“Writing a novel starts with writing one page, and it doesn’t even have to be the first one!”

I am contacted by new writers and would-be writers on a regular basis. Many of them are putting the cart before the horse, and are focused exclusively on the desired end-result of writing: their novel, or story collection, or book-length non-fiction, or poetry chapbook.

But focusing too intently on the forest of words we hope to one day present to the world causes us to loose sight of the individual trees that contribute to the forest like each individual brush stroke contributes to the full effect of a finished painting. In order to end up with a forest spread across the blank landscape of the white page, we have to start by planting the first tree.

Making Progress is the Key

Of course, it isn’t just a new writer who might fall into this trap of perspective. I do it all the time. Nothing slows (or stops) my forward momentum with a writing project quite like getting to focused on—and then frustrated with—the fact that it doesn’t yet match what I hope the final product will look like. Sure, I need a goal (finish the novel!) but if I allow my daily self-satisfaction with my work product to be based only on whether or not I have met that goal, then I will be dissatisfied, every single day of writing, except for the last day, when I rewrite my paper and finally write, “The End.”

Let me tell you, if you don’t already know: Nothing will sap your creative energy faster than day after day after day of feeling like you’ve failed. If your creative perspective is so intent on the end product, rather than on making progress, you will drain yourself of your creative spark. (Unless, I suppose, you are a flash fiction or single joke writer.)

Even the proverbial "million monkeys who can stumble upon Hamlet" have to actually, you know, do some writing. (Photo in the public domain, via New York Zoological Society.)
Even the proverbial “million monkeys who can stumble upon Hamlet” have to actually, you know, do some writing. (Photo in the public domain, via New York Zoological Society.)

No novel (or memoir, or story collection) is written in one day. Even if you were to draft a completed short story in one day, chances are, you’d still go through rounds of editing and feedback and rewriting before you’d consider it “done.”

Here’s a confession: For me, there comes a place in every project where I become fixated on the end product and then, because it isn’t done, I end up losing my forward momentum. I get too wrapped up in the daily not-finishing that I no longer appreciate that I’m making progress. This is a very dangerous time for me, because it is the time when several past projects were abandoned and left for dead in the file drawer near my desk.

Recognizing this stage of the most recent novel-in-progress’s development, I took three days last week to shut down everything except my writing, so I could focus on that project. Deep focus was required to get me back on track. I knew this from years of experience with my own writing habits and from studying fellow writers.

On day one, I typed twenty-eight page os hand written scenes that I had accumulated over the past couple of months. Days two and three, I wrote a total of forty-one new pages. All in all, I have about twenty thousand new words in my novel’s Scrivener document.

A pretty good couple of days for making progress, if I say so myself.

The Optimist Puts Emphasis on Making Progress

If I look altho the three days of steady work, and focus on the significant amount of progress I made, I can get a little giddy. Twenty thousand words of progress is certainly something to be happy about. I moved a 60,000 word story into the 80,000 word rang. I’m closer to finishing the initial draft. Those are positive things, indeed.

The Optimist, though, gets a little ahead of himself. He does some number crunching (because, even though he’s a word nerd, he is also a stats geek) and he gets really excited about moving forward. During my active writing hours last week, I produced about four pages per hour. At that pace, if I spent just ONE HOUR a day writing new material, six days a week, fifty weeks a year, I could produce 1200 new pages in the next twelve months. That’s three or four whole books worth of material!!

A little persistence can go a long way, and that’s an energizing thought!

The Pessimist Scorns Progress

Of course, The Optimist has a chief detractor: The Pessimist. This foe has several tricks ready to deflate the exuberance of the Optimist. The Pessimist is well-practiced in fulfilling this task through three kinds of destructive focus:

  1. Focus on Failure – Failure, even on the smallest scale, can quickly deflate The Optimist’s sails. My goal with this particular writing retreat was originally to have five work days, and actually FINISH the novel draft. I did not accomplish that goal, and The Pessimist says, “See! You failed! What’s there to be so happy about!”
  2. Focus on the Past – Once The Pessimist has a foothold, he’s quick to dredge up the past. He says, “Sure, if you were actually a disciplined writer and faithful to your work to actually write four pages a day, you could have dozens of books written by now. But you aren’t disciplined, are you? I don’t see a pile of books here. Just a couple to show for what, ten years of work? What makes you think that’s going to change?” The Optimist further withers.
  3. Focus on a False, Assumed Future – Finally, The Pessimist pulls out the big guns: He tells me, “You know you won’t average four pages a day. You haven’t even averaged four pages a day in the few days that have passed since last week, and you were all excited and bubbly! What are you going to do when you hit a rough patch or a difficult stretch of the story? You’ll stall out, that’s what! Just like always. You’ll get distracted and bored. Why even bother?”

The Realist is Just Right

Like Goldilocks, I try to find an attitude that isn’t too optimistic, and isn’t too pessimistic. This “just right” middle ground is the elusive inner Realist. The Realist harnesses the enthusiasm of The Optimist, and learns from the nuggets of truth The Pessimist twists into such negative thoughts. The Realist sees what is possible and works toward those lofty goals, little by little. And, by listening to the negative self-talk of The Pessimist, he learns how to avoid the crippling apathy and laziness that comes from dwelling in a “What’s the Point?” attitude.

The Realist knows that in the present circumstances, I won’t be 100% productive when it comes to my writing work, but he also knows that the key to maintaining momentum and finishing a project is to continue to make progress and to celebrate that progress.

The Realist says, “Hey, you didn’t finish the book, which would have been great, but you are closer than ever! Let’s focus on progress, and worry about finishing later. Take the next step. Write the next scene.”

This is the dude I want to hang out with.

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

I know that a lot of people in this world wouldn’t think of three days of writing as a vacation. For me, those days away from the constant buzz of the phone, or email, or social media, and the other minor distractions of “daily life”—hours upon hours when I could focus, really focus, on the writing—were the best KIND of vacation. It was exactly what I needed.

Here are a few take-away points you might be able to apply to your own writing or creative life.

  1. Making progress, even a small amount of progress, can really add up. Can’t do four pages a day? How about ONE page? Even if you only write one page a day, after a year, you could have a book-length manuscript. Every new page is valuable. Before you know it, you’ll have a whole stack of pages to work with.
  2. Consistency doesn’t have to mean “daily.” Yes, writing at least a little bit every day is the ideal, but what if you only have one day a week where you can write for two hours? And let’s say you only average THREE pages each hour, instead of four: That’s still over 300 pages in a year. As long as you find SOME consistent rhythm, you will accumulate pages.
  3. The only way to finish is to get started. Sure, it is possible that you will start a writing project and never finish it. But it is 100% certain you’ll never finish it if you NEVER START it. Every book was written one word, one letter, one pen-stroke at a time. No book ever written suddenly appeared out of thin air, fully formed, professionally bound. Even if you believe we live in a world where a million monkeys at a million typewriters would eventually write Hamlet (they wouldn’t) you have to admit that SOMEONE HAS TO DO THE TYPING.
  4. Making progress is tied to minimizing distractions. During your writing time, your productivity will be inversely proportional to the number of distractions you allow into your writing space. Nothing will help you write more (and better!) pages than to remove distractions from your writing zone so that you can be more completely invested in the act of writing. It really is that simple.

If you aren’t happy with your current creative progress, I hope you will think over the points in this post, find your inner Realist, and begin to make some changes toward taking your next step in your creative life. Your next step may be just one page, or one paragraph, but you have to write that page at some point if you are ever going to finish, and today is as good a day as any for making progress.

Happy Writing everyone!

****NOTE****

Last week, I announced a few classes and critique groups. I wanted to say that if you are planning to register for the Artist’s Way study group, I’d be appreciative if you could go ahead and do that. Knowing how many to expect for that class will be really helpful in scheduling the room. The link above will take you to the registration page.

Also, even if you aren’t a local Sarasota/Bradenton resident, you ARE a reader of this blog and therefore eligible to submit a writing sample to the first ever Words Matter Creative Writing Anthology. See that link for more details!

Making Progress with Your Writing