Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Dealing With the Slog, part I

Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming…

Yes, I am a Pixar fan. Sue me. My kids were the perfect age for the magical first generation of Pixar movies — Toy Story (1 and 2); Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars (the first one) — and Nancy and I loved them, too.

But Dory’s little don’t-give-up song is more than cute and annoyingly catchy. It also offers a valuable lesson every writer should take to heart.

Today, I continue my “Most Important Lessons” feature, which I began a couple of months ago. In this installment I intend to give a few pointers about what we can do to keep ourselves moving forward in the middle of the slog that is novel-writing.

Because here’s the thing: We writers love to talk about the big events in our professional lives. We shout from the hilltops when we sign a contract or have a new book come out or complete a manuscript. Those are the golden moments, the ones we live for and love to celebrate. But, of course, those moments make up a teeny-tiny fragment of our professional lives. The achievements themselves are significant and worth marking, but they are fleeting and painfully brief. The vast majority of our time is spent working toward those milestones — slogging through the initial drafts of our books and stories, revising and reworking the manuscripts, marketing ourselves and our writing, developing new ideas, or maybe worrying about when we might have a new idea that’s worth a damn.

Of all of these, the first one — slogging through the initial draft of our manuscripts — might be the most difficult. I think it’s safe to say that’s the place where most nascent careers founder. And so that’s where I’m going to focus today.

How do we keep going? How do we avoid becoming one of those aspiring writers who has started ten books but finished none of them, or has started one passion project but stalled at about the 60% mark and cannot move forward from there?

Here are some strategies I have used over the years.

1. Set and internalize your own deadlines. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career, and have sold several series to publishers large and small. That means I have often written to deadlines imposed upon me by my editors. But most writers in today’s market, even established professionals, have to write the first book in a series before they can sell the project, and so I have also written a lot of books that had no deadline, at least no official one (including Thieftaker, Spell Blind, Time’s Children, Radiants, and the first two books of the new Celtic urban fantasy I’m working on). The deadlines for those books are ones I gave myself. And I can tell you that writing to an external deadline is much easier than writing to a self-imposed one. When we miss an external deadline, we risk angering our editor, giving up our place in the publishing schedule, and even endangering our contract. When we miss a self-imposed deadline, there are essentially no consequences.

And so, we need to internalize our deadlines, to make them feel as real and absolute as the external ones. For me, the best way to do that is to map out my project schedule for an entire calendar year. “Jan. 1-April 15, work on Novel X. April 16-May 31, work on editing projects 1 and 2. June 1-September 15, work on Novel Y. Etc.” This way, missing that first deadline has the potential to set back my entire year. Suddenly, missing my own deadline puts something I care about at risk. These are still all artificial deadlines with artificial consequences, but the more I put at stake with each deadline, the more likely I am to take them seriously, which is the point.

2. Keep your deadlines realistic and achievable. Yeah, I know. That hypothetical calendar in the paragraph above includes two novels, each of which I’m writing in about 3 1/2 months. For me, at this stage of my career, that is realistic and achievable. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve written a lot of books and a lot of stories. You should not necessarily expect the same of yourself. When I first started, I took a good deal longer to complete each novel. When you make your deadlines, you need to be realistic about what you can get done, and you need to set your timetable accordingly. When we set deadlines that are unachievable, we set ourselves up for failure. The purpose of deadlines is to keep us on task and on schedule. The moment we miss our first deadline, that purpose is blown. We become discouraged. Our projects languish. Before we know it, our next deadline is shot as well, and suddenly we’re back where we don’t want to be, struggling to complete the novel we’ve already been working on for too long. So be realistic (and that includes factoring in travel, family and work obligations, and anything else that might slow you down). Set yourself up for success.

3. If necessary, divide large tasks into smaller, discreet, manageable ones. For some writers, the very notion of writing a novel can be intimidating. For these folks, nothing is scarier than typing “Chapter One” on a page. I get that. To this day, I am somewhat daunted each time I begin a new book. It’s a bit like painting the entire interior of our house. That seems like too huge a job to take on. But when we look at the big project as a series of more limited tasks, we remove some of that pressure. “I might be thinking of painting the entire house, but for now I’m just going to paint this room.”

I approach writing books the same way. I don’t fixate on the big project. I think in terms of chapters. How does the book start? What comes next? What do I need to do after that? And so on. I don’t tend to set deadlines for each chapter, because I write my chapters in one or two days. But again, that is something I can do now that I couldn’t have imagined when I began my career. So by all means, if it feels like it would be helpful, establish a schedule for your writing on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Set realistic, achievable deadlines for their completion and stick to the timetable.

This is already a long post, so I’m going to stop here for this week. Next week, dealing with the curse of the 60% stall!!

Until then . . .

Just keep writing
Just keep writing
Just keep writing…

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