Nancy: A Journey of a Thousand Miles

You know how that journey begins: with just one step. While it’s a cliche, it can be a helpful one, especially when you’re staring down the barrel of a 100k-word novel, overwhelmed and blocked, ready to curl up on the sofa and get lost in ten hours of Netflix and a box of chocolate sea salt caramels. Not that anyone here has ever done that. (Ahem.)

I got a reminder of the importance of breaking down a long, difficult journey into do-able steps his past fall when I took a course called Get Your Scary Shit Done, taught by Jen Louden. We all need different motivators and encouragement at different points on our creative journeys, and fortunately for me, GSSD came at just the right time for me. I not only completed the project I’d identified for the 7-week course (writing an Act of one of my many writing projects), I finished early and started on the next mini-project (planning the next Act). As is often the case in a motivational program, it’s not so much that the material was brand-new, never-before-seen information; it’s that it was framed and organized in a way that made me use knowledge I already had in a different way.

I’ve recently returned to the 7-week course week to overcome the last mental obstacles I have in finishing my HFF series book 1 revisions. In the first week of the course, one of the core activities is breaking down the Big Scary Plan into small, achievable (in one sitting) steps. Then you make a promise to yourself about where and when you’re going to complete a step, do it, celebrate* it, and determine the next step to tackle. At least, that’s how I remembered the process. Turns out, when I revisited the course material, there was another piece of the process that had gone right over my head.

For my revision project, one important step I had to complete was untangling the mess that was the ending. Something was off, not working, not making sense with the rest of the story. As my first step in figuring out where the last act had gone off the rails, I told myself the story, out loud, from beginning to end. Not reading any text, just pulling the story out of my brain, starting at the beginning and continuing through to the end, keeping the story as clear and concise as possible. After doing that, I had a much better handle on the through-line, which had gotten muddled. So after my quick celebration, I identified the next step, which was re-reading the last act to see how it differed from the story I’d just told myself.

But that’s where I almost missed an important task. After the celebration and before determining the next move, you’re supposed to write down what you’ve learned from completing your step. It might be something about your approach to creating, feelings – negative or positive – that arose, new understanding about your project, or a combination of all those things. Since I was checking in with the course material as I went, I caught myself in time and wrote down my lessons learned. That’s where some magic happened.

As I wrote, some key realizations emerged, such as the fact that I had a wayward thread in there that really exists to jump-start book 2 (already in process). But that’s just there for my convenience as the author, and doesn’t serve the story of book 1. And frankly, it will be more impactful if I actually save it and introduce it in book 2. This seems like something that should have occurred to me a long time ago, but it hadn’t, and the dissonant noise caused by that out-of-place idea was a big part of my problem with the ending. And after that, I realized another thing – I’m much closer to completing this revision than I’d thought!

By taking the time to really think through lessons that come out of taking one concrete step and committing those thoughts to paper, ideas combine and crystalize and provide further guidance for the next concrete step. This contemplation helps you determine whether you’re still on the right path, and to adjust as necessary. And then you take the next step, celebrate, learn, repeat.

What do you think – are you willing to give it a try? Next time you’re stuck or overwhelmed, try breaking down your big scary project into a series of manageable, do-able steps, complete one, celebrate it, learn from it, and take the next step. Before you know it, you might just cross a thousand miles!

*The celebration, not to be confused with a reward (like Netflix or the aforementioned chocolate sea salt caramels), is a physical manifestation of joy, like a fist pump or an out-loud ‘yay’. Give it a try! Weird as it will feel, it will give your brain a hit of feel-good chemicals that will motivate you for the next step.


5 thoughts on “Nancy: A Journey of a Thousand Miles

  1. Nancy, GREAT and timely post – exactly what I needed to hear right now. I’ve been slowly curling into a tight little ball of procrastination because I’m so overwhelmed by my current fiction project. Retreat into nonfiction isn’t an option because THAT project is looking just as bad. (Lesson – never start two new writing assignments in the same week.). Your post made me take a breather and SEE what is actually going on. And it’s not so bad. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  2. These are some great getting-unstuck suggestions, Nancy. i especially like the “tell yourself the story out loud.” My books tend to get way too complicated–maybe this will be a good way to untangle some of that mess and figure out what can safely be eliminated.

  3. How wonderful to hear how helpful this class was for you, Nancy! It sounds like you had a lot of great insights, and if a class helps you get to those insights sooner than you would have otherwise, that’s just all to the good.

    When I first decided to write a book, some years ago, I freaked out when I started my first outline and I realized how big the project would be. How could I do it? How could I think that far in advance? What I did was break the word count into 30 chapters and break each chapter into three, 1,000-word scenes. I knew how to write 1,000 words—I’d already written a million 1,000-word articles, which is about four pages, and another million four-page papers in collebe. So for that first book and the next couple of books, I thought of the organization as 1,000-word units. Completely manageable.

    That’s still largely the way I organize my books. My scenes run longer and shorter now, and the books also. But it’s a lot simpler to manage a scene than a book. And if you manage a scene and write it with the goal and ending in mind, you’ve won half the battle.

    I love the idea of celebrating. I don’t do that enough. More will come!

  4. (-: Sounds like a great plan! That method of breaking things down works really well for me with non-fiction.

    With fiction, though, I don’t know what I don’t know, and it’s a bit frightening. The only way I can know is to just start, head down the road a bit, and be prepared to back down the lane and go the other way.

    I suspect editing fiction (for me) would be one of those “make a thousand chunks, and start on one.”

  5. Pingback: Nancy: The Over-Planner’s Approach to Cold Starts – Eight Ladies Writing

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