Director’s Corner: Staying Motivated and Productive

jeanneJeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.

Have you written today?  Written fiction–not emails for work or Facebook status updates or blog posts.  Have you written this week?  Have you written this month? As most writers know, it’s very hard to fully realize your potential unless you are writing steadily. Observing the class of 2013 since the workshop ended has brought home to me the power of support, of having someone–or more than one–who cares whether you write today or not.

We had an amazing summer–students open to hearing their weaknesses, ready to try new techniques, again and again, until they made exciting improvements.  One of the most wonderful aspects of the summer was how the class came together to support each other.  When one student was exhausted, or discouraged, or exhausted and discouraged, others would be there to listen, offer chocolate or a beer, and provide a stress-reducing session of Disney YouTube karaoke.

The degree to which the group had bonded became fully apparent to me shortly after the workshop ended, when the class set up a system to submit manuscripts, be assigned to small critique groups, and exchange critiques every two weeks.   Every two weeks.  Twelve out of the fifteen members of the class have participated, and as I write this, they’ve kept it going for eight rounds.  That’s a pretty impressive amount of writing, and unprecedented in the history of Odyssey.  They also hold a weekly salon via Google Hangouts where they can discuss goals, struggles, karaoke, and anything else.

I’m not saying that you have to organize such a group to be a successful.  Some writers don’t need group support.  They are able to write steadily and purposefully in isolation.  For example, I didn’t hear from Jerry White, Odyssey class of ’96, for years, and then in response to my recent email he told me that after years of struggle, he’d signed a three-book deal with HarperCollins for a middle-grade fantasy trilogy. Other writers work alone but craft their own unique motivational tricks.  Several Odfellows (Odyssey Writing Workshop graduates) use the “Seinfeld Chain,” marking a large red X on the calendar over each day they write, and then continuing to write because they don’t want to break that chain of X’s.  One Odfellow has created her own variation on this by building a chain of colored paper clips.  Several others pay themselves for each day they write, putting coins in a jar to be able to see their progress, or binging on shoes, or saving up for a workshop or convention. But many writers find motivation from others.

Sometimes this motivation is received in person.  Both Virginia and Pennsylvania Odfellows have formed groups that meet in person to critique manuscripts and brainstorm ideas.  Others have found the support of some of their fellow writers so helpful that they take a flight once or twice a year to see them.  Many Odfellows participate in The Never-Ending Odyssey (TNEO), the eight-day, in-person program for Odyssey workshop graduates, not only for the motivational power of submission deadlines, but for the very positive, supportive, we’re-all-in-this-together atmosphere.  Many TNEOers come every year to share struggles, failures, and successes with Odfellows who have become close friends.  I know the same is true with conventions that offer workshops; often the same people attend year after year to support each other.

Increasingly, with the power of technology, motivation is received long distance.  The Internet offers countless possibilities for connecting with other writers.  After this year’s TNEO, two of the workshop’s critique groups decided to set up their own email discussion groups so they could stay in touch and encourage each other’s progress.  Some Odfellows have paired up and email their writing output each day to their partner–not for critiquing or even reading, but just to make themselves accountable to someone else who cares whether they write or not.  A group from the class of 2011 has a virtual meeting each week in which they share goals and accomplishments, issue writing challenges, and award prizes.  Some of us post progress reports on an Odfellow email discussion group, which can help motivate us to have progress to report.

There are countless methods you can use to help yourself write more consistently.  You just need to believe it is possible for you to write more consistently.

Way back in 1987, when I worked at Bantam Doubleday Dell, science-fiction editor Pat LoBrutto told me I needed to write every day.  I told him (and myself) that I was too busy.  Many wasted years later, I realized his wisdom.  Now, even though I am far busier than I ever was in 1987, I write every day (except during Odyssey & TNEO, when my writing would be “Blah blah Elijah Wood wha?”).  In part, I do it because I don’t want to have to tell people I failed.  In part, I do it because age and my very slow writing speed graciously provide a sense of gut-twisting urgency to my writing sessions.  In part, I do it because I imagine readers pointing to different passages in my book and laughing, and me explaining that I felt like watching TV that night instead of working on my book.  In part, I do it because Stephen King is writing right now, damn it, so why aren’t I?  And in part, I do it because I know how hard so many other writers are working to keep writing, despite incredible obstacles and difficulties.  And if they can do it, then I should be able to do it.

Do you have a particular method to keep yourself motivated?  If so, please share it in the comments below.  I’d love to hear about it, and you might help motivate others! If you find you aren’t writing consistently, maybe one of these methods will help motivate you, whether it’s a chain of paper clips, a partner, or a group of writers.  Writing is a difficult and solitary business, but as you go through this daily toil, remember that you are part of a wonderful community of writers.  You aren’t the only one struggling to make the time for writing.  And whether you know it or not, someone else does care whether you write today or not.



  1. I keep a tabbed, notebook-sized calendar that’s just for my writing. On the weekly pages, I pencil in my “plan” for each day’s time, and on the month tabs I list what I’ve actually accomplished. It’s sort of like a Seinfeld Chain, but better, since I can see what I’ve done at a glance. And I have weekly check-ins with my roommate from Odyssey, so that keeps me motivated as well. Even on weekends, when I have little time to write, I try to open up my story and jot a note or two, just to keep it swirling around in my head.

  2. I love that calendar idea. Organization sounds so appealing! Yet, after years of forcing myself to write on a schedule, this year I’m trying to be more free-form. (This is kind of about methodology since I’ve never really liked outlining, which kills my motivation to write the story… once I know how a story ends, there’s no reason for me to go on writing it!) I’ve tried not to plan my writing time. I don’t even aim for a certain number of words or pages each day. This was hard to get used to at first. But I write at least three to four days out of the week, and since January I have written twelve chapters.

    For Christmas I received a tablet, so I downloaded Evernote, a notetaking program, which lets me write on the train, the bus, on long car rides, and on break at work. Being able to write on the go is exciting. Evernote syncs with my home computer, so I can come home and work on what I wrote on the train, and I find myself looking forward to the challenge of refining or developing notes I made during the workday. So far this has kept me writing this year.

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