Five years ago, I attended a writing retreat with a large group of authors who all debuted in 2014. We spent a long weekend working and writing and talking about goals. One night, we were asked to talk about where we hoped to be in five years.
There were a variety of answers: I want to sell foreign rights to my work. I want to be a NYT bestseller. I want a movie deal.
When it came to me, I said, “I just hope I’m still in the game.”
My response was met with silence and stares and I immediately wished I’d answered differently, but it was the truth. It had been a challenging couple of years, and at the time, I wasn’t sure how I’d do it again. A well-known, successful author came up to me later and said, “That’s a solid goal. A lot of these people won’t be in the game in five years. Publishing is a tough business.”
Here I am, five years later, wondering if I’m still in the game.
I honestly have no idea. I don’t even know what the game is anymore, or which league I want to play in.
It would be easy for me to look at this in a very black and white way: I have not published another book, therefore I am definitely not in any game (and worse, why would anyone even want me on their team?). That’s the all-or-nothing approach, and it’s something I’ve said to myself many, many times.
It’s not true.
I’ve accomplished a lot of things in the years since Between came out. I completed a first draft of the sequel to Between. I took a full time job and built a successful social media presence from scratch for a local children’s hospital. I helped a food truck grow into a local restaurant chain with three locations and an in-demand wedding catering business. I’ve done well in a couple writing contests.
Beyond that, my kids are awesome, and I’m gonna take a little credit for that. I’ve become a better friend, mother, and wife. I’m present in my life in ways that I wasn’t a few years ago. I make time for a social life (which is a constant struggle for me) and I’ve redecorated just about every room in my house.
I have a tendency to ignore progress toward a goal. When I’ve sat down to write over the last few years, I wanted to write a book. No one sits down and writes a book. You write a paragraph, a page, a chapter at a time. By not giving myself credit for the baby steps, I constantly felt like a failure. I’d look at any progress I’d made and think, “It’s not enough.”
I learned to appreciate short stories, because I could draft one of those in a day. It was a quick way to reach a goal and feel like I’d actually done something. It was whole and complete and enough.
Books don’t happen like that. Books take time and commitment and perseverance. I told myself, and other people, I couldn’t write books anymore. My brain no longer allowed it. Nothing kills creativity like trying to rush it.
In the last several months, I’ve worked really hard to undo all the damage that negative thinking had done, and I’ve landed on this important realization: All the detours I’ve taken have led me to this exact moment, sitting on my sunlit porch, sipping iced coffee with my laptop balanced on my lap, peaceful and happy.
I would not trade this moment, and I am damn proud of myself for getting here.
I told you all of that so you can truly hear me when I say this: Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. It matters. When you hear that voice in your head telling you that you will never accomplish the thing, push back. Say, out loud, all the tiny little things you’ve done that are moving you toward your goal. (I mean it. Out loud. That part is important. With writing, you do a whole lot of work before you actually hear anyone else congratulate you for it. Hearing those words spoken out loud makes a difference, even if it’s your own voice doing the talking.)
There are lots of steps along the way to a finished manuscript. The will. The idea. Figuring out the pieces of that idea. Researching things for your story or about the publishing process. (I know you’re googling how to publish a book before you even have a book to publish. We all do it.) Writing a page. Letting someone else read what you wrote. Writing another page. You might finish it tomorrow and you might finish it a year from now or five years from now. In the mean time, you’re taking steps, large and small, to make it happen.
Notice the steps. Pay attention to them. Give yourself credit for them. No one else is going to sneak into your head and tell you what a good job you’re doing. No one else is going to say, “Hey, I’m really proud of you for sitting down to write. Now you have a whole paragraph that you didn’t have before!” No one else is going to pat you on the back for simply showing up and doing the work.
It’s easy to look at other writers and think they have some sort of magic answer, some amazing strategy that helps them write books. The truth is, they do it just like anyone else- one word at time, until it’s finished. It takes a lot of little words to make a book, just like it takes a lot of little steps to achieve your goal.
Don’t discount the steps. You can’t reach the finish line without them.