by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I got a great opportunity recently when the film I wrote this year, GRINDER, attracted a quality actor. The screenplay came to me as a rewrite assignment almost exactly a year ago. I worked with a group of producers and the film’s director to produce a new outline, treatment, two full drafts, and two polishes. The result was an intriguing action film with intense, zombie-like creatures and a structure similar to the film “Momento.” The final draft got the film its financing as well as a number of exceptional crew attachments. The lead actor came to us and made his attachment contingent upon an additional rewrite to satisfy his notes.

The actor looked at the script through the eyes of an actor. And thank God he did. He pointed out the fact that the central characters lacked motivation. He noticed that the clever, intricate plot actually disguised the fact that the characters had not been properly developed. The plot served as eye-candy to keep the viewer (or reader) turning pages, offering no additional dimension, no “soul.” It was Story 101 stuff, and I should have caught it earlier. But the development process is complicated and a great many perspectives need to be considered along the way. We could have moved forward with the script we had, parting ways with the actor who had so generously given his time and feedback, or we could have taken his notes and worked to give the film the depth it deserves. We decided to do the rewrite, and I’ve spent the last two weeks writing a new treatment for the film. I’ll have about two weeks now to write the draft. Eleventh-hour stuff, but exciting as hell.

Motivation. Why our characters do the things they do. The challenge with the script is that it’s non-linear, so it’s very difficult to mark the “scene before” moments that guide each character’s motivation through the story. I had to pull the story apart, create a linear time-line, then restructure the puzzle in a way that made sense. In the process, I had to give the protagonist a reason to do the things he does. The actor asked a few crucial questions about his character – “Who is he now? What was he? What does he want to be?” Simple stuff. Sacrificed by a complicated plot. What motivates him to do the things he does?

The questions got me thinking about my own motivation and how it has changed over the years. I’ve noticed that I don’t have the same kind of passion I used to for writing novels. Why is this? What happened to me?

When I was writing BOULEVARD I wrote every single night after my day job. After a ten-hour day I’d go to the cafe and spend another five or six hours writing the book. I spent all my weekends, holiday and vacation time writing the book. I did this for three and a half years. What was my motivation?

I think the big motivator was a decision to change my life. The novel represented my last opportunity to prove that I had something more going for me than selling lighting products to support myself and my family. It was my ticket out. I had already spent what felt like a lifetime in and out of the film business and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. The novel seemed like the perfect way to fulfill my creative aspirations.

When I got my book deal, I was motivated to please my editor and write the best book I could. It was a two-book deal, so the motivation to write my second book, Beat, was wrapped right into the first. I expected all that hard work to pay off. I expected to support myself as a writer from that point on.

But I learned it could be a long, long road to that goal. I quit the day job a year ago, determined to write my third book without the stress and frustration I experienced while writing the first two. I had a screenwriting assignment, a little bit of cash from the books, and some savings.

I’ve been writing the book, but the motivation hasn’t been there. Why? Well, there’s no book deal, for one. I’m writing on spec with the hope that it’ll sell when I’m done. But that’s how I wrote the first book, so why was I motivated then and not now?

I think it’s because, in the beginning, the possibilities seemed wide and endless. I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry. I figured a two-book deal would net me, what, two million dollars? Seemed about right. Now I’m educated and depressed. I tend to think, “What’s the point?” All this hard work, all the sacrifice. I made a big deal of spending a lot of time with my family this year, to make up for all the time I didn’t spend with them when I had a full-time job, writing those first two books. I didn’t want to resent my writing for taking me away from my family, so I quit the day job in order to balance it all. But now I resent the writing for all that it requires of me, while not providing me with the kind of income necessary to support a family. I get tired of the dream that says, “after I finish this screenplay/novel/film/whatever, I’ll sell it and everything will be all right.” I’ve been living that dream for twenty-five years.

There is, of course, a different kind of motivation to write, and it has nothing to do with paying the bills. There’s writing for writing’s sake. I’m all for that, but it means a complete restructuring of my life. It means I write for myself and if it sells, all the better. It means I should have a real job, something I love, something that I want to do for the rest of my years. All of my day jobs have been just that–day jobs. Designed only to get me to the next film or writing assignment. Because all I ever really wanted to do was write and make films. What else do I love? I mean, love enough to do forty hours a week? The only thing I can think of involves animals. I could work at a zoo forty hours a week. Or a gorilla reserve in Uganda. Or I could do ocean animal rescue. Maybe I could work at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. I could do these things, for the rest of my life. However, they wouldn’t pay the bills.

I’m told I’m only a couple years away from really “making it.” Hmmm. It does seem plausible now, for the first time in my life, providing the film gets made and it becomes a success, and that the TV option I recently sold for Boulevard and Beat actually goes to series. And that I finish my third novel and sell it.

But where’s my motivation to finish that third novel? Why does it feel so much like work?

I have to find my motivation. Story 101. Without it, my life is just a clever, sometimes intriguing, oddly non-linear ride toward a zombie-like climax. But the soul, man, where’s the soul?

27 thoughts on “MOTIVATION

  1. Sarah W

    If it helps, I really want to read your next book.

    Seriously: does it help to know your readership is hoping for another story? Or is that just one more 'should be' drag?

  2. David Corbett

    Wow. Sarah's question hit ME like a nail in the head. I can only imagine it's effect on you, Stevolito.

    Well, so much to say. One, I'm in much the same position, writing a novel I'm not sure anyone will want (and have already had one major editor explain to me why no one will). It's my best work. I want to write it, once I clear the deck with the current deadline. But bills need to be paid. And yes, motivation — why write it if no one wants it?

    I don't think writers write for themselves. That's just shorthand for they write for an abstract, rarified reader. But if you don't write for a reader, you fall into all the traps of bad writing — dishonesty, self-indulgence, laziness of conception and execution. Readers make us honest. You just have to choose your reader. Shakespeare wrote for kings, Shaw wrote for philosophers, the actor Joseph Chaikin never went on stage without imagining Martin Luther King in the audience. I often write as though the writers I admire are reading — and ripping me to shreds. It's redemptive torture, but I think it makes me a better storyteller, a better wordsmith, a better writer.

    And I know the movie grind has worn you down, but I'm going to give you some tough love here, little brother — you are in a place a great many writers would kill to be in. To some, your crisis of soul might sound like sour grapes with a side of self-pity sauce. You got to do a re-write on a film? Killer. And a major actor looked at? Awesome. And you're bitching? There's a two word cheer we'll all say to buck you up. Starts with "F" ends with "U." Ever hear it before?

    I know that sounds harsh, and I don't want to diminish what you're going through. Like I said, I'm there too. And the family needs to be fed — you're to be commended for taking that seriously. Too many men don't. (I would never have written my four novels if I'd had a family. Period.)

    But being an artist in America means you have four options: Be one of the lucky few who makes it big; sell your soul in one realm (film) to be creative in another (novels); have a non-writing gig that pays the bills (one of my favorite bumper stickers: Real Musicians Have Day Jobs); or adapt yourself to being broke. Obviously, they're not mutually exclusive. Unless your luck breaks, sounds like you're squarely lodged in option two. Either find a way to accept that or make a change. What else is there to say?

    My advice? Keep working in film but make something so creatively gratifying about this book you can't help but get worked up about it. And feel fucking proud that you're a writer producers come to with scripts, feel lucky your creative soul isn't dead, and embrace your family. Juggle the very heavy and tricky balls in the air. If there's another way, go for it. But I can't think of one, honestly.

    Now, re: motivation. Let me begin with a quote:

    More often than not, people don’t know why they do things.
    —William Trevor, “The Room”

    Robert McKey in STORY makes a brilliant point about motive: "Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind."

    We are a ball of conflicting wants and needs and fears. Would Ahab have been truly happy if he killed the whale? Would Gatsby have lived a happy life with Daisy? (In RAMEAU'S NEPHEW, Diderot compared the human personality to a swarm of bees, with no core "soul" or persona.) What was Kurtz's "motive" in HEART OF DARKNESS?

    In your redraft, don't get tricked into thinking that by giving your character a motive you've somehow done enough to deepen him. You've just made him a slightly more clever puppet. Make him real, and his motives will spring from the complexity of his experience. I know you're on a tight deadline, so this may be impossible. But you're an intuitive guy, and I think if you just take an hour to sketch out this guy's core experiences — greatest love, greatest fear, greatest desire, greatest failure, and get some idea of how he normally deals with conflict and how he maybe changes that MO in your story — you'll be much further along in giving this actor what he wants and needs than in just trying to define a "motive."

    When I teach, I call this defying the tyranny of motive. Viva la Revolucion!

    BTW: Serious and stellar kudos for penning a script that can be favorably compared to MEMENTO. Well done, favorite son.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sarah, sometimes writing for readers is the ONLY reason I keep writing. And then I get a review from someone like you and the miracle of knowing that the story I was struggling just to get down in some form at all is actually being experienced by OTHER PEOPLE in the way I was praying they would be able to see it. It's like crack (um, so I hear…) – I need to do it again so I can get that high again.

    Not making a living is not an option for me, so I do whatever I have to with writing to make that happen. More books, e books, nonfiction, paranormals, whatever. That's a motivation.

    But, since Steve asked, the real motivation for writing for me is that once I have a glimpse of a story world and characters I feel something that is crazily like a moral obligation to make that story and those people LIVE, to the best of my ability. An unfinished book feels like ground glass inside my chest. It's a weird thing. Because you're never really finished, and there's always another book, and the drive never stops.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Davie – thank you for the tough love, motherfucker.
    The only way I can take it from you is that I know you're even tougher on yourself. You're like an AA sponsor talking to a guy with his first one-year chip.
    I like what you said about motivation. I love your Robert McKey quote. And the Heart of Darkness reference makes its point. Now you've given me more shit to consider at the eleventh hour. Thank you for that. (Did I say motherfucker yet?)
    I certainly do appreciate the position I'm in. It's a bit more difficult to know that it's taken me twenty-five years to get in this position, but that's life. Like you said, you probably wouldn't have written your four novels if you had to juggle it with a family–and I might have made it further down the road in my career if I didn't have a family–but my older self is really happy that my younger self got married and had kids. In some ways it may have slowed me down, but in other ways it made me a much better writer, just from the lessons I've learned along the way. So, if it made me a better writer, then it didn't slow me down, it actually put me in the place where great things can happen.
    I like your thoughts on how to get a feel for the character. It's amazing, isn't it? That we can study this stuff our whole lives and every day, every new story, requires that we try to use the same tools in a slightly different way? Or that we need to see it from a slightly different angle, or hear it described differently, in order to make it real again? I can never get enough instruction. I can re-read my "how-to" books forever, every day grasping something new I've been taught before.
    Oh, and the Momento comment? That's me saying it's Momento-like. It's Hollywoodese. See, if I pitch it as "Momento-like" then eventually others producers and such will repeat, "It's Momento-like," and then, even though it's nothing like Momento, it begins it's journey around town being compared to Momento, and there's really very few people who don't appreciate the craft in Momento. Welcome to my world.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alex – "An unfinished book feels like ground glass inside my chest. It's a weird thing. Because you're never really finished, and there's always another book, and the drive never stops."
    Yes, yes, and double-yes. Here's another odd idea – I don't really like the writing process until I'm doing my third or fourth draft. That's when I see the poetry emerge. So, I spend a year writing, every day, not enjoying the process. Then there's a couple months of bliss.
    Maybe some books are just harder to write than others. It wasn't so hard to write my first two books. I was mining my soul, and it had to come out. This third book comes from a different place and seems more dependent on craft. I've always been more of a heart guy than a head guy, and that might be the difference between the two.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks for the correction, Alex. What's even more embarrassing than comparing a film I'm writing to a classic I didn't write is to spell the classic incorrectly. Geez. What was I thinking? Memento.

  7. David Corbett

    Think the buzz will diminish any if someone figures out it's actually spelled Memento?

    I know. Motherfucker. Indeed. (Or, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny: Ain't I a stinker?)

    I envy you your family. Terri and I were thinking of either trying or adopting when she got sick. And I've become attracted to women with kids since Terri passed to be able to rectify what I consider a cosmic whole in my existence. And yet I am the very modern model of a lone wolf. Terri said as much when she met me. One of the key contradictions that defines me.

    And I really didn't mean to be a hard ass. I just wanted to give you permission to feel better, or nudge you toward taking a step back to say — you know, of positions I could be in, this one's not so bad. And maybe give you some freedom to just CREATE with the new book, and not feel burdened by it. If I got anywhere close to that, I'm grateful. Because if anyone deserves to enjoy his life, given what he's been through, it's you.

    And I'm glad my advice on the script was at least a tiny bit helpful, though even I admitted, coming at this hour, it's more like: Gee, did you consider making it a western?

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David….a Western….yeah, a Western…(I give you permission to stop me before I call the producers with this new idea).
    Your words are always the best, David, and they always hit their mark. When I say "motherfucker" I say it in the kindest way. And I know you know that. I think it's how we bond as men. That's what I've learned from Judd Apatow movies. (And I'm sure I've spelled his name wrong, too).
    Do you think adoption might still be in your future? You would in fact make a wonderful father.

  9. David Corbett

    Yes, I know. Deadwood gave me permission to call you cocksucker. Speaking of westerns.And male bonding.

    I don't know that I'll adopt so much as just step into the Uncle Dad role with a partner's kids. We shall see, said the blind man. (My German grandmother's favorite expression.)

  10. Lisa Alber

    A great post to read as the year winds down. First off, let me add to the accolades: I admire what you've done. I remember meeting you at Bouchercon S.F., and your first novel was about to come out (or just had?), and I thought to myself, "Yay for Stephen!" I'm still thinking "Yay for Stephen!"

    And, like Sarah W, I'm looking forward to your next book. And the screenplay — that rocks! From my perspective, you've totally got it going on.

    I've been wrestling with my motivation too. Seems like back a few years ago I was on the cusp of some sort — about to sell a novel, maybe; getting nods from bigwigs like Elizabeth George, and then … What the hell happened? The economy tanked for one; the industry started to change in a big way; I lost my agent to motherhood (she left the business).

    Now, I'm struggling with keeping up the internal-whatever that had me writing so earnestly and hopefully for years around the day-job. It was easier when I didn't know much. In fact, I was just talking to a friend yesterday about how I used to have more confidence in my writing than I do now. And I've noticed in the past year that when folks ask me, "What do you do?" I say, "technical writing" first, and then append, "also fiction." It used to be the other way around.

    What a blow to myself when I realized what I have been subconsciously (or is it unconsciously?) telling myself lately!

    Part of it is that I've been hanging on to the traditional publishing dream (NYC publisher!), and I may have to look outside the box I've place myself in. I might have to — gasp! — think about self-publishing. It's hard to give up the dream…in fact, I guess I haven't because I find myself querying agents again, hopeful despite myself…

    Just before Christmas, I had a long talk with an agent that I was calling my "almost-agent" — we were so close. So close!! I said to her, "Fuck it (indeed, I did–she's a cool person), I'm just going to self-publish." And she said, "NO. You can get this project published the traditional way, I'm sure of it."

    Sometimes, it's the little nudges that keep us going when the motivation flags.

    On to 2012!

  11. Gar Haywood


    The trick to staying motivated is striking the perfect balance between writing for yourself and writing for a target audience. I don't think you can do one and not the other without either going broke or losing your mind. The harshest reality in our business is that your breakthrough book really could be your next one. The stars align, word-of-mouth goes ballistic, and boom, there you are on the NY Times bestsellers list. Pull the plug before that happens and you run the risk of missing out on your true destiny (as Obie Won might say).

    Nobody wants to wait 25 years or fifteen books into their career to hit the jackpot, especially when they have a family to feed. But that's the nature of the game we're all playing, and you've got to learn to live with it. This ain't no "get rich quick" scheme, though some have had that experience. The long haul for most ends up being exactly that: long.

    I think Alex really hit on something when she suggested you have to always be writing about people you have a deep attachment to, because ultimately, I think, that's what keeps you going. When you write something that involves characters who interest you less than the story you're telling, the process becomes more mechanical than organic, and writing starts to feel like widget making.

    The reason "don't quit your day job" is such great advice for a writer is that, when you follow it, and have something to do from 9 to 5 during the week that pays your bills (whether it brings you joy or not), you free your writing from the burden of obligation. It can be whatever your muse chooses to make it, driven by desire and not need. That, IMO, is where really great writing comes from.

    Does that kind of writing always sell? No. But sometimes it does, big, and that's the dream we're all chasing.

    It's okay to get tired. And it's okay to get pissed at how unfair the game is. But it's not okay to quit.

    Not when you're as talented as you are.

  12. David Corbett

    I love Gar's and Alex's focus on character as the key to motivation. Hadn't thought of that before, but it's so true. But part of my problem with the new book is I love the characters, but the story either becomes too complicated or at least can't be summed up quickly — or written on a cocktail napkin — and in our ADD/high concept world, that's death. Still, I think they're right, and the key for me will be finding the story in a simpler fashion, and being able to state it to myself and thus to others.

  13. Lisa Alber

    Hi David, I hear the refrain "keep it simple" quite often. In fact, I remember a post from a couple of months ago in which you and/or Stephen mentioned this…It had to do with story and character, but I was never sure what you/Stephen meant — whether you/he meant the idea itself, or the prose…

    This is an interesting tangent. What do you mean by "finding the story in a simpler fashion"?

  14. Susan Shea

    Such an honest post – I thank you for it. I have doubts too. I'm in that position right now. Trying to finish the third book in a series that started well but which has hit a snag in the current publishing environment when I decided to change publishers. Why finish? I'm forcing myself. Not fun, but, like Alex, I'm committed to the characters – don't want to abandon them. The larger question of motivation to continue writing? There are other stories I want to tell, characters itching to be born, ideas I'm too curious not to follow.

    Meanwhile, good luck with your rewrite and movie options. It is a lot of work, but you have taken the challenge seriously and, spelling aside, I have a hunch you'll succeed and Murderati readers will be among those cheering the loudest!

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Lisa – thanks for that enthusiastic support! I do appreciate the sentiment. I think part of what makes it harder for me to have the same passion as before is this whole implosion in the publishing industry. I want to go the traditional pub route, but there's so much pressure to move to ebooks. I just want to write the best book I can and then deal with this question later. But I know that the issue has been gnawing at me, and it has affected my enthusiasm for writing.

  16. Debbie

    Hey Stephen, any chance that you didn't write your first book? By that I mean, any chance the characters did? Just a thought but I didn't write my first, nor the sequel. I haven't written anything, come to think of it. A dozen kids books or more and two started projects…all driven by some character telling me they had a story and would I be kind enough—no, more like, 'sit down and don't stop typing until I bloody well tell you to.'

  17. Lisa Alber

    Hi Stephen, definitely hear you about the inner conflict between dreaming toward traditional publishing and doing it on our own. The novel is ready to do SOMETHING with…I've been having trouble with starting new projects until something settles out on the existing novel. I'm querying agents and looking into self-publishing at the same time. Very schizophrenic. Meanwhile, what about the actual writing?!?!? Ack.

  18. Reine

    Stephen, I love it when you talk like this. Look at how you get everyone else talking. I need all the books you can write– all of you. Please. No pressure. Just keep on. Please. I love you. xo

  19. Allison Davis

    The Stephen and David show…mfs. We should be in bar here in New Orleans listening to you guys live.

    Ha, you know motivation is overrated, it's just sheer get back up on that treadmill, it's routine, and routine in all its form is comforting and maddening, necessary and boring, tedious yet can feed the need. Although, we do need something to get us to sit in the damn chair and I have that issue. It was the protogonist of this third manuscript who motivated me — who makes me feel guilty because I'm not getting her book out there, a book that needs to be out there. And damn it, I have to get it out there before I'm forced to put it to music with lights and technicolor (see Corbett's last post).

    Stephen dear, you are really a lucky person and I know sometimes being down and looking up, it doesn't seem like that but your 25 years in the trenches were great years giving you a unique background and perspective. I became a lawyer and practiced law the last 25 years instead of writing and I regret that, but not what it allows me to do sometimes, and I like the control it brings and I'm not dead yet, so the books I have in my head will spew out onto paper. Truly. And your most recently opportunity, well, I already told you, angels. Your motivation is to keep at it to support you and your family…just sit down and write.

  20. Tom

    I'm thinking about that bumper sticker David mentioned.

    Maybe the conventional wisdom about manuscript->agent->publisher->contract->earnings->self-promotion deathmarch is wrong.

    Musicians, especially classical musicians, usually don't get an agent until they've had some success on their own. You sell your own work, you pay your bills, you keep your profits. You work as hard as your ambitions/obligations tell you to work. If you're successful, and you're ready to reach higher, it's negotiation time with agents and clients and music publishers/labels after that.

    Think of yourself as a singer/songwriter. Would that change your approach to the work?

    BTW – your fans WANT that next book. They leave demanding nastygrams for you at Book Frog. Becky hides them from you, lest you be scarred.

  21. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Debbie – oh, boy…I sure wish I could get out of my own way so my characters could do the work. Or have the fun. Maybe it depends on the project. The first two books did come more from that space, though not entirely.

  22. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Gar, David, Lisa, Susan, Reine, Allison, Tom…sorry I haven't responded to your awesome posts. I'm just in a different world today, a weird kind of funk. I spent two hours at the dog park today. Without a dog. Of my own. With everyone elses' dogs, actually. I was adopted by a Burmese Mountain Dog, a standard poodle and a sheep dog. I needed to see dogs at play. That's the kind of mood I'm in. I need to pet and be petted.
    Thank you for your great comments. You're a good pack to run with.

  23. MJ

    Ooh, I like Allison's comment, and it reminds me of Monty Python – I'm Not Dead Yet.

    But, but, but, I feel like I am.

    Nah, that's just lawyerly lack of excitement. Ten years. Haven't set fire to anything. Yet.

    Hey, there's my motivation. That and earning the dough to give my sweet, elderly cat his weekly B12 shots (so very Studio 54, so Sunny Von Bulow, as usual the cat has a more glam existence than I do).

    Hang in there. I also want to see the movie and read the next book.

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