Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How I Stay Motivated During the Tough Times

By Susan Dennard, @stdennard

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: No matter what stage of your writing career you're at, at some point you're going to lose steam and need a kick in the pants to get going again. Fatigue happens to everyone, but it doesn't have to keep us doesn't for long. Please help me welcome Susan Dennard to the lecture hall today to share a few tips on how she keeps going when times get tough.

Susan is a reader, writer, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She used to be a marine biologist, but now she writes novels–and not novels about fish, but novels about kick-butt heroines and swoon-worthy rogues. She lives in the Midwestern US with her French husband and Irish setter. Her latest book, Strange and Ever After, released this week. Her debut, Something Strange and Deadly, as well as the prequel, A Dawn Most Wicked, and the sequel, A Darkness Strange and Lovely, are available from HarperTeen.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound

Take it away Susan...

Sometimes life kicks us in the butt.

Sometimes our writing kicks us in the butt.

Sometimes they both conspire against us, kick us in the butt, steal our lunch money, and then stuff us in a locker.

Whenever this happens (and it always does, my friends), I turn to my writing arsenal.

Now, a writing arsenal goes beyond my usual tools--beyond my spiral-bound notebooks and Scrivener, beyond my character techniques and world-building tactics.

My writing arsenal is a collection of actually weapons. These are the guns I can call on at ANY time. These are the cannons I can turn to when I need to fight the good creative fight.

Weapon #1: Ritual and Routine

I have discussed ritual and routine so often by now, that I won't rehash. I’ll just shoot you to some to links:
Basically, rituals and routines will get you through even the toughest time. As Faulkner famously said: "I only write when I'm inspired. Fortunately, I'm inspired at 9 o'clock every morning."

And his words ring true. No matter what, I know that I’ll roll out of bed tomorrow, sit on my couch bed with my spiral-bound notebook (or my laptop), and write 1000 words. The words might be crap and I might throw out all of them, but they’ll be something.

A little bit of something every single day will eventually become a lot.

There is literally NOTHING you can do that will be more transformative for your writing career than to establish a daily ritual and a routine.


So get to it if you haven’t already. You will thank me one day. (grin)

Weapon #2: Binge-Reading

When I’m stressed, I have a problem with binge-eating sugar. Like, I will make a batch of cookies, eat half of the dough before I’m even done plopping them on the baking sheet, and then I’ll eat all the cookies as soon as they’re out of the oven.

This is no exaggeration.

Nor is it particularly healthy. But my need for “comfort food” can be helpful in a different way. How? Because in addition to binge-eating, I also binge-read. Maybe I’ll read old favorites or I’ll pick up new books from old favorite authors. Or, I’ll take some recs from my friends, librarians, Twitter feed and go from there.

What I don’t do is feel obligated to read something I don’t want. And I don’t feel guilty about “wasting time to read.” If the book hooks me and I want to finish it NOW instead of writing, then I do. Eventually, all those pages and varied genres and awesome stories will get my Muse thinking (unlike the cookies which give me a sugar crash).

In fact, what I often find is that something pretty magical happens: I’ll be craving more of a particular element but there won’t be a book like it on the shelves. So what do I do to fill my need? I write the book I want to read!

Weapon #3: Critique Partners & Creative Community

As with ritual/routine, I have harped about critique partners and early readers a LOT. So I’ll just share some links on the subject and move on.
Critique partners (Cps) or first readers (FR) can be SO helpful to your process (if you trust your CP/FR, that is). An enthusiastic reader can excite you to write, and their investment in the story keeps you, the writer, invested too.

Perhaps more importantly, though, a CP helps keep you on track. Sarah J. Maas and I alpha read for each other. She has read 3 different opening chapters for a new work-in-progress (WIP) of mine. The first attempt was a total bust (which she told me in no uncertain terms--just as I did for her one of her recent WIPs; sugarcoating is important, but honesty is even more important). My second Chapter 1 attempt was better--there were nuggets to the story that felt right, and she loved the world I was painting.

But it wasn’t until I sent her my third attempt that I got the telltale text-message: “THIS IS AMAZING OMG YOU NAILED IT.”

Getting that sort of feedback from her makes me SO EXCITED to write--and I know she feels the same when she gets those kind of comments from me. But most important of all: I don’t waste time writing the wrong story. Yes, I can still go astray, but I don’t waste 300 pages of a first draft that is all wrong-wrong-wrong.

I get my trajectory aimed from the start; I write from there.

Weapon #4: Failure from the Pros

Okay, that sounds weird, but I’ll explain: there is nothing that will make you feel better about your failures like finding out one of your heroes has been (or is going through) a similar slump.

For example, when I read the below quote from Louis Sachar about his INCREDIBLE novel Holes I felt a surge of kinship, respect, and self-confidence.
“I did five drafts for the novel, and since I was still making up the story as I wrote it, there was a lot changes from the first draft to the last. The first draft is hardly even recognizable.”
Oh my gosh, I thought, I’m just like him! I need multiple drafts to even figure out the story, and that’s OKAY. I’m not alone!

It was life-changing for me, and I read that quote at the perfect moment--smack-dab in the middle of my struggles with one of my projects, A Dawn Most Wicked.

I mean, creative work isn’t easy, but somehow I always forget that when I’m drafting. All I see is how easily other writers seem to draft their novels. How little they seem to have to work to get a book written. How many freaking books they can publish in a year…

But here’s the thing: everyone hits speedbumps.

Now, obviously we can’t all find serendipitous quotes like Sachar's, but luckily there are a few more readily available resources out there that might help (or that have helped me immensely):
Additionally, here are just a few of my blog posts and newsletters on fear and failure (I hope it’s not presumptuous of me to list my own stuff):
So there you have it guys. That’s my writing arsenal, and that's how I stay motivated through the tough times. I'd love to hear what you do!

About Strange and Ever After
It has been a tumultuous time for Eleanor Fitt since life as she knew it in Philadelphia came abruptly to an end. While the Spirit-Hunters—Joseph, Jie, and Daniel—have helped her survive her brother's violent death and an invasion of Hungry Dead, Eleanor has lost just about everything.

And now, Jie is missing—taken by the evil necromancer Marcus. Eleanor is determined not only to get her back but to finally end this nightmare. But to do so, she must navigate the hot desert streets of nineteenth-century Egypt amid the rising Dead, her unresolved feelings for Daniel, and her volatile relationships with Joseph and Oliver, her demon. And it won't be easy. Because Allison, her friend from Philadelphia, has tagged along, becoming strangely entangled in Eleanor's mission.

It will take all of Eleanor's powers of black magic, and all of Daniel's and Joseph's trust, to succeed. But there will be a price. People will have to suffer the consequences of what Marcus has done, and what Eleanor, Oliver, and the Spirit-Hunters will do to stop all this deadly chaos.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound


  1. Replies
    1. Ha! Yes! I spent the weekend binge-reading. Muse = refreshed!

  2. Very nice! I'm going through a slump right now... hate it. Have surgery and am watching kids during this last summer month so I don't have the 'alone time' you so properly point out as needed. I do however check into Fiction University every day and thank you for this article.

    1. I'm in a slump now too, Harry. Also having health-related stuff. It can be SO frustrating to watch one's productivity just slippppp away! But, thank goodness for some binge-reading and routine. ;)

  3. Binge reading really helped me through a tough spot this year. Great post. Thanks!

  4. I am saving this to look at when the writing gets impossible....or when I need a sympathy binge!

    1. Ha! I hope that never happens, but I'm glad this is here for you in case it does. ;)

  5. This is fantastic! I heard about you from @YAwordnerds, and I can't wait to read all the links of subjects you've already discussed!