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  • Jess Lawrence

What does 'progress' look like?


What does 'progress' look like?

2022 has ended and everyone is celebrating their achievements. I had a good year on the business side of things – my best yet, in fact – but the writing side… Well, that’s not been so good. Every silver lining has a cloud, eh? I don’t want to dwell too long on the negatives, but I do want to talk about what happened to my creativity this year, if only so I can share with you how I managed to find my love of it all again just at the end.


For those who’ve struggled to get words on the page, this one’s for you. It’s how I’ve felt most of the year and I know how much it sucks to lose that spark, that excitement, that self-belief. Hopefully what helped me can help you too.


The rejection that started it all…

I came into 2022 finalising my manuscript for a revise and resubmit. The feedback was on my worldbuilding, which I always knew was my weakest aspect, so after some further great feedback from my critique partner, I dove in and revised the heck out of that beast. By the end of it, I had a book I was even more proud of, one I considered my best work to date.


Anyway, the R&R ended in a rejection with no feedback, so what do I know?


I can joke about it now, but at the time that rejection hit me hard. I'm not new to all this; I know how querying works, and I don't need sympathy or tough love. I knew at the time it was just one 'no', and that eventually (hopefully!) I'd get a yes – but even still, it hits you in a way you can't prepare for. And, honestly, that rejection, in particular how there was very little feedback from it, knocked my confidence.


I'd worked hard addressing the agent's comments, so why wasn't it at least good enough for them to sign me up and take this book past the finish line together? It must be me. I must not be good enough. Guess I suck after all. Those are the thoughts that went through my head.


I’m lucky to have a fabulous critique partner who ranted with me and let me have a moan and a wallow. And then, when I was ready to shake it off and try something new, she encouraged me with that, too. I probably would have come through it either way, but my CP got me there faster, and I'm incredibly grateful.


Still, the road ahead was not smooth. I first went back to a WIP in need of revising, thinking if I started on something already formed I could get an easy win. I was wrong and the revision went nowhere, so I parked it. Then I had a great idea for a new WIP. I knew exactly who the characters were, how they grew up together, how they grew apart, and how they would be thrown back together at the start of the story. Unfortunately, none of the rest of the plot revealed itself. I went around in circles and for the life of me I could not pin down the story.


It was around this point I hit my lowest. Off the back of a big rejection, I had failed with an old revision, failed with a new project, and couldn’t come up with any other ideas. I was done. All those negative thoughts came back – I wasn’t good enough for this business so why bother?


Finding my way out of the murk

Fortunately, even though I do have aspirations to traditionally publish one day, I’ve never thought of writing as just a job. It’s a part of who I am. I’m not me if I’m not coming up with stories. I knew I just had to find that love for it again, and to do that I had to stop worrying about this non-existent clock that said I had to sign an agent by X age or that I was falling behind while everyone else was getting their win. My head wasn’t in the right place, so I had to change what ‘progress’ looked like for me.


Then came November, and we all know what that month means – NaNoWriMo! There wasn’t a chance I would be able to write 50,000 words and I wasn’t about to set myself up for failure, but there was something I could take from NaNo, and that was the consistency, the routine it fosters. Around the same time, I saw a quote from Neil Gaiman that struck a chord with me:


‘You have permission to not write, but you don’t have permission to do anything else.’

The idea behind this quote is that every day the very minimum you have to do is just turn up. You don’t have to pour countless words on to the page, but you do need to be present at your desk (or wherever) with the sole focus being your writing.


And so GentleNaNo was born.


GentleNaNo was my version of the month-long event, and instead of needing to write at least 1600 words a day, the only requirement was that I had to do something writing related. Sometimes that was reading a few pages of a craft book, sometimes it was handwriting notes, sometimes it was just sitting and thinking. All of it was progress, no matter how tangible. And because my version of the event was so low-pressure, there was no way I could ‘lose’. There was no big word count goal for me to fall short of. I could only win – and win I did!


I came out of November refreshed. And the great thing is that I can whip this challenge out again whenever I need to. In fact, because Christmas and a two-week-long flu got in the way, I’ve slipped out of my routine again, so I’m thinking of doing a Gentle January of sorts where I don’t force myself to make huge leaps but instead just coach myself back into a mindset that will help me make those leaps later.


Re-evaluating what ‘progress’ looks like

A lot of people say that you should commit to writing 100 words a day or some such, but I know that sometimes even that feels more than you can manage. I couldn’t commit to 100 words a day when I was at my worst. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, and then I would have felt guilty about falling behind. But I could commit to sitting with my stories and just dedicating a slither of my day to them, even if it was only ten minutes while I did the washing up.


It's easy to forget this, but ‘progress’ should be a fluid thing and it can look like whatever you need it to at any given time. When you’re at your peak, ‘progress’ might be a chapter a day or two hours of writing every evening. When you’re in a rut, ‘progress’ can be as little as just turning up. And the important thing to remember is how quickly this can change. You might get off to a great start with a new draft and bash out 30,000 words in a week or two. But then the momentum peters out and suddenly you can’t write 2000 words every day. That doesn’t mean you’ve failed – it means you have to re-evaluate what progress looks like for where you are right now.


The big takeaway here is that we writers often set ourselves up for failure by not being flexible when it comes to our goals. It helps to have something to aim for, and a word count target is always a nice tangible thing to track, but it is by no means the only measure of success, and sometimes it can even be the worst. Instead of being the carrot that keeps you going forward, it becomes the weight around your neck that slows you down until you can’t go on anymore.


If you find yourself struggling with your creativity, take a step back and think about whether you can adjust your idea of ‘progress’ to match your current mindset and capabilities. It worked for me, and I hope it works for you too.

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