prep work can solve most of these problems. If you outline, make sure the seeds of important actions are planted early on. If you’re a pantser like myself, fill your notebooks with the wanderings of your mind, figure out what sort of person would do whatever it is they must do. (Being a pantser doesn’t mean you can just sit down and start a novel without figuring it out ahead of time. It just means every part of the novel isn’t figured out.)

It’s a great journey, writing a novel. Enjoy the trip.

Lise McClendon’s new novel, All Your Pretty Dreams, is a twist on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It comes out August 15.

 

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