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The science of motivation -- by Philip Kramer

Like many writers, I have trouble staying motivated. Usually this problem manifests when my obligations mount, and my time does not feel my own. When I do manage to tackle an item on my to-do list, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction spurs me on to the next with renewed determination.

That feeling of pleasure and satisfaction is the result of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, which is released in the midbrain. This Mesolimbic pathway is otherwise known as the reward pathway, which reinforces the positive behavior and encourages me to ‘want’ to be more productive. It is a process critical to reward-based learning and the survival of our species.

This feeling is far more rewarding if the task I wish to complete is something I am passionate about. Take a whole novel for instance. I completed my first novel while sitting in a coffee shop. While the other quiet patrons may have observed a man leaning back in his chair for a lengthy stretch, I was, in fact, covertly raising my fists into the air in triumph.  Of course, the feeling did not last long, not when I realized how much work still needed to be done, but I set to it with renewed vigor.

Here are some tips to help you complete your works in progress (WIPs).

Use baby steps.

It’s important to work up to your larger goals, and not tackle them head-on. Standing before a mountain is far more daunting than taking it one ridge at a time. You can think of a novel as a series of scenes or short stories with each chapter an accomplishment in itself. Motivation will build as more and more of these accomplishments pile up. You can give yourself additional rewards for reaching these milestones, like a night at the movies or a particular food you enjoy. This will positively reinforce the hard work you’ve done up until that point.

But sometimes, the rewards stop working, in which case, you are officially an addict. Like all addicts, it takes a little extra reward to get the same sense of pleasure. Many drugs target dopamine or mimic it in some way, leading to this same dopamine resistance and withdrawal symptoms. With planning, you can slowly build up the writing rewards, making each better than the last until you’ve completed the novel. For the record, I do not advise taking actual drugs.

Find a routine.

Momentum is inarguably the best way to get somewhere and to keep moving once you’ve arrived. Seeing your word count rise day after day, will not only keep you motivated, but keep the creative juices from stagnating. Setting a routine for yourself, one that matches your own pace, will help you speed through the process. However, it’s important not to take on more than you can handle, or you can quickly burn out, and the act of completing your novel will seem more an obligation than an aspiration. Take NaNoWriMO, for instance. I’ve heard from many writers that the month is indeed motivating, but can leave you never wanting to look at that particular novel again.

Gain some perspective.

Oftentimes we need validation, assurance that the success we are striving for is in fact momentous, worthwhile, and anticipated by our peers and loved ones. The more worth you pile onto your WIP, the more liberated and accomplished you will feel by the end of it. So it’s okay to daydream about all the success you're going to have, even if those dreams are unlikely to come true.

It’s also important to surround yourself with people who are invested in the outcome of your novel, who can make your hard work feel appreciated, and who encourage you to write more. If you are looking for critiques for your writing, it’s sometimes best to wait until the novel is complete. If a less that positive critique comes back, it can make all your hard work feel pointless and a waste of time. If you still want critiques before you finish, it’s important to ask your critiquers to tell you what you’re doing right. It isn’t in peoples’ nature to dole out praise, but if it’s honest, it is equally if not more helpful than constructive criticism.

Piggyback on a troll.

This is not an actual literary term, but one I made up for lack of a better way to illustrate the concept.

If you need more motivation to complete your WIP, make it a secondary goal to something much more important to you, such as your sense of ethics, values, or loved-ones. Most of us are easily motivated to right a perceived wrong, deal out justice, or confront someone/thing that has offended us or our sense of morality.

And this is where the troll comes in. If you don’t know about trolls, I will do my best to summarize it. Trolls are people who post hateful or inflammatory comments on the internet or other form of media just to elicit an emotional response. Most of the time, trolls just want attention. You can spot a troll’s blog, for example, by the sheer number of outraged comments they have following each post. They love drama. For the record, I have zero respect for trolling, but I make an exception if the only one you are offending is yourself. If you set up your WIP with a moral challenge or dilemma for your characters, you can often trick yourself into seeing the story through to the end just to make sure it ends satisfactorily, and that justice is done. In short, troll yourself. Of course, this works best when you don’t work from a concrete outline and have to discover how the story ends by writing it.

Believe in yourself.

I felt like this post was about to take a turn down cheesy lane when I typed this section’s title, but it bears repeating. If you don’t believe you can do something, you will not have the motivation to try. If, for example, you don’t think you can learn a language, you are never going to attempt it. Again, it is important to surround yourself with people that believe in you. If a boost in confidence is all that stands between you and finishing your WIP, don’t be afraid to fish for compliments or hang whatever awards you've ever recieved on your wall.

Finish your work.

This is the last and most important point. Don’t expect to be swept up by motivation halfway through a draft. It is almost always going to fail at some point and become a slow slog to the finish line, but it’s an important line to cross. Once you’ve experienced the pleasure of completing your first book, you will have gained all the confidence you need to start your second.


Please leave a comment and share your own tips on how to stay motivated and finish your WIP.


This post was modified from the original post on my blog. This post's image was created by me.

Posted by Philip Kramer 4 May 2017 at 01:58
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Responses to this blog

Chaskell 4 May 2017 at 10:17  
Love the Piggyback on a Troll suggestion. It should be a literary term. Well-convceived and original.
My personal favorites are routine (M-F 5am-8 am) and giving myself praise for hitting baby step goals, instead of waiting two years to self-congratulate for a novel.
Bethanne80 5 May 2017 at 06:57  
"Piggyback on a Troll" is an amazing phrase and I love the idea. (I agree, we should make it an actual literary term.) Great post!
Damotclese 6 May 2017 at 18:44  
Hey! It's Philip Kramer! I thought you were dead. In fact I wrote an article about you that was published in Skeptic Magazine:

"Iron Butterfly Member Disappears After Allegedly Working on Faster-Than-Light Communication - Is He In A Godda Da Vida?", Skeptic (U.S. magazine), 1996.

So I'm somewhat surprised to see you still breathing.

Actually yeah, I know you're a different Philip Kramer. That was long ago and I think I still own copyright on the thing, but here it is, in case you never saw this. Funny how one's name can be famous for dying strangely, isn't it?

Washington Post picked up my article and write their own:

Pak1987 6 May 2017 at 19:09  
Damotclese- very interesting. Comes with having a common name I guess. I was thinking about coming up with a pen name since there are some other authors by that name, but I might just go with P A Kramer. I just learned that Philip K Dick had a fictional character named Philip Kramer in Mr. Space Ship.
Author's website and blog.

Follow me on Twitter [at]PhilipKramer9

Damotclese 6 May 2017 at 20:30  
Amusing. Okay, NotSoOldHippy sent you a Follow.

Yeah, I was able to interview Senator James Traficant before his last round of felony indictments for accepting bribes (and name one politician who doesn't!) drove him out of public office, he was profoundly insane and, talking with some of his staffers, everybody knew he was insane, some were worried enough to speak with Federal prosecutors, not just felonious bribery but some pretty hideous racism issues that the clown expressed among his staffers.

His worry that Philip Kramer had been abducted by space aliens or by the Soviets was maybe understandable given the Senator's abject anti-science Republican stupidity, a stupidity coupled to a measure of willful ignorance that at the time was considered "stunning" but which is considered "typical" among today's dimwitted politicians.

You might remember "The Celestine Prophecy" written by James Redfield. It seems likely that Traficant had read the novel and believed it was science, not fantasy, so when Philip Kramer and his father attempted to sell quack pseudo-science nonsense to the gullible rubes of the Department of Defense or Department of energy, Traficant believed it, swallowing it hook, like, sinker, rod, and reel.

Rellrod 10 May 2017 at 17:12  
Great points, Philip — right on target.

Steve169 12 May 2017 at 16:07  
I find when I hit a roadblock the only thing that helps is to just KEEP writing. Inspiration usually comes and then you can go back and read what you have written during your "blockage." Then leave it or re write.
Paigecody 26 Jun 2017 at 05:49  
very helpful!

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