Why are you writing that? Motivation and passion

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen a lot of posts about writing inspiration and writing motivation. How to make yourself motivated to write. How to keep your motivation to write. How to hit a daily word count. How to become invested in your writing. How to not become distracted. You get the picture.

Like most issues about writing, the problem, to me, comes not from any minute problem, but the stem. The root of it. And some of you may not like this answer.

Maybe you’re writing the wrong story.

This might seem ridiculous. Why would anyone not write what they want to write? Only, a lot of these same people struggling with motivation seem to feel obliged to write in certain tones, genres and styles, that there’s a definite, convenient, one-size fits all answer to all things writing. A quick glance at any writing forum on reddit solicits the following, or similar posts:

“How do I outline?”

“How do I end the story with a battle?”

“How do I write an epic fantasy?”

“How do I write a ranger/bounty hunter/soldier?”

“How do I write humour?”

“How do you write a plot twist?”

“How to I make my story interesting?”

And so on.

These aren’t bad questions. They’re wrong questions. You outline if outlining works for you. You end your story with a battle if it serves your story. You write epic fantasy if you like and read the genre enough to build your career on it. You write a ranger or a bounty hunter if you want to write one.

Based on years of partaking in writing communities, reading and editing slush, working with critiques, I get the feeling a some newer writers don’t want to write what they’re writing. Or they’re writing what they think they should be writing. They’re writing what they’ve read over the years, reworking elements of favourite genres, following the preconception of narrative beats, without adding their own flairs and passions. It becomes a puzzle, an obligation, so preoccupied with getting definitive, simple answers they forget to enjoy the process. Hence the struggle with being motivated.

I think this is true because I did this myself. I wrote two fantasy novels, one young adult, one adult, the latter I stopped writing at 35k, the first I finished and absolutely hated writing. I wrote them, filled them with the usual genre suspects of modern fantasy (council meetings, bitter politicking, mysterious powers, etc) because I thought fantasy sold better, that’s what fantasy had to be like. It took me two failed novels, being put off reading epic fantasy altogether, and years of frustration and lack of motivation to figure out where the problem stemmed: I was writing what I thought I had to write. Not what I wanted to write.

That, to me, is the antithesis of creating good fiction, and the leading cause in lacking motivation.

I didn’t have a single motivation problem writing STORMBLOOD. I’d blast out 3000-4000 words a session on my free days, and even the days I was on the day job I’d be eager to come home and resume my characters’ adventures. I didn’t stop to think whether or should I could tell a story like this. I didn’t care if I could mix cyberpunk noir and space opera, didn’t consider whether a debut author could do first-person space opera, whether my protagonist was too emotional, whether you could use flashblacks, have aliens that spoke English, set your story on an asteroid, have modern cultures and languages mixing with spaceships and railguns.

I told the story I wanted to tell. If I felt like adding some action, I would. If I wanted to up the danger, I would. If I wanted to have a slower, more emotional, fleshed-out scene, I would.

I wrote what I wanted to wrote. And so everything flowed naturally.

Some days are better than others, of course, and getting my butt in chair and actually writing words can take longer than I’d like. But, not a single word of STORMBLOOD, or the sequel I’m currently writing, has been forced or needed extra motivation. Because I decided to tell the story I wanted to tell and filled it with things that inspired me, not things I felt I had to include.

Again, based on what I’ve seen over the years, I think some writers feel they’re obliged to use certain tropes, or use archetypes they’ve seen over the years. Writing a space opera? You’ve got to include a space battle, especially at the start. Scribbling a crime noir tale? Sleazy neon-dunked streets are mandatory, as are long, jargon-heavy slang with corrupt policemen and gangsters. Writing a dark story? Everyone, especially the main characters, have to be unlikeable twats, and lots of bad things happen. Penning an epic fantasy? You have to include bards , heavy politicking and council room scenes, a besieged kingdom. And, of course, dragons.

Except, you don’t.

You really, really don’t.

Tropes and genre trappings exist, sure. But they’re not always the best choice, and they’re definitely not necessary. The beauty of genre fiction means you can write whatever you want. Whatever. It’s not so much about what does and doesn’t work, it’s whether or not it feels right. If you’re consistently forcing yourself to write, even if it’s the occasional scene, to me that’s a fundamental problem not with your motivation, but with your story.

Whenever I’ve got to write “council room” scenes, or meeting scenes, I get bored and uninspired. Why force yourself through it? Instead, write something cool. More bizarre technology, more action scenes, more conflict, more dramatic things happening to your protagonists. Set a building on fire, throw a shocking twist in the plot, have one of the important characters kidnapped. Why?

Why not?

Seriously. Who’s saying you can’t?

I wrote STORMBLOOD for its character-driven conflict, emotional turmoil, cool world-building, exploration of weird technology, and sense of wonder and mystery. Those are the things I love immersing myself in. So I put them in every scene. I don’t write filler; I don’t write scenes that serve no purpose other than to build up to the next. It’s a waste of time and space I could be using to introduce a new alien species, or flesh-out a character more. So I’m never lacking motivation because every scene I write motivates me. Every scene has something that’s cool or interesting to me, which is very deliberate.

Whatever you’re writing: be it an action-packed thriller, a slow-burn tombstone fantasy, or anything on the scale: do right by it, and do right by yourself.

You’ll see that a lot of us authors who have book deals or published work don’t spend countless hours crippled with indecision over what to write or how to write it or where to start. We just write. We don’t think too hard about it, we just do it, because it comes naturally.

So, if you’re struggling with motivation, or finding it a challenge to start writing, or continue writing, maybe take a long, hard look at what you’re writing. Are you finding it fun? Is the protagonist someone you enjoy spending time with? Are the side-characters people you want to continue exploring? Are the scenes you write exciting to you? Does the world you’ve created compel you to return to it? Is the central conflict interesting to you? Are you writing in the right genre? Are you comfortable with your tone? Your PoV? Are you content with first/third person? Are you absolutely, totally happy to be spending weeks, months, years, telling this story?

If the answer to any of these, or similar questions, is a no, perhaps your motivation problem isn’t you, it’s your story.

I’ve found the adage of write what you know to be dreadfully wrong. It should be write what you’re passionate about. Because passion and enthusiasm will become imbued in your narrative as you write it, and it will help sell your book.

Because it helped sell mine.

And maybe it’ll help sell yours, too.

 

 

Deadlines and Cakes

There’s a certain kind of vindication from signing a three book deal. Especially when it comes from someone like Gollancz, who are in many ways of the leading publishers of science-fiction and fantasy. If they believe my book is good enough to sit on their shelf alongside titles by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Joe Abercrombie and Terry Pratchett, then, really, who I am to say otherwise?

The publishing climate being what it is, any book that gets picked up by a major publisher has been to be polished until it shines, and then polished some more. It takes effort, time, concentration, and discipline. And once you’ve signed up for a trilogy, you sort of have to do it again. And again. And suddenly, writing’s not quite as carefree and enjoyable as it once might have been.

I wrote STORMBLOOD in just over six months. It wasn’t all rainbows, but it was fun. Head down to my favourite writing spot at the beach with my laptop, slam out 3000-4000 words a session, spending half a dozen leisurely hours building my world. Carefree as eating another slice of cake. The only deadlines were my own, and the only editor was my internal one. Now, with actual money and contracts involved, things aren’t quiet as easy. Less so when, from today, this book that I’m writing is due to be published in less than 18 months. The first draft isn’t even halfway done, and the deadline’s already looming.

Dead. Line. Even the name sounds a wee bit ominous.

Fact of the matter is: you’ve got to treat it like a job, because it is. And you’ve got to be disciplined and putting in the hours. Which I can do (he said, grumbling). It’s finding the careful balance between pleasure and pain, work and leisure, craft and chore, that’s the problem. And then there’s the pressure. An enormous amount of pressure to get it right. It’s less easy to hit your daily wordcount when a little voice in the back of your head’s chattering away that every character, plot twist, character arc, name, location, set-piece, description, hell, every word you’re writing is going to be ingrained into the narrative forever (nevermind that, y’know, you can always edit straight after) and you’d better get it right.

So. Yeah. It’s not easy. But that’s what I signed up for, and I’m going to see it through. In a year’s time, when Book 2 is complete, if I’m not touting grey hair, ink-stained fingertips and gazing into the horizon with a glazed over expression, you can assume it went well.

 

 

A Statement regarding STORMBLOOD

I’ve had a few people inquire about my upcoming debut novel, STORMBLOOD, in regards to its genre and the audience it’s appealing to. Mainly if STORMBLOOD is a horror novel, or belongs in the horror genre, and if not, what genre is does belong to.

I wanted to clarify this by stating that STORMBLOOD isn’t a horror novel, it is not a body horror novel, nor does it have elements of the horror genre. It’s a space opera that combines a widescreen, future setting with elements of mystery, noir, and police procedural. The emphasis is on exuberance with a strong element of wonder, combined with a broodish, (slightly) cynical voice with a dry and ironic sense of humour.

Literary legend J. Cuddeon defines a horror story as “a piece of fiction… which shocks, or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing” (his words, not mine). That’s not the sort of thing I’m interesting in reading or writing, especially for a novel-length work. I write what I want to read. Simple as that. At the end of the day, fiction that induces “repulsion or loathing” isn’t my cup o’ tea. I like a good thrill as much as anybody, but that comes from narrative tension. Mood and tone are a different kettle of fish, and fiction that “repulses” isn’t something I want, or even know how to do.

In writing STORMBLOOD, I wanted there to be an element of danger, of tension, but I also worked hard to instill a sense of exuberance. A sense of wonder. I want the reader to encounter kilometre-long spaceships and different alien species and brain-bending gadgets and get a kick out of the scope and the coolness of it. To marvel at the idea of entire cosmopolitan, urban cities nestled inside a hollowed-out asteroid larger than the moon, of AIs with animal brains, neural-links, three-dee printers, etc.

To follow the complication of narrative leads with a twisting, looping plot. I want there to be a sense of adventure, of progress. To be in the same vein as space opera authors like  Ken Macleod, Cj Cherryh, Iain M. Banks, Hannu Rajaniemi and Alastair Reynolds: instilling a sense of adventure and progress, solving a mystery while encountering byzantine technology and brain-bending concepts against the backdrop of a widescreen, very futuristic, very cool setting. It’s what I’ve been reading all my life, so it’s only natural I took the same literary lifeblood and distilled it into my own writing.  It’s an exuberant, character-driven space opera, and this is going to be reflected in all marketing, covers, etc.

As it is, my publisher has described STORMBLOOD as such on Amazon:

A vibrant and talented new voice in SFF: alien technology, addictive upgrades, a soldier determined to protect his family, and a thief who is prepared to burn the world down . . .

Again: I don’t do sustained tone very well, let alone repulsion or loathing, my brain isn’t wired for it. STORMBLOOD combines a lot of things: mystery, adventure, space opera, crime, tension, exuberance, but horror isn’t one of them. It’s going to sit firmly in the science-fiction section of the store, not the horror section! I’m writing this to avoid future confusion, to clarify for people who were confused and to ensure that STORMBLOOD reaches the right people who are looking for what’s inside it, and not something else entirely I didn’t write. I apologise for the misdirection!