If you happen to be feeling very motivated and enthusiastic about your story, then sitting down and writing it isn’t going to be a problem.
When you’re writing as fast as you can and all synapses are firing you really don’t need any particular structure or technique to your process. You write until you can’t write anymore, and then you get up the next day and do it again.
In a perfect world with plenty of free time and no distractions there would be no excuse for not getting those words onto the page. But things don’t always work out that way and most of us find plenty of reasons to give up and watch TV instead.
One method you might find useful if, like me, you’re not always delighted by the prospect of sitting at the computer with no end in sight, is to set yourself deadlines. Not just one, but many.
Of course, when things are going well and the words are flying out of your fingertips things like deadlines don’t really matter. But when it becomes a bit of a slog or when distractions are leaving you little time or energy, it doesn’t take much to convince you to give up.
In the real world deadlines work on the basis of reward/punishment. If you’re being paid to get work done by a certain date you’ll find that kind of transaction very motivating. Also effective, though maybe not quite as pleasant, is when you have to do get something done to avoid a negative outcome, for example handing in homework on time.
Both of these approaches rely on the brain’s inclination to want to hit targets put in front of it. And we can use this tendency to fool the brain into doing what we want.
I don’t know if this happens to you, but I’ve found that the brain isn’t always as cooperative as it could be. Sometimes, for no reason, you may find writing a struggle. You have the idea, you like the idea, you want to write the idea, but it just seems such a long process and the end is so very far away...
Setting yourself a deadline, even if it’s completely arbitrary, can actually make a difference. Having a definite goal to aim for tricks the brain into switching into ‘get it done’ mode. And it is a trick. You don’t get a prize for hitting your target, and there are no penalties for failing, but by simply creating an end point you can engage your brain’s natural tendency to want to cross the finish line.
NaNoWriMo is a good example of this sort of thing in action.
However, there are some downsides to this approach.
While it can certainly give you the motivation to keep going until you hit the finish line, it can also feel like the end, sapping you of any desire to keep going. You push yourself to beat the timer and be a winner, and then you collapse in a heap and the manuscript gets shoved in a drawer to languish.
Alternatively, things might not go as planned and you don’t manage to finish within the allotted time. There’s no reason why you couldn’t keep going, but missing that deadline makes you lose all momentum. You feel like you failed and there’s no point continuing to run when the race is over.
So how can you use deadlines to your advantage and avoid the pitfalls?
The simplest approach I have found is to not have just one deadline.
That feeling of finality a single deadline can give you is a powerful motivator and feels great when reached, but it isn’t a genuine reflection of where you are in the process.
If you split up the work into sections you can create multiple deadlines. Those sections can be for chapters or different drafts or for different stages like critique, revisions, submissions, etc. How you break it up will depend on how you work, but the advantage of having a bunch of deadlines is twofold.
First, you trick the brain into wanting to achieve a goal by a certain date without making it feel final. You get the benefit of hitting your target, but still have the mental attitude necessary to transition from one phase to the next.
Second, if you don’t hit the deadline you have room to make adjustments. You can extend the deadline for one section and shorten it for another, avoiding the demoralising feeling of the end getting further and further away.
You may be thinking, but how do I know what the right length of time is to set myself, but that’s the beauty of setting your own deadlines, it doesn’t matter. The whole thing is just a way to trick your brain into doing what you want (whether the brain feels inclined to cooperate or not). And like most psychological tricks you don’t really want to think too much about it or the whole thing falls apart. The important thing is to set the goals and then go after them, your brain will fall for it every time and do the rest. Stupid brain!
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