For us writers, it can often feel as though we’re taking a step forward, only to hit a roadblock and be forced to take two steps back. We spend months polishing a story, only to discover a major plot hole that requires a complete rewrite. Our favorite scenes don’t resonate with our critique partners, and we’re faced with killing our darlings. The book we thought was finally going to capture an agent’s attention is met with radio silence. The life of a writer has so many twists and turns it rivals a treacherous mountain pass.
But just because it might feel like everything is an uphill climb doesn’t mean we’re not making progress. It doesn’t mean we should quit. Easier said than done, I know. I’ve been there. At times it seems as though other writers are forging ahead of me up that mountain pass while I’m stuck in one place. [Note to self and to you: do not compare your journey to other writers.] Other times I get frustrated because instead of writing, I have to go to the day job. When you have limited time to work on your craft, it can feel like you’re not getting anywhere.
Sometimes we need reminders of how far we’ve come. While I was organizing my home office the other day, I got one of these reminders. As I sorted through the clutter, I came across a printed copy of one of my manuscripts. A heavily marked up manuscript. When I looked at it more closely, I realized it was my very first draft of A HEARTBEAT AWAY FROM YOU. My notes were scribbled all over the first chapter. Comments appeared on almost every page. And on the bottom of the very last page, I’d typed:
First draft completed, September 8, 2018-March 18, 2019. Approx 6.5 months. Completed while working my job and covering two other positions. To finish this draft while being burnt out, fatigued and anxious is a big accomplishment, no matter how rough the draft! It lays the foundation for a stronger story. You should be proud of yourself!
Suddenly it all came flooding back to me. How I’d been thrust into a new job and expected to cover two positions that were above mine with no training. How I’d been stressed and overwhelmed and on the verge of a mental breakdown. At the time, very few people knew just how much the situation triggered my anxiety.
As I stared down at the note I’d left for future me to find, I was in awe. I’d forgotten I’d penned Ali and Max’s story during that tough time. I thought to myself: How did you do that? Considering how mentally and physically exhausted I’d been, I couldn’t believe I’d finished the draft at all. I tried to remember those writing sessions, but they were a blur. But flipping through the manuscript, I began to recall a sense of being driven to get the story down, of using it as my creative outlet. I remembered the feeling of accomplishment when I wrote The End. I didn’t know if it would ever be published, but I was proud of the mess. Proud of the characters I’d created and the story I wanted to tell. Excited for the vision I had for the second draft. Then it hit me—despite the stressful circumstances, I’d finished the draft like I always do—writing a little bit every weekend. One word a time. One sentence at a time. One chapter at a time until it was done.
It would have been so easy to say I didn’t have the energy. To binge watch TV or sleep or cry or anything else. Looking back on it now, I’m so glad I didn’t. I’m proud of myself for sticking with it, persevering and seeing it through. At the time it might not have felt like I was making progress, but I was. As they say, writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint.
It was fitting that I found that first draft around the same time I received the galley proof for A HEARTBEAT AWAY FROM YOU. (Shameless plug: preorder now!) I set them side by side and looked at them in wonder. From first draft to galley, I’d done it. Progress can be hard to measure, but sometimes you do get to see the fruits of your labor. And that’s a pretty amazing feeling.
4 tips for measuring progress:
Keep notes and dates of your progress. Revisiting the list of little (or not so little!) things you’ve accomplished allows you to see how far you’ve come. I love to add notes at the end of my drafts to remind myself that no matter what else was going on in my life, I saw the story through to the end.
Look back at first drafts. Sure, you might cringe at the rough, yet-to-be fully fleshed out characters and storyline, but comparing a first draft to a final draft can serve as a reminder of how much you’ve improved over the course of writing the story.
Set goals and deadlines for yourself. So many aspects of publishing are outside your control. One thing you can control is the pace you set for yourself and the timelines within which you accomplish something. Set deadlines for finishing a draft. Create a writing schedule and follow it. Check off the scenes in your outline as you get them done.
Focus on baby steps, not the big picture. It can be daunting when you look at a project as a whole and all of the things that need to be written or revised, but if you break it into smaller chunks, it’s much easier to tackle. When I feel like I’m not getting anywhere, I repeat the mantra One word at a time, one step at a time. That’s how books are written.
I encourage you to celebrate the little accomplishments and savor the small wins. Fleshing out a character arc. Repairing a plot hole. Finishing a draft.
Chances are, you’ll look back someday and realize that they weren’t little things at all, but the essential building blocks for your biggest accomplishments yet.