I’ve written in the past about using Habitica to help organising and motivating my writing. For me, it’s one of the most useful tools out there. I’ve now written a full review of it as a writing tool for Re:Fiction, so if you’re interested in resources to help you get motivated you can read about it here.
Pirates and Human Motivation
“Follow the money.” It’s not a new idea in understanding motivation, but it’s an important one.
The Golden Age of Piracy (a real thing that happened between around 1650 and 1730) was all about following the money. I don’t just mean guys with guns chasing guys with gold, though there was a chunk of that. I’m talking about the bigger economic picture.
I’m talking about why the Golden Age happened, and why it happened when it did.
When Peace Means Unemployment
The Golden Age of piracy had three main phases, and two of them began when wars ended*.
In 1648, and again in 1714, wars ended in Europe. I’m not talking small wars that were only horrible for people in the local area. I’m talking huge wars that drew in nearly all the nations of Europe – specifically the 30 Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession. These were sprawling conflicts at land and sea between nations with far more guns than sense. They employed a lot of people, turning them into soldiers and sailors.
So yay for employment prospects, at least?
Well, yes and no. Because military employment in a continent-spanning war isn’t a sustainable career. Such massive conflagrations of human life are mercifully limited. Sooner or later, the combatants run out of resources or the will to fight. The war ends. The poor populations who’ve seen their homelands torn apart start picking up the pieces. And the governments start laying off troops, because they don’t need massive armies and navies any more, and they’ve spent all their spare cash on cannonballs and coffins.
Yargh For Opportunity!
Imagine you’re an English sailor in 1715. For the best part of a decade, you’ve been fighting at sea. It’s what you know best. It’s what you’re comfortable with. It’s pretty much the only way you can see of making a living.
But now your nation won’t employ you, so you need to go freelance. And just across the Atlantic is your opportunity. Because in the Caribbean, the governments have less control, and there are places were a seafaring bandit can hide out. Piracy starts looking pretty appealing.
Then you get there, and sure there are a lot of people in the same boat as you, literally and metaphorically. But that’s not a problem because trade is picking up. The end of the war means safer travel, which means more commerce. There are all these ships loaded with cash and luxury goods. You’ve lost your job, and suddenly the rich merchants and ship owners are making out like bandits. Well screw them, you’re a proper bandit, and you’re going to take your share.
Your big, watery share of pieces of eight.**
Need and Opportunity
In both cases, there was a big upswing in piracy. Big name pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonny strutted their stuff. For years, the seas of the Carribean weren’t safe, because this was the best way some folks could see to make a living.
This is what leads so much of human behaviour – a need and the opportunity to address it.
It’s also why economics, the social science of meeting material needs, is so important in understanding motives. The flow of money and opportunities shifted, so people did too.
In the FantasyCon panel on fantasy economics, the panellists talked a lot about real examples like this. They show how economics isn’t just about exchange rates. It’s about human behaviour. And whether you’re trying to understand history or create a fantasy world, human behaviour is what matters. So it’s worth paying attention to the economics.
Follow the money. Even if it’s pieces of eight.
* The other phase also had economic drivers, as opportunities in the Caribbean started to dry up.
** Pieces of eight were high quality Spanish silver coins which became a popular global currency.
Getting Started to Get Motivated
I was sitting here, struggling to work out what to write about. Then I remembered something a friend shared on social media earlier in the day. It was a lesson he’d learned from cognitive behavioural therapy. The lesson is that sometimes you don’t need to find your motivation to get started. Sometimes you need to get started to find your motivation.
In this case, what’s true for improving mental health is also true for writing. It’s is why warmup exercises can be so useful. Once you get started writing, you don’t face the mental barrier of starting. The process keeps you moving. You work with the flow. As long as words are coming out, it’s easier to find the sort of words you want.
Sure, it’s not for every occasion. Sometimes you need to sit back and think. But sometimes, and now is one of those times, the important thing is to just get writing…
Staying Motivated to Write
I’m a great believer in the importance of measuring what you achieve. Maybe you’ll count how many words you’ve written, how many stories you’ve sold, how many hours you’ve put in. However you do it, it stops you dodging the awkward question of “am I actually writing”.
But how you use this to stay motivated is very personal and it can change over time. You shouldn’t get trapped in using somebody else’s approach, even when that somebody else is you in the past.
For the past year, I’ve been measuring my achievements but not setting firm goals. I had so much else going on in life, setting targets became too daunting. The thought of failure put me off achieving them. They were counter-productive.
I still measured what I achieved, and celebrated it with fellow writers. I kept track of story sales and freelance earnings. But there were no targets.
Five weeks ago, that changed.
Worries about income were making me tear my hair out (not that I have much hair to tear – number one cut all over means never getting hat hair). I needed to be sure that the money was flowing. So I set myself a target. I would aim to do freelance work worth a certain amount each week. And to do this, I’d work out beforehand what that work consisted of.
This time, the targets have proved motivating. I discovered that I could easily earn more than I was doing just by getting focused. Even in weeks disrupted by my house move, I’ve either hit those targets or caught up the next week. It’s relieved the pressure in my brain, letting me relax. Once I’ve finished settling in at the new house, I’ll have time to properly get back to my own stories.
Maybe in six months or a year I’ll need new targets. Maybe they’ll be different figures, or monthly instead of weekly. Maybe I’ll go back to measures. The important thing is that I use what gets me motivated, instead of getting stuck in a rut.
Do the same thing. Work out what gets you motivated and use it. Learn from others but don’t blindly follow them. Even when those others were once you.
Fridging Weakens Male Characters Too
The thing growled in the darkness, blood dripping from its claws. Dirk took a step forward, pistol in one hand, lantern in the other. The creature took a step back, turned and raced away. For a moment, Dirk sagged with relief. Then he looked down and realised that he was too late. A body lay in the doorway, slowly turning as cold as the flagstones beneath it. An all too familiar face looked up at him…
I was thinking today about an upcoming scene in the book I’m writing. I’m planning to kill off a minor character to demonstrate a threat and crank up the tension. It’s not exactly a novel tactic – writers use it all the time. When it’s done well, it’s very powerful. When it isn’t, you get tropes like Women in Refrigerators, where significant female characters die just to motivate their male counterparts.
As I pondered this scene, I realised that I was falling into the trap of that trope. I had two characters whose deaths would fit the plot, and I’d defaulted to killing the female one. My protagonist likes her more than the male character. Her death would provide greater motivation.
That was when alarm bells started to ring in my head. It might make a stronger motive to kill this character, but it would also perpetuate a troubling trope, one that contributes to unequal representation in culture, to the positioning of women as less important.
It was only as I stepped back from that thought, considering what would happen if I killed the male character, that I realised something else. Killing off the character my protagonist cared about, making what followed partly about vengeance, didn’t make for a better motive – it made for a shitty one.
If a friend of my protagonist dies and he sets out to avenge her then his motive is personal. It’s about his emotions. But if someone he doesn’t like dies, and he still sets out to deal with the perpetrator because every life matters, then he’s living up to a higher moral standard. He’s protecting everyone, no matter who they are. He cares about all of humanity.
Developing my character’s story through the death of someone he doesn’t like makes a more powerful point about the moral values and strength of character on display. He would be weakened as a character by making it personal.
I don’t know if this has been said elsewhere in relation to women in refrigerators, but it’s the first time it’s really struck me. This vengeance-fuelled trope doesn’t just weaken the representation of women and so the value assigned to them in society. Like so many gendered tropes, it does the same for men. It normalises vengeance and anger as better motivators for them than moral values or making the world a better place, and that’s a terrible message to send. We become better if we can look beyond the personal to do what’s right.
So I’m definitely not killing of that female character. I’ll still get a death in to keep the story going, but it’s the male character who will die. And my story will be more powerful for it.
Can Character Motives Be Too Strong?
I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout 4 recently, and I’m starting to hate the protagonist’s motivation.
In case you aren’t familiar with it, Fallout 4 is set in a post-apocalyptic America with a 1950s vibe. It’s an amazing looking game that lets you interact with a fascinating world, just roaming around, exploring, talking with the people who inhabit it.
That’s where the problem with the motive comes in. As the protagonist, you’re meant to be rescuing your son who has been kidnapped. That’s powerful stuff. It makes sense that, as a parent, you’d be completely focused on that task, to the exclusion of all else. It provides the core for a tense, compelling narrative.
But this is a big sandbox game. I want to wander around, get into conversations and side-quests, rebuild settlements, flirt with the scrappy journalist, upgrade my guns, maybe cook some radstag stew. I’m avoiding the quest for my son because I know that, if I follow it, that will drag me at speed towards the end of the game. I don’t want that end. I want to take my pet dog out hunting molerats.
The result is that, if I step back and think about my character, I realise he’s a terrible person. His wife has just been killed.* His son has been carried off by terrible people. And his response is to wander around, eyeing up the scenery, collecting random junk and chatting with strangers. He should be putting all his energy into saving his family, and most of the time he doesn’t even think about them. I’m trying to play as a good guy, a character rebuilding civilisation, but in the context of the plot my priorities are monstrous.
It’s like those moments in films where the lead characters stop to kiss at the height of the action, and you’re sat there thinking “stop wasting vital seconds – there are lives at stake!” It makes dramatic sense, but not human sense. Their motives to press on have been made too powerful for them to do what the writers want.
In terms of writing, I’ve taken a big lesson from this – strong motives are good, but make sure they aren’t so strong that they’ll outweigh everything else you want to include. In Fallout 4 though, I’m going to stick with being an inconsistent monster. I’m enjoying my wanderings too much not to.
What I Learned From Write Your Novel From the Middle
In a post last week I wrote about James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle. Afterwards, AC Macklin raised a rather sensible question whose answer I had skipped over – what were the things of value I learned from this book? In my enthusiasm to talk about the book in general, I missed the useful details. So here they are…
Explaining the Value of Structure
There’s a quote from the book that I included last week – ‘Structure is translation software for your imagination.’ I think that quote, and what it represents, are very useful in understanding the value of structure.
Structure isn’t there to tell you what story to write or what ideas to discuss. It’s there to help you turn those ideas into something coherent and accessible, to fit your story into the form you’re writing in, whether it’s a novel, a screenplay or a haiku.
Bell raised a set of interesting questions to make sure you’re covering the important things in the first act of your story:
- have you given readers a character worth following?
- is there a disturbance to their life early on?
- do you know the death stakes of the story? – this doesn’t have to mean literal death, but what physical, emotional or professional destruction the character is threatened with
- is there a scene forcing the character into the confrontation of act two, and is it strong enough that the character can’t resist getting involved?
These are ideas I was already familiar with, but Bell’s list provides a great sanity check, a way of making sure that the elements are in place to make the story compelling.
Bell refined my thinking on the midpoint. In Wells’s seven point structure, this is the moment when the protagonist becomes pro-active. For Bell, it’s a point where the forces arrayed against the protagonist seem so vast that if they go on they will almost certainly face physical, psychological or professional death.
These are quite different things to build the centre of a story around, but what strikes me is that they’re both about the need to make a decision to act, whether by switching from passivity to pro-activity, or by deciding to act despite the danger.
I think that combining those two could make for some incredibly powerful central story moments.
A good character arc is almost always about change. Bell points out that this change needs to be proven by the character’s actions, not just something they think or talk about. By working outwards from inner revelation to actual acts, you prove far more effectively that the character has changed, both to the reader and to the other characters in the story.
The need for characters to have flaws is common advice. Bell suggests a refinement of this, that if you can it’s good to give your central character a moral flaw that is hurting others.
OK, that’s a potentially very dark point, but it’s similar in value to that point about proving change. A moral flaw that hurts others is more substantial – it has real consequences, not just internalised angst, and it matters to other characters. It’s a much more substantial flaw.
The single most useful thing I got out of this book wasn’t about structuring my stories, it was about pitching them. The pitch structure Bell provides consists of three sentences:
- Your lead character’s name, vocation and initial situation.
- ‘When’ + the main plot problem.
- ‘Now’ + the death stakes.
Despite years of being told I should have elevator pitches for my projects at work, I never got the hang of pitching. But reading this gave me such a clear, simple structure to follow that I immediately went and tried it out on the stories I’m writing. So, for the book I’m currently working on:
Dirk Dynamo is enjoying a life of learning with the gentlemen adventurers of the Epiphany Club. Joining an expedition to find the Great Library of Alexandria, Dirk finds himself on the island of Hakon, where colonial life is not what it seems. With monsters in the jungle, conspiracies in the mansion and ninjas dogging his trail, can Dirk and his friends find the first clue to the Library before they meet a deadly fate?
OK, I didn’t actually use the words ‘when’ and ‘now’, but the essence of the structure is there. And I don’t know about you, but I’m more excited about my book after seeing it summarised like that. That’s most of my blurb right there.
On Writing Life
Finally, there were two points that I wrote out on cards and stuck to my desk to remind myself of their importance
- when writing becomes drudgery go do something else for a while
- daydream about the rewards of your writing, however intangible, to keep you motivated
I struggle with motivation a lot. These were good reminders of things that I know in principle but often forget in practice.
Worth the Reading
The focus of my previous post on Write Your Novel From the Middle probably seemed down on the book, because I was disappointed after hearing it raved about. But as I also said in that post, there was stuff of real value in there, and I consider it time and money well spent. Just not the game changer it’s sometimes sold as being.
Valued readers, are any of you planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year?
For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a challenge whereby thousands of people across the world try to write a 50,000 word story, or at least the first 50,000 words of a story, in November. It’s a motivational exercise and an opportunity to discuss what you’re up to with other writers, and it’s gone way beyond its ‘National’ American origins.
I had a go at NaNoWriMo three years ago. I managed the wordcount, though I did it without joining in the online or local discussions, which in retrospect was a wasted opportunity. The following two years I was in no state to put that pressure on myself, but this year I’ve decided that I’m up for it, spurred on by Russell Phillips who is also joining in for the first time, and who has an interesting guest post coming up here next week.
NaNoWriMo isn’t really about hitting that 50,000 word target. Plenty of people get a lot out of it without even coming close. It’s about finding the focus and the determination to take the most important step in writing, putting lots of words down on the page. It’s about helping each other get motivate, and that’s a great objective.
November’s coming up fast, so I figure that I’ve got two weeks to plan my novel beforehand. I’m very much a planning sort of writer, and having that plan ready to go will make it easier for me to churn out the daily word count.
So, are any of the rest of you planning to do NaNoWriMo this year? What are you planning to write? Have you done it in the past, and do you have any advice based on that experience? And if you’ve never even considered it before, why not give it a go? We can work together to stay motivated and get those words written.
To the writing cave! I have chapters to plan.
Addiction, loss and division – internal conflicts in The Drawing of the Three
Whether or not you think that characters are defined by their conflicts, those conflicts are clearly important to telling a good story. Internal conflicts and struggles make characters more interesting, and make it more difficult for them to face their external conflicts, adding to the tension in a good plot.
Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three, which I talked about in general terms yesterday, is a great example of this, and of how to create these conflicts in different ways.
Physical challenges – Roland’s fingers
Roland, the protagonist of the book, is a gunslinger. His skill set, his confidence, even his sense of identity is built around that role. And straight away, within a few pages of the start of the book, his gunslinging ability is impaired when a lobster monster hacks off two fingers from his right hand.
Suddenly Roland is in conflict with his own body and his own instincts. He has to learn to function without wielding a gun in that hand, to re-make the habits and ways of behaving that keep him alive. King has inverted a common trope of both fantasy and westerns, where the hero shrugs off and forgets serious wounds, and instead made his hero’s struggle with his own body a major plot point.
Challenges of will – Eddie’s addiction
Eddie, the first of the three characters Roland draws to him, is an addict. His drug habit defines his whole life – his friends, his enemies, the trouble he’s in as we first meet him and the far greater trouble he gets into later on. But this is about more than providing external threats, it’s about defining Eddie’s internal conflicts.
King provides a compelling picture of a man facing that addiction. Eddie wants to be free of the drugs, yet at the same time he doesn’t. It’s a conflict that highlights the complexity of human will. Not all of our conflicts are as straightforward as wanting something and striving to make it happen. Desire is complex, willpower can be hard to muster, and that battle for will is Eddie’s conflict. It makes it hard for him to achieve what he needs to at times. It breaks both his body and his mind. But it also allows us to see Eddie’s strength, the battle showing that he might have the will to get through this, and through the other challenges on the way to the Dark Tower.
Odetta and Detta – extreme internal conflict
Then there’s Odetta and Detta, two personalities inhabiting the same body, both in denial about the other’s existence. It’s like King has taken the idea of internal conflict and pushed it to the greatest extreme he can think of. The two personalities are so distinct it almost becomes an external conflict, as we wait to see whether Odetta can fight off her dark self and retain not only control of her own body but continuing existence within her own mind.
The whole spread
King shows us a wide range of internal conflict in The Drawing of the Three. Each character faces a different sort of major conflict, and lesser struggles deriving from that. These conflicts are externalised through the character’s actions, not just dealt with through paragraphs of inner monologue. They make everything else more difficult and more interesting.
If you’re thinking about how to write internal conflict and so make interesting characters then I really recommend reading this book. And if you’re reading it already then keep an eye out for internal conflict, both as a writerly tool on display and as a theme of the story.
Enough from me. If you’ve read the book what did you think of its exploration of these characters? And even if you haven’t, what other great internal character conflicts can you think of?
This is not the holiday I’m looking for
By this time today I was going to be on holiday in rural France. I would be staying in an old farmhouse, swimming in the outdoor pool, looking out over the beautiful wooded hillsides all around. I’d be going on walks through idyllic villages barely touched by tourism, where people keep their cars in the barn overnight because they worry that moonlight will fade the paintwork. I’d be trying to order meat-free meals in a region where they have no word for ‘vegetarian’ and believe that a salad should be a big pile of duck with a couple of lettuce leaves separating it from the plate. I was going to spend a whole week with my wife and some of our closest friends, away from the grey skies and household chores of home.
The fact that I’m typing this should tell you that hasn’t happened. The fact that I’m not busy weeping into a half-empty bottle of Scotch should tell you that’s not an entirely bad thing.
At the beginning of this year I told myself that I was going to make writing a priority, whether it was freelance work or my own fiction. And as this holiday drew closer it became more and more apparent that it was badly timed writing-wise. I have two big freelance projects on the go, and other pieces coming in. I have that Top Cow script to write. I want to do final edits before sharing a draft of a novel with my first round of readers. Losing a week would have killed my momentum and stressed me out. Trying to work while on holiday would have meant not relaxing while simultaneously not getting much done.
It would be easy to sit here feeling sorry for myself. And I won’t lie, I am pretty jealous of the folks still going on that holiday, including Laura. But I feel good about the decision. For the first time in my life I’m primarily doing stuff I care about this much, that I’ll give up a holiday with friends to make it work. And that’s a good thing. I think I might actually be taking writing seriously.