Tag Archives: motivation

Quote for the Day

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

— Mark Twain


How simple is that? How wise? Because he was absolutely right. Too often, people allow themselves to be intimidated when it comes to writing, or even starting a manuscript of any length.

I see twenty-year-old students afraid to write because they might do it wrong.

I meet seventy-year-olds afraid to write because they think it’s too late.

I chat with thirty-year-old moms afraid to write because it’s been so long since they took a writing course and now that their children are starting school and they finally have some spare time, they believe they are too rusty to try it.

I deal with fifty-year-old divorcees afraid to write because although they’ve always wanted to they no longer believe in themselves or in reaching for their dreams.

And I coach myself every time I’m about to start a new project, talking myself past being afraid to write it because I know I can do it if I’ll only try.

Early in my career as a novelist, I wrote books that I’m proud of and books that are quick, disposable reads that paid the bills. Either way, I wrote a lot of them and they were published. When I look back over my publication record, I am sometimes astonished at what I accomplished. But when I was a starry-eyed kid of nineteen and twenty and twenty-one, getting my first agent and my first publishing contract, I didn’t know I couldn’t do it.

And that’s the spirit we have to carry within us every day. We can’t know–or think about–what we cannot do.

We just have to set our sights on our objective . . . and start.


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Scene Planning: Part I

Whether you’re a writer who works strictly from an outline or you’re a “pantser,” each scene of your story needs thinking over both before and after you write it.

The before stuff:

1) From whose viewpoint will the scene be written?

Maybe the scene needs to be from the villain’s perspective instead of the hero’s. Maybe it will be most effective from a side character. Just remember that a scene unfolds best if it’s confined to one viewpoint.

Choose wisely for valid reasons of plot.

The character you choose will become this scene’s protagonist.

2) What single character will be in strongest opposition to the scene’s viewpoint character?

You may have the entire army of Ruritania opposed to your scene’s protagonist, but someone must step forward and represent this antagonism.

What you should aim for is one character who drives the scene and is central to it and one character who tries to thwart whatever the scene protagonist is doing.

The oppositional character will become this scene’s antagonist.

3) What are these two individuals going to argue about?

You need to know this clearly ahead of time because it’s what your scene will be about. Their disagreement is why this particular scene exists.

So what has them upset? Are their intentions diametrically opposed or do they just dislike each other?

If you choose the first option, give yourself a star! Your scene’s going to have conflict, excitement, and unpredictability.

If you choose the second option, we need to talk. If the characters have nothing going for them other than that they’re cranky, then your story’s in trouble.

Fractious bickering does not a scene of conflict make. You won’t be able to get it to go anywhere substantive enough to carry the plot forward.

Diametrically opposed goals mean a focused conflict.

*John wants to marry Suzie.
*Suzie does NOT want to marry John.

*Beryl says she wants to spend her $1,000 gift certificate on new draperies for the house.
*Her husband Beauregard disagrees, saying it should be spent on new golf clubs.

*Harry attempts to murder his Uncle Orlando.
*Orlando’s bodyguard intervenes, fighting Harry.

*Veronica swims hard and fast to get away from a Great White shark.
*The shark swims faster.

See how these examples work? Each one is tightly focused on an immediate problem. Each character is in action–physical or verbal. The setup is such that conflict is unavoidable. Exactly what we–as writers–want!

4) Why have your two characters taken this position?

Why, of course, speaks to motivation. Motivation is why a character doesn’t give up in the first round of conflict.

Back to my examples:

*John wants to marry Suzie because he’s deeply in love with her. He wants to spend the rest of his life with her. He knows that without her he’ll always be incomplete.

*Suzie doesn’t want to marry John because she doesn’t love him back.

*Beryl wants new draperies because what they have are some cheap mini-blinds that the cat has climbed. She grew up in a nice home and she wants her house to be attractive enough to impress guests. Without better décor, she feels her home is saying, “My husband can’t provide for us.”

*Beauregard hasn’t even noticed the broken mini-blinds. His best wood driver is being held together with duct tape. His boss has told him to take their company’s CEO out to play golf next weekend. Beauregard knows his future with the company is riding on that golf game. It could mean the difference between promotion or being fired. Who cares about new curtains?

*After five years of searching, Harry finally has conclusive proof that Uncle Orlando was behind the extortion that bankrupted Harry’s father. When he confronts Orlando, his uncle grabs the document and burns it, thus obliterating any chance that justice will be done.

*The bodyguard respects and admires Orlando. He looks up to Orlando like a father. He’s proud to be trusted enough to guard Orlando’s safety. No one except Orlando saw potential in the bodyguard when he was just a scrawny kid, but Orlando gave him a chance, gave him a job. And now, the bodyguard would gladly take a bullet to save his hero.

*After the shark bites off Larry’s leg during a dive to collect marine specimens for their study, Veronica swims for her life. She doesn’t want to be eaten, too.

*The shark liked its taste of Larry and is attracted by Veronica’s movements as she swims away. The shark is still hungry.

5) Do the actions or comments I’ve planned for my characters plausibly fit or connect with the objectives and motivations?

In other words, stay focused.

Don’t throw in random comments because you think they’re clever or you want to display your character’s rapier wit.

Keep the actions and dialogue centered on the disagreement. Eliminate other characters and distractions such as phone call interruptions or fiddling with setting props.

6) What’s at stake in this scene?

This speaks to motivation as well. A man in love believes his future happiness depends on marrying the girl he adores. A new job and higher salary could be jeopardized because of home décor. The burning need for justice turns into revenge. Survival is a powerful instinct so strong it needs no explanation.

Low stakes, however, equal low excitement.

Low stakes equal reader boredom or disappointment.

Low stakes don’t deserve a scene of their own. Petty, banal problems aren’t suitable for dramatic scenes.

When you encounter a powerful scene–whether in reading or watching a film–and it seems to be about something insubstantial, chances are there’s subtext at work. A much larger issue is actually going on.

Watch or read it again. See if you can determine what’s really at stake.

7) Do you know what the scene’s outcome will be?

Where is this scene going? What’s the point of it? How will its outcome make the situation more dire for the protagonist?

If the stakes are too low, the scene’s outcome will fall flat.

Keep in mind that trivial issues don’t deserve to be scenes. They can be raised or even discussed in other story structures such as dialogue or narrative, without a dramatic scene being built around them.

Also keep in mind that scenes should work to move the story forward. That means, the scene protagonist fails–either completely or partially–and has to try again. That next attempt will lead to the next event in your plot. And the next. And the next.

If you allow the scene protagonist to succeed, where is your story going next? What is left for your characters to do?

Not much!

Success and happiness means the story is over.

As for thinking over the scene after you write it, I’ll address that in my next post.


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Up the Rebels!

Those of you who read my posts regularly can tell that I’m in idle-author mode. Sporadic posts … posts on inspiration, motivation, clutter-busting … nothing on the down-and-gritty business of butt-in-chair writing.

Sometimes the hat of professionalism gets flung off and I just float. Call it a vacation. Call it laziness. Call it missed opportunity. Call it idea development. Call it healthy. Call it rebellion against the shackles of must-work.

Presently, I’m weighing the merits of two and a half book ideas. One idea has been in the back of my mind for nearly a decade. I even wrote a draft of the story but had to go back to the drawing board when it didn’t make it past my first gatekeeper.

Another idea has been bobbing to the surface of my imagination for maybe a couple of years–relegated to the tank of Wait–while I completed my contractual obligations.

The half idea–and how does one have half of an idea anyway? Is that like being “almost pregnant?” Okay, so it’s Idea #3. There. I’ve stuck the “I” label on it. But I still think of it as a half because it’s shy. It doesn’t want to be closely examined yet. When I try to pull it into the glaring light of let’s-develop-you, it flees back into the mists of dream world.

Now, any and all of these ideas are worth working on, but I’m still feeling rebellious at the moment. I could get busy, but I don’t want to.

The bank account is sinking low. The dogs’ whiskery faces stare up at me every night in anticipation of very expensive treats. I probably need a new computer since warnings about changing Windows platforms are being whispered in my ear like stock tips. Mingled motivations of guilt, work ethic, self-discipline, etc. sweep over me from time to time. I am resisting.

I’m playing at the moment, reading at the moment. Just for fun. The years have taught me that my creativity levels are always better if I take a break now and then. This year, with all that’s happened, has given me an attitude of “I don’t have to and I don’t want to.”

But soon, I’ll have to plant myself in my chair and get busy because even the itchiest rash of rebellion can’t compete with a love of writing that has to do with who and what I am.

The only question is which idea will it be?

Hmmm ….


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What’s the Use?

Back in the 1980s, motivational posters were very popular. One that seemed to turn up frequently was a picture of a kitten hanging from a tree branch. The motivational caption read in bold letters: HANG IN THERE!

In my last post, I wrote about the gathering force of a new project. An energy begins to build inside you. It’s similar to excitement, but there’s more to it than that. You all know the feeling. It’s a creative pressure seeking release. We learn, as writers and artists, to control that force and make it work for us.

It’s akin in some ways–as I fumble for more metaphors–to taming a wild and beautiful horse. So much grace and physical power all locked up in an explosive package.

That, my friends, is your next book, waiting to happen. It comes to you shyly, then darts away. You’re patient with it, calm with it. You let it flee, knowing that if it has any merit it will return. And it does. You work with it, and feel it respond.

At last, you have your plot outlined. You have, in effect, slipped a halter ever so gently over the creature’s head.

You’re ready for the next step … ready to write … and




Can there be anything more frustrating than how life, people, and the weird timing of events beyond our control all converge on us just when we’re trying to get a new project launched? (In fact, just as I typed the word Interruption, lo and behold, it happened to me, and this blog post was suspended for 10 hours before I could resume work on it.)

How can you concentrate, much less remember what you were trying to convey? How do you recapture the mood, flavor, and ambiance of that scene you were about to write?

Should you go barking mad? Should you pitch a hissy fit? Should you stew in silent martyrdom? All those emotional states are, in themselves, a distraction pulling you away from full concentration on your manuscript.

Steven Pressfield calls this effect Resistence. You may have an entirely different term for it. The point is that you mustn’t let it smother your project.

Whatever you have to do, fight to knock chaos, distraction, interruption, etc. away from you. Writers must learn to be ruthless. We were put on this planet to write, but life isn’t interested in our destiny. It will get in our way more than we can believe possible.

Frustrate a writer at this delicate, critical moment of beginning–even worse, frustrate a writer too much, too frequently–and it can be tempting to abandon the story altogether, muttering, “What’s the use?”

Beware of such a feeling. It’s defeat. It’s dreadful and demoralizing. Fend it off as much as you can. Don’t let it win.

Because there is a use for what you’re trying to do. Your story does matter and it’s important for you to express it to the best of your ability.

Like the kitten clinging to the branch, hang in there.


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Dramatic Strategy II: Size ‘Em Up

All scenes are not alike. They should not be the same length or intensity. That’s because scene size depends on the stakes and motivations of the characters.

These two factors support the degree of conflict there will be. For example: if the stakes are low, conflict will be minimal.

Example:  Johnny wants ice cream. That’s a specific goal. What would motivate anyone to oppose this?

Option 1: Maybe the opponent for this scene is Johnny’s sister. Sissy doesn’t want Johnny to have the ice cream. WHY? Because there’s only one serving of ice cream, and Sissy wants it for herself.

If the ice cream is simply dessert, the stakes are low. Conflict between these characters will be petty and/or forced.

If the ice cream is the only food in the house, the stakes become higher. See the difference?

Option 2: Sissy doesn’t want Johnny to have ice cream because he’s just been diagnosed with diabetes, and she wants him to stick to his new diet. Now the stakes are more interesting, and her motivation is one of love and concern.

Option 3: Sissy is sociopathic, jealous, and nursing a long grudge against some imaginary wrong. She forces Johnny to ingest ice cream in an effort to plunge him into a life-threatening coma.

If you’re writing about option 1a, the low stakes require the scene to be brief or omitted.

If you’re writing about option 1b, the somewhat higher stakes require the scene to be small-to-medium length.

If you’re writing about option 2, the strong stakes require the scene to be medium to long.

Does option 3 seem too extreme and over the top for you? Perhaps it is. Consider, however, the plot of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a classic horror thriller dealing with out-of-control sibling rivalry. Jane was a child star who got all the attention while her older sister Blanche was ignored. When the sisters grew up, however, Jane’s career faded and Blanche became an acting star until she was crippled in an accident. Now the sisters live together in a twisted mess of hatred and resentment of each other.

Blanche (left) being slapped by her sister Jane in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, a 1962 Warner Bros. film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

In option 3, if Sissy is trying to murder Johnny and make it look like an accident, the stakes are huge and the scene will be intense, long, and filled with conflict.

Big scenes should be positioned at key turning points in a novel’s length. There will be one in the center of the book. There will be at least one in the book’s climax. Often there’s one within the first five chapters of the story as well.

Big scenes offer high conflict, huge stakes, and intense–possibly bitter–conflict. They’re long because the strongly motivated characters won’t quit. And a big scene usually ends in a powerful disaster for the scene protagonist.

Writing Tip: When injecting several big scenes into your story, make sure that each of these scenes progressively tops those preceding it. In other words, don’t start your story with your largest scene. Build as you go, so that your first big scene is strong, your middle big scene is a doozy, and your final big scene is fantastic.

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