Everyday routine. Come home, pull out my PACEs, pass over any Homework or Congratulations slips (business check sized slips of paper that either said, “Congratulations, your son/daughter passed her test with a 123 score” or told what pages we hadn’t gotten done that day and needed to be finished), and then get to work on that homework. In my family, that slip wouldn’t get signed if I didn’t get the homework done. That’s not how it was supposed to work, but my parents were experts at “additional motivation” so to speak.
One afternoon I’ll never forget. Must have been mid to late May or early June. That’s because our 18 ft. desert travel trailer was as hot as Hades—or so it felt. I distinctly remember feeling rather excited. Should have known better. But I’ve got one of those eternally springing hopers. Bounced all over the place waiting for mom to notice my math score.
We didn’t get letter grades. We got percentages. 80% or better and you passed. Under 80% and you had to do the entire workbook over. You had twelve workbooks per subject, so that was a significant amount of the year’s work to repeat. Any repetition was unacceptable in our family.
That score? 99%! I was so jazzed. You see, it was a really hard algebra PACE that I’d been sure I’d barely scrape by with. I’d struggled with almost every lesson, had to take a couple of the checkups twice, and the “self-test” (a practice test at the end)… yeah. Got an 81%.
Mom looked at the homework slip, nodded, and set it down in front of me. More of that “additional motivation.” Then she looked at the Congratulations slip. You know, now that I think of it, maybe she just didn’t know what the word “congratulations” meant! Hmm… Anyway, her words were, “Why isn’t 100%?”
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Seriously? I nearly cried. Instead, I told her how I’d missed two questions worth half a point each or whatever it was. It was MINOR. Maybe I forgot to write the answer on the actual line instead of on the “work through” area. I don’t know. Actually, I think that was it. So we’re talking 1 point gone for being so excited that I got it done and knew I did well with it that I forgot to write something down. In my mind, it was 100%.
She told me to be more careful next time and get my homework done.
Look, my parents aren’t ogres. Mom was great at being totally confident that I could do anything I set my mind to. For the record, she was wrong when I decided to try Chemistry. Just keepin’ it real. I failed. (Sorry, Clark). But they expected excellence.
But that isn’t the story I’m here to tell. That’s the prologue. The story is shorter. The next day or maybe it was a week later, I brought home another Congratulations slip. 100%—in English, I think. When I handed Mom that one, I needed to hear that “well done, thou good and faithful serv—” I mean, “Good job, kid!” What she actually said was:
“Why aren’t they all 100%?”
Yeah… that’s when they took that “additional motivation” just a step too far. That’s the day I gave up caring about the grade and went for “getting done” with school. I was just DONE.
Motivation comes in lots of forms, okay? Positive. Negative. And flipped.
What’s flipped? When you try to motivate one way (like Mom) and end up motivating in the wrong direction—or at least one you didn’t mean to.
What is motivation?
Google defines it as “the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.”
If you fear losing your job, that might motivate you to get up and get to work on time. If you love your job, it might, too. What Mom and Dad knew that I didn’t back then was that both positive and negative motivations work. So how does that play out for the author? Well…
There are both positive and negative motivators in the writing profession. We talked about a few in the podcast. On opposite extremes for me, I mentioned that getting emails from eager readers is very motivating for me—as is knowing that I have a book on pre-order that MUST be edited and uploaded by three days before publication. What happens if I don’t? Well, I break my contract with Amazon, and that incurs penalties not to mention disappoints those readers!
But not all authors have identical motivators. Still, there are a few that I bet most of us have at one time or another. Let’s get the negative over with first.
THAT teacher. He said you couldn’t write—that you’d never amount to anything. Well… do you really want to feel like you proved him… RIGHT? C’mon! This is true for any naysayer. The parent who isn’t a cheerleader (just an aside: mine are 10x more supportive of me than almost anyone else out there). The guy at work who “Could write a bestseller if he had the time” (Doesn’t he remind you of Lady Catherine de Bourgh… “and I would have been a true proficient—if I had ever learned”). The snooty neighbor. The cousin so full of herself and her accomplishments that she’s downright insecure about your choices in life.
Do you REALLY want to be a failure? Because if you never try… if you don’t give it a genuine effort, then you ARE. You’re not a failure if you give it all you’ve got and don’t make the NY Times Bestsellers List. That’s not failing. Not bothering to try? THAT is failing. So take that potential failure, when you need that negativity to drive you forward. Take it and USE it. Make it your tool instead of your master. Show IT who’s boss.
Oh, this one’s a good one. Maybe it’s like me with my putting up my book for pre-order when I only have 15K words into it right now… (so tempted to stop typing and DO that). If that won’t “coerce” me to get my rear in gear, I don’t know what will. Or maybe it’s like April’s “Write or Die” program or Clark’s “Stikk.com.”
Whatever it is—a wife who gets to spend 400 bucks you don’t have on an overpriced sack of leather with a label on it or sitting through six hours of Air Supply piped into your brain at decibels it was never intended to be listened to… Whatever it is. Make something MAKE you anxious to finish. Now. Because the alternative is worse.
Okay, if no other negative thing can get through to you, go watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Watch that father. See the guilt he piles on like olive oil on… well, everything? Yeah. Take some lessons, and get started in on yourself. “Your wife took the kids to the park in the sweltering heat/freezing cold/blasting wind (insert proper negative weather thing here—skip if you’re in a tropical paradise) so you could write. She’s miserable, but she loves you. And that’s your THIRD game of Minesweeper in fifteen minutes. Get to work!”
Use how Grandma isn’t getting any younger and wants to brag on her granddaughter’s literary genius. Or maybe you need to justify quitting your job to be a full-time writer. Maybe you just need to justify your existence (after all, this is the guilt thing, right?—don’t read this, Clark. After all, I can’t be alone in this. You said so!). So WRITE, dad burn it! WRITE!
Or, if you have enough negativity in your life (and who doesn’t have more than he or she needs?), maybe it’s time for a more positive approach.
With three negative, let’s do FOUR positive motivators.
C’mon. If accomplishing your goals doesn’t boot your self-respect, I don’t know what will. You did it. You wrote that synopsis, you found that agent, you finished that epic fantasy, you edited that novella! That feeling you know you’ll get when you get there? Use THAT to motivate. That feeling of, “Yeah. I got this. I can do this! Onto the next! Recall your last one and zero in on that one thing.
Okay, the easier way to put this is, “What’s in it for you?” Give yourself something you’re aching to have. “I can buy myself a Mini Cooper when I’ve sold six books.” That was my first one back when I thought I’d be doing traditional publishing. I never did revise for that. Whatever the revision would have been, I’ve more than met the equivalent. But, I have a new desire. So, I gave myself that—travel every year.
Maybe yours is a weekend away with the girls. Or, perhaps you’ve been dying to buy that one software that costs more than your kids’ braces (one can dream!). Whatever it is, set up that incentive, make milestones, and then use it to start reaching it!
Call it a great review, call it amazing feedback—call it praise. I don’t care. That positive feedback is enough for me. I love those emails, the reviews on blog tours, or whatever. I don’t care where they come from. When someone says, “Your work did something for me” that’s motivation enough. Knowing that might come keeps me going on days when I feel like all I write is garbage.
4. Family/Friend/Loved One.
Seriously, they’re a big motivator for me. While I don’t “write for the money” as some call it, it is a huge blessing. My husband wants to retire. When he does, that money aspect will be a huge part of my motivation. Right now, getting him to the place where he feels confident that he can retire without worrying—that’s the motivator. When I wonder how I’m going to get it all done, I think about how many times my husband has gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to go to work when he’d rather be home with us. And I open that next document. I write that next line. The next… and then the next… whether it’s a word, a scene, a book, or a series, I just keep going. Because he’s worth it.
So when you’re flagging and really don’t think you can write another word. Get up. Do some stretches. Take a walk around the block. Come back to your desk or your corner of the couch, and consider which motivator you need today. And focus on it.
Then get to work.