I’ve just been whingeing to a friend how I can’t be bothered to finish a short story because I’m without impetus. This isn’t like being up a creek without a paddle. I got paddles. It’s more like being in a big, still lake with no sign of shore in any direction. I mean, I could pick a direction and start paddling and hope for the best, but tbh a nap seems more attractive at this moment.
Where this story is concerned, I’ve at least worked out why I drag my heels. (1) I can see no market for it, and (2) the last two short pieces I’ve written have been sold but not published for upwards of two years. I had made this sort of big surge in technical ability and felt it was on display in these stories, but after two years of nothing I started to feel demotivated to produce more short fiction. (The circumstances of why the stories aren’t out isn’t the point—reasons are legitimate.)
So this got me thinking about what it was like when I was out of contract for novels after having been continuously in contract for many years. It was unpleasant, not just practically, but psychologically. In terms of impetus. It’s much easier to push through the difficult bits of a piece of work when you know someone wants it. It’s like, you’re pushing and someone else on the other end is pulling, and it’s easier to get the thing out.
Several weeks ago, I got an e-mail from an editor soliciting a short story for an anthology. Unusually, I had something appropriate sitting in my hard drive that I’d worked on quite a bit but it kept sticking at a critical point and I really didn’t know what to do with it. I think I started it in 2013, that’s how long we’re talking. I got the e-mail and thought, ‘Hmm, I could finish Story X’ but I have a lot on my plate so I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down with excitement.
But by coincidence, very soon after this Patrick Ness put up his Save the Children fundraising appeal.
Folks, I don’t have any money. Three kids, Steve and myself both self-employed in difficult fields, and we’re funding my MSc with money we really don’t have, just making it up as we go. But I really wanted to put something in that pot, for a lot of reasons. So I did. But it was money I didn’t have, so I had to drop everything and hit this story hard, in the hope that this editor would take it, or else significant problems paying for the school dinners, etc. The story was difficult to finish; there were reasons why I hadn’t nailed it and laziness wasn’t one of them. Most of it was already written but it still took me two full days to figure out what it was really about and pull all the strings tight and get it working. If I hadn’t really needed to knuckle down, I’d have spent that weekend doing my physics homework, taking out the recycling, working on my novel, helping my kids with their math, and mowing the lawn at the very least. Because all of those things are always crying out to be done and are important. Our lawn is tiny but it looks like the Serengeti.
Anyway, I did it and the editor bought it immediately. So gratifying! I thought: wow, so this is how the other half lives. I like it!
No one that I know started writing because they were given a deadline or had to pay the gas bill. We start writing because we want to, because something inside is driving us. We keep writing, around and over and through obstacles, sometimes stopping and starting, sometimes changing direction. But there’s always an innate drive. I do think, though, that for the professional writer that innate drive gets messed up by the need to produce on demand. When you have a project due you have to do it whether or not you want to, and if you are rushed or just plain out of steam, you have to live with the fact that it probably won’t turn out half as well as you hoped. You have to let go of it anyway. This can be a real grind, especially if your ‘career’ is on a downward trend but you’re fulfilling contracts anyway. [See ‘flogging dead horse’ in the AD&D Writer’s Handbook.]
But the other thing that happens—at least to me—is that without deadlines I find it difficult to push hard enough to really make the thing happen. I wrote two complete novels and various partials on spec during the years I was between contracts, and that was how I found out what my personal impetus feels like, without any carrots or sticks from outside. Just me, wanting to do it. Wanting very badly, yes, but no guarantees and no incentives. I had to produce my own impetus: go out in the woods and find dead trees, chop and carry my own wood, put the sticks together, make a spark, breathe on it, get the fire going, cook over it, gather more wood, keep the fire going…wow, it’s a lot of work. Unpublished writers know this. Published writers, I think, sometimes forget. I know I had forgotten. It’s a lot of work to sustain your own impetus.
I find it much easier to write knowing that what I’m writing already has a home, or at least a good prospect of finding a home, at a publisher. I find I spend more of my energy on the actual work and less on having to motivate myself to do the work. The motivation is obvious: I’m expected to turn something in, and if I don’t there are going to be negative consequences.
But I’m grateful for having had that long period of time when I had to reconnect with my natural drives. Learning to build your own fire is a good skill, and it gets rusty with disuse. Sometimes building a fire in the current publishing climate is a bit like camping in a hurricane. Even Sam Gamgee probably couldn’t get anything going. (Maybe it’s just as well. Canoes and fire don’t really mix, do they?)
I think it really helps if you have more than one impetus for working. It’s not either/or, you know. You don’t have to say, ‘I write for money’ or ‘I write for love’ or ‘I write because I have something I desperately need to say’ or ‘I write because I’m competing with X’ or ‘I write because I want to read this kind of thing’ (insert your reasons here). You can replace every ‘or’ in that sentence with an ‘and’ for better results. The more drives you have, the more reasons you have, then the more resilient you are when one aspect of writing goes away.
It’s not about impetus, it’s about impetus plural (pronounced impetoose) in Latin. (Because impetuses just sounds like a cross between an octopus and an imp…hmm…maybe impetuses works, too).
So will I finish that story I mentioned? Yeah, I’ll get it done. Sooner or later I’ll get fed up with myself and I’ll put everything else aside and I’ll sweat my way through it. And the other two stories that I wrote and that I’m so proud of and that nobody apart from close friends has read? Those will eventually come out.**
It’s probably worth remembering when you’re in dead water that currents do change. The water will eventually start to move. It’s the nature of nature. Until then, I guess all you can do is pick a direction and paddle. Bring a big bag of impetuses.
*For more about the word ‘impetus’ check out this amusing article about the Latin fourth declension. We can talk about ‘aparatoose’ later! https://medium.com/@followyourfates/us-es-a-plural-revolution-1187fc773ebb
**The new one I wrote for the Syria appeal is called ‘The Psychometry of Tuvan Currency’ and it’s for an anthology by Ghostwood Books called Haunted Futures. http://www.gwdbooks.com/haunted-futures.html