"You promised me a challenge that I've never seen before," said Marla. "But if I've never faced this challenge, then why am I the best person for the job?"
"This is a new area, and your expertise is the closest available," said Dr Stroud. "I'm told you have a good reputation, not just in the lifestyle and self-help categories" — his tone dismissed these as trivial — "but in serious clinical fields: apathy, depression, aboulia.... Fundamentally, this is a problem of motivation."
The spark for this story came from a discussion on Codex, my online writing group, where Luc Reid expressed an aspiration to write a novel that "utilizes what I've learned about human motivation so well that it is directly helpful to people in understanding their own motivations and how to improve their lives."
Human motivation is indeed problematic, judging by the number of people who say they have problems with willpower, productivity, akrasia, and so forth. However, my imagination tends to operate rather like a knight on the chessboard, making diagonal leaps. When Luc mentioned human motivation, I immediately thought, "What about artificial intelligence? Where does an AI's motivation come from?" I wondered what would happen if a psychologist — an expert in human motivation — was faced with an AI. How do you motivate an electronic brain?
That's the classic recipe for a story: a character with a problem. I quickly wrote the first draft, while the inspiration remained fresh. It was an easy story to write, because it had a limited cast and took place in a single location on a single day. When a friend of mine saw the draft, he described it as "your usual thing: talking heads in a white room, discussing some intellectual issue." So in the next draft, to add colour, I gave the protagonist a purple woolly jumper.
When I finished "An Exercise in Motivation", I realised that it had thematic similarities to my earlier novelette "Joining the High Flyers". The two stories have very different characters and plots: "Joining the High Flyers" is an action-oriented tale about body-modified humans who live in floating castles, whereas "An Exercise in Motivation" is a discussion-focused piece about human nature and artificial intelligence. Nevertheless there is a common theme uniting the stories; in particular, their final lines make a similar point.
I send most of my science fiction stories to Asimov's first, because editor Sheila Williams has been kind enough to publish me frequently. However, in this case I was worried that she might consider the ending of "An Exercise in Motivation" to be too reminiscent of "Joining the High Flyers". Even if she published it, readers might find it too familiar.
This was probably an unwarranted fear. Authors are very close to their own work, and see connections that others might not perceive. If two stories each have a dozen aspects, most readers probably notice the eleven that are different, rather than the one that's similar.
Nevertheless, I sent "An Exercise in Motivation" elsewhere, and it sold to Analog, becoming my first appearance in that magazine.