Playing the long game

Remember when you were in preschool and they used to give you stars every day?  You’d get a star if you showed up (so you always wanted to go).  You’d get a star if you managed to tie your shoes. You’d get a star if you were able to write the letter of the day ten times in a row within the lines and it actually looked like the letter of the day.  (Man how I loved the days when we covered letters like “I”.)

And it was always on some board on the wall where everyone could see it.  And the teacher would say,  “Look at Billy, class, he has ten stars in a row for penmanship,” followed by a beaming smile of approbation.

In preschool it was easy to see when you were making progress. And there was someone there to reward you for it every single day.

Writing?  Yeah, not so much.

Writing’s what I like to call a long game.  It doesn’t happen overnight or over a weekend.  (Although I do know of one professor who wrote one of his famous books in a frenzied weekend motel session where he spent the weekend locked in a room furiously scribbling his book onto legal pads, handing each one off to his assistant to decipher and type.  Of course, I believe he was already famous and under contract at the time.)  (And likely about to miss a deadline.)

So, with writing, you’re making progress, but you can barely see it.  And most of the people around you certainly can’t see it.  “Oh, you’ve been writing now for a year.  Can I read your novel?  It’s done, right?  Who am I kidding, you’re probably on your third novel by now.”

To which you try not to cry in front of them as you think about the ten one chapter novel ideas moldering on your hard drive.

On an unwriting related note, I recently had something I’d been working towards for a good three years sort of fall apart.  And I had this moment where I sat there and thought that the last three years had been for naught.  (I’m going SAT on this post.  Approbation, naught…)

But, lucky for me, I am a spreadsheet fiend.  So in this case, I pulled up the little snapshot of my life from about three years ago and compared it to where I am now.  And, as bummed as I was about how that long-term project had died, I could see forward progress.  If someone liquidated my life tomorrow there might actually be something left over.  (As opposed to three years ago when they would’ve tracked me into the afterlife for what I still owed.)

And there were the things that don’t go into a spreadsheet.  The A license, the snapper I caught (before I capsized the kayak), the hikes, the friends, the risks taken.

I couldn’t see the progress every day.  And some days it certainly felt like I was just standing still, but over the long-term I was moving forward.

Writing is like that.

No one is going to give you a star every day you write.  (I guess you could give yourself one.  My mom would probably do that if she started writing.  A star for every 500 words written.  In purple glitter on a very well-organized board on the wall.)  (Gotta love her.)

So, no stars, but you are going to make progress.  And you are going to have those little moments that drive you forward.  A second round story here.  A personal rejection to a query there.  A character you love so much you can’t believe they aren’t real.  A first acceptance.  A first partial request.  A first full request.

It’ll happen.  In fits and starts and in the guise of rejection, it’ll happen.  It’s progress and it’s you moving towards that goal.

I’d encourage you to track your progress if you’re serious about this.  It can be depressing to do, but it’s good, too.

Year one maybe you only manage 10,000 words for the entire year.  But that’s more than the zero you wrote the year before.

And in year two, when you’re bummed about the 20,000 words you wrote, you can look back and see that it’s TWICE year one.  You didn’t even realize it, but you’ve been twice as productive.

And maybe in year three you get your first story published.  Or you hit 50,000 words.  Or you have to take a pause and live your real life.  But that’s ok, because it gives you all sorts of fodder for your newest novel idea.  And when life settles down a bit, you come back to it refreshed and renewed.  Because it’s the long game.  And you have the rest of your life to work on this and make it happen.

And as long as you’re still playing, you’re still moving forward.  And you’re still further along than you were yesterday.  You don’t need a shiny gold star.  (It didn’t do Billy any good in the long run.)  You just need to keep going.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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6 Responses to Playing the long game

  1. Keri Peardon says:

    One thing I’ve really liked about the Scrivener software I’ve been using (I’m using the trial version this year for NaNo) is that it allows you to set goals and track your word count for an entire project, for a particular chapter/scene, or for just one day’s work. It really helps you see your progress. You can also label things first draft, revised draft, final draft, etc. so even when you reach the editing stage, where writing a lot of words is not the goal (reducing word count may actually be your goal), you can still see your progress as your first draft chapters turn into revised and then finish chapters.

    I feel like I’ve been getting more work done since I started using it because I can put that word count goal on my screen (it has a little status bar that fills up as you write and changes color from red to yellow to green) and force myself to just go a little bit further and meet it.

    I guess that green bar becomes my star, LOL.

  2. Perfect time in my life to read this post. I wish that I was done with the book right now. People don’t understand when I try to explain why I have rewritten it from scratch multiple times. But, this rewrite I finally feel good about. The plot is entertaining and the characters feel realistic. The writing isn’t perfect, but there is still quite a lot of editting that needs to be done. I still haven’t published a book, but what I have today is a lot more than what I had this time last year.

    • mhleewriter says:

      I’m with you on that. It’s awful to finish a book and then realize that it needs to be rewritten or torn to bits. But I figure it’s better that than not being able to see that it needs that. And, see, you made it better, so it was worth it and it’ll be a better book for the delay.

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