Some writers struggle through first drafts and thrive on revisions, but for those who don’t, staying motivated after the first draft can present a real roadblock in finishing a novel. However, there are a number of strategies you can use to maintain your motivation and keep going even when that motivation lags.
Many writers experience one of two emotions on finishing a preliminary draft. They may feel exhilarated, or they may feel empty. Some writers may feel a combination of these two things. However, the end result may be the same. When it comes to thoughts of revising, they may find their motivation lacking.
Anticipating this lack of motivation is one way of ensuring that you are able to combat it. If you are prepared ahead of time to expect a slump when contemplating a return to the novel you’ve just finished, you are more likely to be able to weather that slump than a writer who is blindsided by lethargy.
Another point to keep in mind is that the initial urge to set the novel aside is not a bad one. Once you’ve finished a draft, you shouldn’t pick it up later that same day or the next day or even later that week. It’s a good idea to let the novel sit for a week or even a few weeks. You’ve been very close to the work for a long time, and you need to gain some distance from it to do it justice.
Set a deadline
Perhaps you have anticipated a lack of motivation and given yourself a few weeks away from the work, but you do have to get back to it. Before you finish the first draft, take out a calendar and set a date to begin the revision. Within reason, you are the best judge of when that date should be. Someone who is truly tired of the book and never wants to look at it again might want to give themselves longer than a writer whose enthusiasm may be flagging but who already has some thoughts about the revision. You might choose a date that’s a week later or six weeks later, but don’t give yourself six months. If too much time passes, you may find it too difficult to return to the book at all.
Keep that appointment. As is often the case with exercise, half the battle is just getting out there. With a date set, you can’t keep pushing the revision ahead as something that you’ll start on tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, and so on.
You’ve anticipated a little bit of burnout and you’ve made an appointment with yourself to return to your novel. But now that you are sitting at your desk, how do you make yourself get started and stay with it until the end?
You can’t do anything until you know what it is that you need to do. You should start by reading over the book you’ve written. In addition to giving you a renewed sense of your story, this is an easy way to ease into your revision if you’re struggling with motivation.
In order to maintain that motivation, you need to do two things. First, notice what you’ve done right with the book. When you feel good about at least some parts of your novel, you are more likely to want to work on it.
Second, notice what you need to fix. On this first read-through, you don’t need to come up with detailed solutions unless something strikes you as are reading it. Make notes to yourself that give you a general idea of the work that you need to do. That might be on big problems with elements such as structure, plot or character, or you may find that the prose needs tightening most of all.
You get two motivational benefits from this. First, you have a concrete sense of what you need to do. Second, you can now set yourself a new deadline based on that knowledge. The deadline tells you that you won’t be revising in an endless slog. It gives you a goal to work toward. Choose a realistic deadline based on your overview of how much work is needed.
Starting to revise
At this point, it’s time to jump headlong into the revision, and again, you may
find yourself struggling with motivation. You need to identify why. Are you struggling with knowing where to begin and feeling daunted by the size of the task ahead of you? Are you simply feeling discouraged about your ability to shape your early draft into something you feel proud of? Perhaps there is another reason, but most likely it is a mental block rather than a sign that your novel is uniquely unsalvageable. It’s important to keep in mind that all writers feel this way sometimes and that your feelings at this stage are not a reliable measure of the worth of your novel.
However, you may still need some practical tools to get started. Here are three things you can do.
- Go back to your list of things you need to work on. Break them down into the smallest manageable steps that you can.
- Use a timer. Set it for a small amount of time such as 15 or 20 minutes, and tell yourself that you can stop after the timer goes off. Most likely, you will want to continue once you’re in the thick of the work, but even if you don’t, you’ve still done more work than if you simply sat fretting and unable to begin.
- Reward yourself. Whether it’s a glass of wine, a binge on your favourite TV show on DVD, an hour with a good book or something else, you’re no less of a writer if you sometimes have to dangle a carrot in front of yourself in order to remain motivated. No writer loves everything about writing all the time.
Maintaining through the middle
You’ve worked out what you need to do, and you’ve started working steadily, but suddenly, you find your motivation flagging again. If you had the typical middle-of-the-book doldrums during the first draft, you might remind yourself of that and how you pushed through them. Here are a few other ways you can keep your motivation high during this difficult stretch.
- Remind yourself that this is a difficult stretch. In the first draft, if you were stuck, you might have simply made some notes to yourself and skipped to the next section. In the revision, you must work out what happens in the sections you might have glossed over in the drafting process. If you feel like you are struggling, that’s no surprise. It doesn’t mean that you are doing something wrong.
- Talk to other writers. Support from others who understand what you are going through is invaluable. If you don’t know any writers, you can get plenty of support from going online. Forums at sites like Absolute Write andForward Motion offer friendly and helpful advice and support to writers at all levels of experience.
- Keep appointments with yourself. Just as you may have sat down to your initial draft many times when you did not feel inspired, you must do the same with your subsequent drafts. You may be heartened to find that on review, a lack of motivation often does not affect the quality of your work.
While revision is all about paying attention to detail, don’t get too mired in the middle. Think about the end point of your novel. Think about your ultimate goals. Imagine what the cover of your book might look like or what your readers and fans might say to you.
As you continue to revise your novel, you need to strike a balance between making your novel as good as it can be and knowing when to stop. Some writers tend to rush revisions because they do not enjoy this stage in the process; other writers can get stuck revising the same book over and over again. Keep in mind that the book that you write will never match the perfect book that is inside your head, and no amount of revision will get it there. On the other hand, the book you have written is actually better than the perfect book inside your head because it actually exists in the world.
Having readers becomes invaluable at the second draft stage and beyond. Be sure to choose readers who can offer thoughtful, constructive criticism. You need to learn how your book can be improved but not in a way that discourages you from continuing.
Motivation is something every writer struggles with, and your own lack of motivation says very little about the objective quality of your novel. By setting deadlines and smaller concrete goals, rewarding yourself, keeping your ultimate goals in mind and working with fellow writers, you can push yourself past those periods when you are unmotivated and revise your book until it is as good as it can be.
How do you keep yourself motivated to go on to that second draft and beyond?