Recently, a friend asked me how I managed to stay motivated while writing my two self-published books. She wanted to know how I managed to keep going when I wasn’t even sure if it was going to pay off, especially when I had other, paying work I could do instead.
A major part of my confidence comes from the fact that both times, I polled my audience about which topics they’d most like to read a book about. It was important to start with something I knew readers already cared about. But today I want to tell you about what came after that: getting some semblance of the book into readers’ hands as soon as it was ready.
It’s just like Twitter. It’s so easy to tweet an idea out there and see people’s interactions right away. The instant gratification is addictive. Longform writing projects are the opposite of that. It’s so long until anybody sees what you’re working on that it can feel like you’re writing just for yourself. And no matter how much you care about the topic, that can be a slog—especially when I know I have more immediate work you could do.
But hold on a second. Let’s examine why that other work feels so much more pressing. I think it’s because the other work: blog posts and articles and copywriting, is due to meet its audience very soon. Like Twitter, it’s more of a conversation, and that feeds my dopamine receptors. Unlike a book that might take months or a year to finish, it will get acknowledged right away.
Since I knew I was motivated by a dialogue, I worked that into the initial release of Otaku Journalism. I started by writing just one chapter and releasing it as a downloadable guide. Then another, and another. By the time I announced Otaku Journalism was going to be a full-length book, these guides had been downloaded more than 1,000 times. Readers had told me what they did and didn’t like, and I could keep that in mind while I wrote the rest. It was easy to stay motivated after that, knowing that this was more than a passion project, but a collection of advice that readers wanted and told me would be helpful to them.
Even so, I don’t think of Otaku Journalism as a success since it took me more than a year to break even and start profiting off of sales—I spent too much time and money upfront. But I corrected those mistakes in Build Your Anime Blog. I kept it lean and dense by incorporating 12 interviews with other bloggers in order to give way more advice than I could offer alone. This extra help also made it possible for me to wrap up the project in just two months. Even if it hadn’t made a profit right away (though it did!), I wouldn’t be out as much time or effort.
The one thing these two strategies have in common is that they got me out of my own head and back in front of an audience quickly. Whether it was through a serial chapter format or through a speed-writing sprint, I got to the good part—getting reader feedback—as soon as possible.
The thing is, writing in a vacuum is hard. When it’s just you and your word processor, it’s easy to get caught up in your own anxieties. What if people hate it? Or even worse, what if they don’t care? The thing is, if you did your homework before starting to write (through a poll or another sort of audience research), you know logically that people want this. It’s just that the gap between picking the project and putting it out there is the time that it’s toughest to remember that, because there’s the largest amount of space then between you and your audience.
I’ve been remembering this all over again this NaNoWriMo. This is about the time when the glamour of being a capital “N” Novelist wears off and I face the reality of extended daily writing goals, reevaluating if I still want to finish this. (I mean, last year I ended up in a wrist brace so it’s a huge question of risk vs. reward; a constant struggle of motivation vs. self-preservation.)
Whenever I feel the least motivated, I talk to friends who are also doing NaNo about where I’m stuck. On a few occasions, I have dropped my own manuscript to write a scene or two for a friend’s. It’s so much easier to write when I know what I’m putting down will soon have an audience. Even if my friend doesn’t like my contribution, it feels good to be acknowledged, compared to plugging thousands of words away into a document that might never be ready to publish.
It might be a long time before my work is ready for the world, and I certainly didn’t workshop my NaNoWriMo idea with a test audience. But I can still text a bit of dialogue I’m proud of or talk to people about the process. These moments of outreach remind me I’m not writing this alone.
Continuing from last week, not to mention last year, I’m wrapping up every November blog post with my current word count out of 50,000. Today it’s 16,417—I’ve fallen a few days behind. I’m not sure if I’ll get to the finish line this year, but I still plan to write a little every day!