A quick note:
We are working with the author of this piece, Gabriela Pereira, to bring you a series of free trainings about how to achieve your goals as a writer.
First, you can watch a free, on-demand video workshop. In this video series, you will…
- Discover key mindset shifts to help you be a more resilient and productive writer.
- Learn the #1 tool to help you develop a writing routine that truly works for you.
- Explore 3 fundamental elements to hone in your writing so you can DIY your MFA.
Okay, now onto the post!
Writing is a journey, and like every adventure, it begins with a small first step.
It might take you months or years to reach your destination, but if you never start, you’ll never get anywhere. Whether you’re scaling a mountain or taking a leisurely walk through a redo, the only way to make any progress is to take things one step at a time.
Climbing the Mountain
I liken writing to climbing a mountain. In order to make that journey to the summit, you must consider a few things.
First, you need to make sure you are climbing the right mountain. If your goal is to scale Mount Everest, you don’t want to start your climb at the base of Kilimanjaro. In a writing career this would be the equivalent of setting out to publish a novel when all you ever write are freelance articles. Both are respectable but different goals, just as Everest and Kilimanjaro are both very different mountains. It does you no good to aim for one when your goal is to climb the other.
Next, and perhaps as important, you need to know exactly where you are going, otherwise you won’t know when you have reached your goal. In order for the goal to have meaning, you need to make it specific. Don’t just say “I want to be a writer,” say “I want to write freelance articles about underwater basket-weaving and my goal is pitch and publish six such articles each year.”
This concrete and specific outcome is like planting your flag at the top of the mountain. After a long and arduous climb, that flag is a signal that you have indeed reached your goal. Napoleon Hill said that “a goal is a dream with a deadline.” I would like to take that statement one step further and add that a goal is a dream with a deadline and a clear, objective marker that tells you when you have reached it. Without that marker—that plant-the-flag moment when you reach the peak—you have no way of knowing if you have in fact reached your goal, and no way of measuring your progress in relation to it.
Map Out Your Route
You also need to plot out your route toward that goal. In creative careers like writing, there are often many different ways to reach the same end result. For example, if your goal is to get published there are many different ways to go about it. You could pursue a traditional book with a major publisher, which would mean querying and signing with an agent. Or perhaps for you “getting published” is not about a big book deal but instead you want to approach a niche publisher like an indie or university press. In this case, your process might look a little bit different because you may be able to approach these presses without having an agent.
On the other hand, you might have a very specific vision for your book and you decide you want to self-publish. This would mean a completely different process and path up the mountain. In this scenario, you will need to vet and hire members for your book publishing team like a cover designer, book interior designer, developmental editor, copy-editor, and proofreader. When you self-publish, you become the CEO of a publishing house that represents one author: you. While you don’t need to do everything yourself, your role will become a supervisory one, making this a very different route to the top of the mountain.
Whatever path you choose, it pays to establish that route from the beginning, so you can map out incremental milestones along the way. Think of these milestones as the places you will set up camp on your trek. Sure, there may be some room for spontaneity and improvisation, but if you wander at random, the odds of reaching your destination will be slim. These incremental milestones will help you stay on track and will also help you course-correct if you find yourself beginning to wander.
Knowing what mountain you are climbing is important, but even more so is aiming for those landmarks that let you know you are on the right path. From the base of the mountain, that summit can seem far away and intimidating, but if you focus on reaching the next landmark, the climb can become a much more manageable task. For example, if your goal is a traditional book deal, your landmarks or milestones might be the following:
- Write a full-length manuscript
- Revise that manuscript as best you can on your own
- Find an agent
- Sign the book deal
- Finally see the book on the shelf and hold it in your hands (this is your plant-the-flag moment)
When mapping out these landmarks, it often helps to reverse-engineer the process. To do this, start with the plant-the-flag moment and ask yourself: “What step would I need to complete just before reaching this point?” So, if publishing with a major publisher is your goal, the step immediately preceding it would be getting that book deal. Before that, you would need to query and sign with an agent, and before that you would have to write and revise the manuscript.
While there are still many smaller steps leading from one milestone to the next, these landmarks help you stay on course throughout the journey.
One Foot in Front of the Other
Once you know your destination and have mapped your route, all that is left is to start clocking up the miles. While you might know which landmarks you’re aiming for on your journey, you will want to break the trip down into even smaller increments and focus on taking one step at a time. Just like tracking the miles on a trip, logging your progress as you write can help you stay motivated and also make a daunting climb seem more manageable. Logging your progress allows you to see how far you have come and gives you a sense for how much farther you have left.
Suppose you are working toward that very first milestone on the traditional publishing trek: writing a full a manuscript. You can break this milestone down into manageable chunks by logging your word count. For example, if your manuscript needs to be approximately 80,000 words and you are able to write around 1,000 words per day five days per week, you could finish drafting that book in sixteen weeks. Even if you could only write half that amount each week, you would still finish that first draft in about eight months. Considering some authors might take decades to complete a book, eight months is a pretty quick time-frame.
In the end, the key is consistency and logging your progress is a surefire way to establish a regular habit. You might not finish a novel in a week, but if you log a few hundred words each day you will get to “The End” before you know it. Plus, a few hundred words won’t feel quite as daunting as trying to write a whole book at once, and by the end of it you’ll have a good record of all the work you’ve done.
Pitfalls to Avoid
As with any journey, your path to a writing career will face the occasional obstacle. Here are some common pitfalls to watch out for on your trek.
Pitfall #1: Special Snowflake Syndrome
We are all unique individuals and to some extent we need to adapt any strategies or advice to fit our circumstances. The danger arises when we think we are so unique and special that no one else’s insights or advice could ever apply to us.
Remember, even snowflakes have key traits in common and when they melt, they all look the same. Similarly, while each writer might be different, we must conquer some of the same milestones in our careers. When you catch yourself thinking “this could never work for me”, shift your mindset to “how can I make this work?” and then get back to work.
The bigger problem with special snowflake syndrome is that it can cut us off from the writing community. If we believe that our experience is so rare and different from everyone else’s, we can easily find ourselves isolated and alone. The truth is, as writers we all face many of the same obstacles, even those of us who have been doing this work for a long time. We all face avalanches of self-doubt. We all have those moments of intense fear as we stare at a blank screen. We all secretly wonder: “Do I have what it takes?” When these thoughts pop up, remember you are in good company and you don’t have to go it alone.
Pitfall #2: Doing All the Things!
Another major pitfall is trying to follow all the advice you hear about writing and follow all the “rules” to the letter. The internet is a big place and there is a lot of writing advice out there. If you try to do it all, you’ll end up spinning your wheels. Instead, focus on a few techniques or approaches that resonate most with you and if necessary make adjustments to suit your own goals.
In writing, there are no “best practices.” Don’t blindly copy-paste someone else’s advice onto your own writing process. Instead, test out the concepts and adjust them to suit your needs. Finally, if you try something and it does not work for you, let it go.
Pitfall #3: The Wall
When I think of “The Wall” I think of the movie Superman II and that scene when Lex Luther breaks out of prison. He doesn’t dig under the wall, climb over the wall, chip through the wall Shawshank Redemption-style, or use any other escape method you might assume. No, he flies out of prison in a hot air balloon. This approach is ludicrous, but the wall itself is ludicrous, and the only way to overcome a ridiculous obstacle is with an even more ridiculous solution.
As writers, we must accept that our biggest challenges aren’t the external yetis or avalanches impeding our climb, they are the barriers we create inside our own minds. Here is the truth that none of us wants to admit: Nothing is holding us back or standing in our way. If we can’t reach our writing goals, we have only one person to blame: ourselves.
The writers who make it aren’t always the most talented, but they are the most stubborn. So, be stubborn. Embrace the ridiculous. And keep climbing!