Can’t Finish That Novel? Try Dopamine!

So, you’re writing a novel.

Sure, sure.

Let’s see if this has happened to you.

Somewhere around the 20,000 word mark, or maybe at 40,000, a slow, creeping dread settles in your bones. It’s cold, like saline in your arteries.

You stop and think:

“Okay, let’s figure this out. I’m going to write this novel for three months. Then I’m going to need another month, maybe two, maybe three, to get it read, get it cleaned up, get a second draft out. Might need to do a third draft. Or a fourth. This could take me a year. And then what? A month to find an agent? Six months? Then it’ll take that agent the same amount of time to sell — or, more likely, not sell — the book. Then it’ll be a year before it comes out. God only knows how well it’ll even sell. Is it original? What if someone beats me to market? Dolphin Vampires are hot right now, but in… let’s do some math here… two years? Advances are shrinking. Borders just fell into a pile of its own sick. I heard a rumor that nobody’s publishing any new authors. This book isn’t even that good. I’m not really that good. I’m, what, C+ at best? What am I doing? Who are these characters? Why are they saying these things? Are these even sentences? Should three commas be shoved together like that? Where are my pants? Why can’t I feel my legs? My mouth is dry. I need a drink. I need a gun. I need a gun that will shoot a drink into my brain. The Scotch-Gun. The Wine-O-Blaster. I don’t think I want to write this novel anymore. By god, what’s the fucking point?”

Then you kind of melt into a puddle of insignificant goo.

Problem is, writing a novel is like a walk across an endless expanse. You only start to see the end when you’re, duh, near the end. The rest of the time, you’re left wandering. Uncertain. The sun is bright. The land is bleached. The peaks and valleys you found when you started have evened out.

It’s time for –

No, wait, I need to do this in all caps.

IT’S TIME FOR SOME MOTHERFUCKING DOPAMINE.

Dopamine is released when we complete or achieve something. It’s why those stupid Xbox achievements are small but meaningful — that little bubble window that lets us know bloop, we just earned the 10 point achievement for “Donkey Wrangler” gives us a tiny spike of dopamine. Video games mete out achievements and successes in a smart way — a mini-boss here, a new weapon there.

Writing a novel has none of that.

Not really, anyway.

So, we need to trick our brains into releasing some dopamine along the way, into convincing us that this is indeed a worthwhile endeavor. Because it is. Because telling a story is a glorious thing deserving of mighty praise. You are laying down legendary footprints. You are ripping open the Bigfoot’s stomach and showing the world its contents for the first time. Storytelling is some awesome shit.

As writers, we need something that rewards us — like how when the rat does something good, he gets a food pellet or a mouse comes out and tickles his nuts with a feather.

Part of me thinks, dang, those god-awful goblins that plague a writer — lack of discipline, procrastination, self-doubt — could be cured if we just figured out a way to trigger dopamine in our penmonkey brains.

Some of it we can do ourselves, right? We set benchmarks and, at each benchmark, gain rewards. Could be graded like experience points in a game. “When I get to 1,000 words, I get a cookie. When I get to 5,000 words, I get an ice cream cone. When I get to 10,000 words, I get a handjob.” And the rewards continue to escalate from there: oral sex, new video game, ice cream cake, a day off, a pet komodo dragon.

And what-have-you.

We can certainly incorporate others into our Quest For Dopamine, too. Have friends, loved ones, sex monkey partners and writing buddies help you out — high-fives and offered rewards for achieving certain milestones.”Get to 5k, I’ll send you an e-card. Get to 50k, I’ll send you a bushel of apples. Finish the novel, I will grant you the power of God.” Or whatever.

But dang, it’d be great if we could programmatically do that. Like, when you literally hit that mark, your computer bings and you get some kind of Storyteller Badge. You could get achievements for using a certain rare word or for utilizing alliteration without appearing like a douche. (Shut up, I love alliteration, stop dumping pig’s blood on me at the Prom.) This sounds like a hot mod for Scrivener.

I’m not just being glib. I’m actually serious.

We writers need to trick our brains into ejaculating a creamy packet of dopamine.

And so I put it to you, Internets. Let’s talk about this. Let’s figure out how to set up rewards to get us through the grim, tireless expanse of writing a novel. We need to crowdsource this bee-yotch. We need to hive-mind it. We should smash all our brains together until it is one treacly ball of mind-clay.

Writing.

Rewards.

Go.

(Sidenote: I now want to create and market a new brand of candies called DOPAMINTS. They will be crisp peppermint suckling candies that dissolve sweet, sweet dopamine into your body. Nobody can take that idea from me. I call dibs. I call dibs! By the Law of Dibs, it shall be mine!)

43 comments

  • Yeah…i’m not going to admit that something scary close to that opening paragraph was going through my mind all at once barely ten minutes before I came online to glance at your website here. I’ve been in that state of falling to goo and picking myself back up again constantly for well over a year now, and i understand why. We writers always put immense pressure on ourselves to succeed. Some, later in life and some like me i imagine who have been taking writing seriously–or as seriously as one can at that young of an age–since teenage years. What i don’t understand is why it ALWAYS comes at the most inopportune time. Here i am, at the critical “structural editing” stage of the novel I’ve been working on for 5 years, I believe in the book, I want to get it done, and i know the work that needs to be done so the story shines, but that always comes up when I sit down to work. I ignore it because i understand its bullshit, and that i have to ignore it, yet it slows me down nonetheless.

    To give you an idea of just how slow… I’m getting about a 2,000-3,000 word chapter done a month (if i’m lucky, usually more like 2 months).

    Those little spurts of dopamine do come whenever i finish a chapter, but how does one persevere through that with some level of grace, when the reward is a month or two in between. That is what i’m trying to figure out.

    The only thing I know to do is just keep going. Cause that reward of finishing a chapter sure as hell won’t come if i don’t.

  • Clearly we need writing software that gives us achievements when we reach certain goals. Each time you finish a chapter. Or kill off a character. Or write a chapter with less than 10 adjectives.

    I’d do it but I’d rather write my novel.

  • There is an app for the iPhone … Epic Win, which gives rewards for everyday chores and is basically the same idea applied to everything you don’t wanna do.

    Somehow we’d need to incorporate that app into a writing program.

  • This is exactly what I needed to hear this morning. Like Amanda, I’m at the “By god, what’s the fucking point”, er, point. Haven’t written anything in a week. A friend told me that if I’d put this much time and energy in creating my own world instead of playing in someone else’s sandbox, I’d probably have something publishable, which totally killed my motivation. What’s the opposite of dopamine? Cuz that’s what my brain is full of right now.

    I don’t have any clever ideas for dopamine delivery at the moment, but knowing that others go through the exact same period of “characters suck story sucks I suck” actually helps.

  • This hits me with all sorts of writing, not just for novels. It is also the subject of numerous NaNo emails you get over the month.

    Not sure how to fully get that sense of accomplishment, aside from just occasionally looking at the word count and giving yourself a moment to go “Yeah, I wrote all that” without worrying about “but I have so much more to do!”

  • OMG! Let’s do this! Write now! Writer Points and achievements! Turn it into a great big game and all my procrastination will go right out the window because “Hey! I need to get the “Throw in Gratuitous ‘splosions” trophy”.

    No. I’m serious. Coders, modders, fellow writers – we should do this. Would be the amazeballs covered in awesomesauce. The best writing community the internet has ever seen.

  • Having daily goals I could achieve really helped me through the first draft of my novel… it’s become a lot harder now that I’m finishing the second draft. I’ve definitely been falling victim to that inner voice of self-doubt over the past two weeks.

    When you figure this software out, I’ll be the first do download it from a free shareware site.

    Great post.

  • I’m going to repeat what I said yesterday because it is The Key for me: Discipline builds momentum. Once I get going, I reach my word count goal and it’s like its own drug, okay! But maybe it’s my competitive nature, because then I have to see how far above the goal I can go, and then the next day if I can do even better…. it’s the getting started that makes me pnash my teeth for a while, I’m nervous until I get a solid chunk of text done, say 25k. The middle is always tenuous but by then it’s, like, I haven’t written all this for nothing, trudge, trudge, meet goal, keep going, darn it I am better than this.

    I want a computer that dings with a Storyteller badge PLEASE! That would be awesome. And then I wouldn’t need to keep setting an alarm on my phone.

  • Holy shit this is exactly what I needed to read. Thank you so much, Chuck. I’ll be your first customer for Dopamints.

    Right now I’ve institued Sarah Silverman’s philosophy of “Make It A Treat” for writing a novel. Drinking, going out with friends, watching TV with my husband…all of these are “treats” for a hard day’s work.

    Hopefully I can get my peon brain to “ejaculate a creamy packet of dopamine” sooner rather than later and put this novel to bed.

    Whoever thought writing 100,000 words would be so damn hard?

  • I did private Lulu books for a couple of recent projects and it was the BEE’S KNEES.

    But that was after I’d finished it.

    I need help with the prizes on this…I’m out of time…

    1) Quarterly Awards, as in “I slogged through 1/4 of my first draft word count,” 2/4, 3/4, 4/4! One stiff drink/bar of chocolate of your choice! A good meal and a shower at 4/4!
    2) First Polish Awards, as in “I got it to the point where my feedback partners won’t laugh me out of town for typos!”
    3) Non-Meltdown Critique Awards! Surviving that first read through by people who don’t love you unconditionally!
    4) The No More Plot Holes Award! When you fix all the plot holes that your partners spotted!
    5) Submission Award! It’s in the mail!
    6) 10 Rejection Award!
    7) 100 Rejection Award!
    8) 500 Rejection Award!
    9) Asked for a partial/full Award!

    The milestones after that are so adrenaline-producing that I don’t recommend additional awards, as you’re likely to be drained afterwards anyway :)

  • Hey! I did that opening paragraph a couple of months ago! I’m better now…mostly. Anywho, I did set myself a reward, though I put it way at the end. Why did I put it at the end? Regardless, I finished my first draft of my first novel this week. Tomorrow (because that’s when I can escape my sick children) I go to the mall. Therein lies Mecca, better known as the Godiva Chocolatier. They dispense dopamine in the form of key lime truffles. Tomorrow I splurge, and buy a dozen rich, tangy dopamine pills. Ahhh… Now I just need to figure out rewards for the editing process. I’m thinking pygmy goat.

  • “Clearly we need writing software that gives us achievements when we reach certain goals. Each time you finish a chapter. Or kill off a character. Or write a chapter with less than 10 adjectives.

    I’d do it but I’d rather write my novel.”

    There is actually software which could do something like this for you. Simon Haynes’ yWriter is a great bit of freeware for writers and it features an adjustable word count goal that lets you know daily how many words you have written and how many you need to meet your deadline. Worked GREAT for NaNoWriMo.

    After setting that counter for a short-term goal, just figure out your reward for reaching it. Hit the goal, get the reward, up the goal and adjust the date. Later. Rinse. Repeat.

  • Yes, please sign me up for dopamints. Or should it be dopeymints? I like the treat of sex for every, oh say, 10,000 words. It would solve two problems, I would be writing this damn book and spending sweaty quality time with my husband!

    Can we incorporate a button in our program that let’s you choose your reward? Like at a carnival game booth? If you exceed your goal for the day you get to pick a bigger prize?
    Like a make out session versus a new position? You can see which way my mind runs for dopamine…..

  • Love the response thread.

    Got a genuine question though for anyone interested in answering. what number of words do you try to reach everyday? For me i usually dont think about anything but finishing the chapter. I dont personally worry how much im getting done any particular day.

  • I love how in your list of increasing rewards, ice cream cake and a new video game trump oral sex :D

    I just started my blog last week, so I can’t guarantee this is going to continue to work, but #FridayFlash is helping me a ton. Every Friday, Twitterites post a flash fiction piece on their blogs. I get an easy “Woo hoo!” from finishing something, I get nice people commenting and telling me what worked and what didn’t, and I have energy to jump back into the novel. Plus I get extra writing practice and build a platform. So far, win-win!

  • My first novel had to be finished by a real deadline that was a meeting with a publisher (nope, didn’t get the contract.) I don’t have one for my current so I’m slugging along like Missisippi mud in a drought. I am all for a dopamine deadline! Get dopamints out quick.

    Race to the end? First one gets a book deal?

  • I am not a writer, or really an aspiring one. I’m just one of the grubby masses of people who have script ideas and have even purchased Final Draft. So I guess its a similar thing. I am an artist and people who slosh paint on a canvas (even digital ones) go through the same precise set of emotions when considering their insignificance.

    Just wanted to tip my hat. Excellent post, love your blog so much!

  • Stupidest dopamine trick (that I actually use): I have a spread sheet with which I track word count. When I’m low, I change the tally number red. On count but unfocused is black (means research or reflect on notes). On count & focused or above count gets the green color. Thus I feel in control even if I’m in the red & I do get a dope burst when I get to color the tally green.

    I have an opposite tally but same system when I’m cutting words in edits.

    Crazy-as-a-Moonbat Achievement Unlocked!

    K

  • For each 10k word count, my woman’s cell phone should emit a lascivious vibration, thereby summoning her forthwith to my location to dispense lavish carnal rewards. And complimentary Dopamints.

  • Or there is always WriteOrDie – I know it is the Stick rather than the Carrot (or the DopaMints) but it can get the words going.

    Also, I always throw away the first 1/4 of whatever I write in a day – it is always garbage. I’d love a program to remember which bits were written first in each session and highlight them when you click “edit mode”. They’re ALWAYS trouble spots.

  • As it happens, I did exactly this. I was editing my WIP (now at 50K), and was feeling the need for some bright spot in the middle of the slog.

    I started collecting a bunch of the #FridayFlash stories I’d written, culling the best of them to make an anthology, a little e.book feather in my cap to keep me warm as I worked on the novel. Editing the stories, however, got me bogged down again, as I started fussing with details that probably didn’t need to be fussed with. I complained about this on twitter.

    Enter an editor & publisher whom I’ve worked with in the past. Long story short, the publisher offered me a deal for my flash fiction anthology, for editing, formatting and publication. Not bad.

    Now, I just have to come back to the WIP, and resist the urge to get yet another fix of dopamine before I take up the slog again.

  • I use caffeine and nicotine instead of dopamine.

    That’s the combustion engine of my system: I only smoke and drink very-high-powered coffee when I am working on the novel. Not in the morning at work before, not in the evening after, only socially if I’m among other authors.

    It establishes a Skinner Box system of reward. My brain and body crave the next chapter on a physical level that augments the psychological.

    It works well, with the only drawback being having to quit after. I do alright with that, but it usually takes two components – having only smoked “no-additives” cigarettes like American Spirits and having about a month to grapple with it – in order to succeed smoothly. The most difficult part is retraining my system to write creatively without the reward, but I usually manage to hit my stride within a week or two.

  • Studies(*) have shown that the really big dopamine hit comes from semi-random rewards. If you get a reward every, say, 2000 words, then you come to expect that reward and the rush goes away. What you need is a system that dispenses a dopamint at a random point between, say, 1000 and 4000 words, and those rewards should vary in size.

    I’m envisioning a little game built into Scrivener at the bottom of the screen, where a little fantasy warrior guy wanders along killing monsters. His movement speed depends on my words-per-hour rate, his attack power on the quality of the writing. Sometimes when he kills a monster, it drops a magic item.

    Fuck it, let’s cut to the chase. Scrivener should randomly boot up World of Warcraft at some point around your daily word count target…

  • I think a social online tracking board of achievements unlocked would be helpful. Very in the vein of Lovemachineinc (http://sendlove.us/trial/), which is a Startup from the guy who created Second Life. It would be easy to set up… the company would actually be a writer’s group, and we could utilize the board not only as a recognition/reward system but also as an awareness tool. Lovemachineinc is free, currently in Beta stage. However there is a small service fee per member that I think is allocated to the gift cards… I wonder if this can be modified for a non-profit organization, like a broke dopamine seeking writers group.

  • It would appear that I completely missed the point of the post – don’t go off and get dopamine shots by accomplishing things TANGENTIAL to writing the novel… create dopamine shots that are INTEGRAL to writing the novel.

    OK, now I’ve got it. Disregard previous comment.

  • Hah, LOVE this post. I’m definitely up for little Writer Reward badges pinging up onscreen every 5k words.

    I’m nearly done with my current novel. My reward to get through the nightmare of editing and revising is that I get to start on a new WIP. Because Shiny New Ideas are the best dopamine delivery system out there :)

  • Badges for achievements would be awesome. It should be something that links to Twitter or other social networks easily so you can share your achievements, maybe compare to other writers, etc. Maybe something through Goodreads? That would be cool.

    Seriously though, I think this should happen. Great idea, Chuck.

  • Getting badges every time I write however many words would indeed be awesome, but what I could really do with at the moment is some more editing based targets / achievements, and they seem harder to make unambiguous. I mean a thousand words is a thousand words, it may be a thousand utterly rubbish words or a thousand words that will sear your soul and make you wish to become a better person (okay the latter is rather unlikely in a first draft, but hush). The point is a thousand words is an unambiguous metric, you know when you reached it. Then comes editing and wordcount no longer really works because some edits cut words and others add them and so on, so do I reward myself per scene? and if I do do I have to include the going back and changing things in half a dozen other scenes because I changed something in this one (which despite my best efforts to plan my editing probably wasn’t in the plan). Do I pick different sized rewards for different length scenes or based on how difficult the changes are going to be? (and make them bigger for scenes with lots of little alterations rather than ones where I basically chuck everything out and start again, cos those are the ones that murder my enthusiasm).
    Don’t get me wrong, I think this is an awesome idea, I just wish I had a clearer idea of what the achievements should be for at the point I’m at at the moment.

  • Great advice! I wrote a short story where a mysterious guy has great insight into human motivation and it’s revealed at the end he’s not some psychologist or life coach, but a video game designer.

    I am battling the Apathy-Monster right now, but I’m going to take your advice and promise myself something good for each milestone. Cake, then new curtains, and then an iPhone.

  • To really get yourself “addicted” to being productive, you need to get that dopamine rush on a variable-ratio schedule. The way this works is that once you complete a task, there’s some probability of getting a reward; the more often you complete it, the more often you get rewarded … but you never know for sure when that will happen. It might be after 10 more times, or it might be the very next one.

    Sound familiar? It should. It’s the principle that keeps people sitting at slot machines, mechanically pulling the lever as often as the machine will let them. It’s also what makes some video games (especially MMOs) so addictive, when you think about it; many opponents randomly “drop” special items, and sometimes they’re really, really good — so you’ll sit there, plowing through opponents for hours if necessary, to get that super-special +5 Überslayer Sword of Doom.

    How do you get this to work for yourself when writing? Well, I’m not a programmer so I can’t do anything THAT special, but almost every one of us has a nice randomization device available all the time: an iPod, iPhone, mp3 player, etc. set on shuffle.

    Start by making yourself some audio files; make one that’s blank (no sound) and about 60 minutes long. Make a few others that have some sort of rewarding sound (a sample of a crowd cheering, or maybe the nostalgia-stirring sound of a power-up or 1UP in the old Super Mario Bros.), follow by a recording of yourself telling you what prize you won.

    The prizes should range from the really mundane and simple (coffee/cigarette break) to events that should come up once a day (break for lunch, or call it a day if you’ve already had lunch once) to periodic treats for yourself (“Nice job! Let’s call it a day and order a pizza!”) to rare, special prizes you buy for yourself (“Congratulations! You just bought yourself an iPad 2!” or “Wooooooo! Time to hit the strip clubs!”).

    Assemble a playlist with a whole bunch of copies of the “blank” audio file, about 1/2 as many of the “short break” rewards, 1/4 as many of the “long break” (lunch/end of day) rewards, and then progressively fewer of the really special rewards (say, 1/20 for something as minor as getting food delivered to maybe 1/100 to 1/1000 or less for the high-end super-special rewards). This playlist will be freaking HUGE, but don’t let that scare you.

    When you’re working, put the playlist on random and repeat, and start it on one of the blank, hour-long tracks. Write, write, write. Every time you finish a full page (or whatever short-term but easy-to-identify benchmark you want … make it worth about 30 to 60 minutes of work for you, on average), skip to the next track — maybe it will be another blank track and you go back to work. Maybe it will be a short break. Maybe it will be a night of debauchery with strippers and booze. Maybe — very rarely! — you’ll hit the jackpot and get multiple rewards in a row: Cigarettes, pizza, new iPad, AND strippers.

    If you really, honestly hit a terrible stretch of writer’s block, you’ll still go to the next track after an hour — just promise yourself that you’ll pause immediately if you’re away from the keyboard or doing anything but writing. Force yourself to keep going — and the more you write, the more often you get a chance to buy yourself something really cool. Soon, the rewards for writing faster will get you over your writer’s block.

    Over time, as you get to higher and higher levels of production, you can increase the number of blank tracks in the playlist. Do this gradually to hold yourself to an ever-increasing standard, but reward yourself by adding another high-end reward to the list every time you do.

    As long as you can employ two really minor bits of discipline (always work when the playlist is running, and ALWAYS buy yourself what you’ve earned), you’ll be getting a nice hot injection of dopamine with enough regularity that you’ll quite literally become addicted to writing.

    p.s. I’ve been meaning to write up a blog entry on this very topic. After looking at the length of this comment, I suppose I might as well get started on it. :-)

  • I’m totally in.

    Though once we figure out how to get our XP and level-ups going, it’s only going to be a matter of time before that douche that always cheats to level up faster comes along and breaks the system. He’ll probably even pick-pocket our word count and then off us so he can double up on XP.

    But seriously. It would be amazing if Scrivener integrated this idea somehow. I think we should petition them.

  • Can’t we get Dopamints at ThinkGeek? And if not, why not?

    Level Me Up for the iPad doesn’t quite cut it in the dopajizz department, though it’s a decent start. We need Chocolatier for Writers. Or just a Cheering Mod for Scrivener. That would be good. But can’t be activated by doing lots of research on Wikipedia then dumping dozens of assorted naked bondage .jpegs into story notes. Has to be actual real live bona fide words strung together like toenails crawling out your eye sockets after you’ve read too much Kerouac and snorted Comet. Not that my WIP has that much bondage in it, really.

    Ooh. I think I just found a coupon for ThinkGeek.

  • I’ve heard that you get a dopamine release when people tweet you or post on your FB page or whatever. Maybe there could be some kind of ROUND OF PUBLIC APPLAUSE every time you reach a goal. I mean, we’re all in this business because we’re basically show-offs who crave validation, right? Or is that just me?

    I always cheat when I am in charge of rewarding myself. Like if I say, “Oh, I’ll have a glass of wine after I finish 1000 words,” I immediately can’t write anymore and then I give myself the glass of wine and promise myself that NOW I HAVE TO WRITE THE WORDS and so I drink it and then watch American Idol instead and hate myself for it. This is more a system of self-loathing than it is actually a nice, pretty, little dopamine release. I’ve had to stop doing any kind of reward-based system and switch to what works, which is more a panic-inspired, deadline based model.

  • So true, so useful, so yummy to read.

    I think some of the best way to get the dopamines flowing is to have someone read what you are doing. Not necessarily for the feedback, but if you’re writing for your eyes alone, it feels a bit wasteful at some point. Sort of like a handjob. Well, sort of …

    So, hitting the (more or less metaphorical) ‘publish button does help in giving you a feeling you’ve shipped those 1000 words to the great wide Somewhere, where what you wrote might matter.

  • I was talking with a programmer friend about this a few weeks ago. Have you seen Heiaheia.com? It’s for exercise, but i want that social media for writing! You get to put in what you did, be it writing 100 words, 10,000, or edited. Maybe sending out quries, etc. Everything you do for your writing career. The program gives you a little congrats when you reach your goal and any social network friends can stroke your ego by giving you cheers, etc.

    I’m going to send my programming friend a link to this blog post!

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