Jack Slyde blogged on persistence a few weeks back, and his post got me thinking about what may be a writer’s greatest challenge. We are, for the most part, alone in our writerly space with our thoughts, generally without knowing for certain whether we’re writing something fabulous or something that would be a suitable companion for a litter-box nugget. We’re a bit like mazing mice, scrambling to find The End because there might be a treat for us there (as in publication).
Unlike the mouse’s maze, however, the path to publication is a long one. We are also well aware that we’ve chosen to take the writer’s journey and we can stop anytime we want to. Many writers quit long before the work is finished–most do, in fact. Borrowing from the world of behaviorism, we know that–like mice–we may get through the task more quickly (or at least more happily) with treats along the way.
What then are mouse treats for writers, and when should we get them?
First, a ground rule: You must be tough on yourself and never take a treat without first doing the work. If you cheat only once, you’ll weaken the power of the approach as a whole. So promise. Come on. Okey dokey…
The constant treat
Constant treats may include viewing a progress meter daily, like the one you can find at Writertopia . (Thanks to Nancy Bond  for the tip!) Reading inspirational quotes may be enough for some.
Many of us rely on critique groups or partners for support–an encouraging word, feedback on our progress, commiseration over wine and chocolate, etc… CPs are irreplaceable and can be fabulous. Join a group, or find a partner you work well with and respect, and you may receive continual reinforcement. Or not, if the fit is bad or the group falls apart, or your partner stops writing or gets sick or loses interest. Because these things are possible, you may not want to put all your treats in the critique basket, but as you’ll see, it’s easy to learn how to reinforce yourself.
Intermittent self treating
Though you can feed yourself rewards of the same “level,” (a new book, a new CD, a new magazine…) you might want to try a step-up approach, with each new goal accomplished leading to a tastier treat. Humans are smarter than mice, after all, and we could get bored with the same ole thing. Not only that, we may work harder, knowing the next treat waiting for us is better than the last. How to start:
* Take a look at your writing patterns. Do you run out of steam daily? Drag your feet at the end of a chapter or in the middle of the book? Do you stall when it comes to doing research or when it’s time to send the finished manuscript to agents and/or editors? Decide where you are weakest and make a list.
* Brainstorm treat ideas, and try to make them increasingly rewarding. Everyone’s treat list will be different, but my escalating list might include things like:
• eating a handful of mini m&ms
• listening to music
• searching the Calvin & Hobbes archives
• renting a movie
• going to the movies (and buying popcorn)
• buying a book I’ve wanted
• actually reading the book
• going for dinner out
• having an hour-long massage (scantily clad man-boy-masseuse preferred)
• taking a road trip to see a performance or meet an author
• having a weekend retreat
• buying an Alpha Smart
• purchasing a fabulous ring (thanks to Kathleen Irene Paterka for the idea!)
• taking a week-long trip to Ireland, New Zealand or St. Johns
…you get the picture.
* Decide how treats and goals should match up. Me? I won’t get that week-long trip until my rewrite is finished and out the door. Does it help to know I’ll get it? Oh, yeah. Note: If you need daily treats, you’ll have to be smart about how to deliver them. Consider giving yourself increasingly longer goals to improve your progress: first treat for getting through the first day, second treat for getting through the next three days, third treat for getting through a week, and so on.
* Stick to it. Do what you need to ensure forward movement; no writer wants to be stuck on a wheel going nowhere.