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October 7, 2014

Frustrated with Slow Progress? Join the Crowd

Sheep blocking a road with text: Warning: Slow Progress Ahead

We’ve probably all been frustrated with slow progress at some point in our writing career. Maybe we’re frustrated with the slow increase of our word count. Maybe we’re frustrated with an apparent lack of improvement in our writing. Or maybe we’re frustrated with our sales numbers.

The point is that frustration happens to all of us. My brother was released from the hospital this past weekend following brain surgery for removing a tumor. Even though we’ve assured him that he’s doing great (“You just ‘gave birth’ to a golf ball through your ear. Of course it’s going to take time to recover. It hasn’t even been a week yet, and you’re already out of bed—that’s awesome!”), he’s impatient and frustrated that he’s not completely better now.

We can probably all relate to his impatience. I remember reaching a point in my early writing career where I lamented the fact that the learning curve seemed like it’d never end. (Note to Past-Jami: It doesn’t end because there’s always something new to learn or try or experiment with. That’s a good thing. *smile* Luckily, the learning curve does get less steep.)

So how can we deal with that frustration? Let’s take a look at what might help.

The Importance of Realistic Expectations

One reason my brother is frustrated with his progress is because he had unrealistic expectations for his recovery. His surgeons told him to take a month off from work and warned him that he might be fairly immobile for most of that time. He’s on a bazillion medications with competing side effects, has 72 staples in his head, and had nerves and muscles cut for the surgery. Despite all that, he didn’t want to believe the doctors and planned several projects he could work on during his “month off.” Ha!

In the writing world, we’d call someone who expected that the rules wouldn’t apply to them a “special snowflake.” (*psst* Don’t tell my brother I said that. He just wants to be invincible like Superman. *grin*)

But the fact remains that unless one of you are holding out on me, none of us has access to Matrix-style learning to instantly become experts. We don’t have a magic wand to create an overnight bestseller. And we don’t have a time machine to get more done in a day than humanly possible.

How to Ensure Our Expectations Are Realistic

The best way to short-circuit our frustration is to ensure our expectations are realistic:

Goals:

  • Are the goals we’ve set for ourselves doable? Are they really? How?
  • Do we know others who have succeeded in meeting similar goals? Or do we think we’ll be the special snowflake who can bend the space-time continuum to change reality?
  • Are our goals based on wishes? Or facts of what’s possible?
  • Have we successfully met similar goals like these before?
  • Are we willing to do what it will take to meet those goals (changing behavior, sacrificing time, etc.)?
  • If we fail to achieve our goal, what will we do? Give up or try again?

Priorities:

  • If we overreach and can’t complete everything by a deadline, what are our priorities for the time we have left? Which activities are a better step toward our goals?
  • Create a ranked to-do list. (Saying “I’ll get it all done” doesn’t count. We can give the most important things Priority A, but we still should rank them for Priority A1, A2, A3, etc.)
  • Think about why we have our goals or expectations. Where did they come from? What purpose do they serve?

Time:

  • What can we really accomplish during X amount of time?
  • If our usual word count is 800 words per hour, we shouldn’t set a goal for 2000 words an hour without first making changes and working up to that amount.
  • Will we really be able to set aside the amount of time we think we will?
  • What other aspects of our life might suffer from that prioritization? Are we willing to make that trade-off?

Control:

  • The goals we make should be within our control. Otherwise, we might “punish” ourselves for things beyond what we could do.
  • Even if we self-publish, we won’t be in control of whether our editor or cover artist meets their deadlines.
  • Do we have a Plan B? Or do we have extra time built into our schedule for dropped balls?
  • If we traditionally publish, we’ll have even less under our control, everything from choosing our editor or cover artist to publisher marketing support, etc. That eliminates whole facets of our career from our goal-making ability.

Energy:

  • Would we have to push ourselves to the point of sickness or no sleep to meet those goals?
  • What if work-life or family-life has an emergency and takes up more of our time or energy?
  • Do we have extra time built into our schedule for if we do get sick or have to deal with personal emergencies?

Life Balance:

  • Can we meet those goals and still have the life balance we want?
  • Will we still have the time for family, friends, TV shows, and hobbies that we want?
  • If not, will reaching our goals really make us happy? Or will we feel that we’re missing out on the rest of our life?
  • Do our family and friends support us in our goals? Or do we need to set aside extra energy to deal with a lack of support or any interpersonal issues we create by pursuing our goals?

(Update: After my difficult 2016, I wrote a follow-up post with an additional category to take into consideration our mental health.)

Realistic Goals Can Still Be Stretch Goals

None of those tips are meant to discourage us from trying. We often want our goals to be a stretch. We might surprise ourselves with how much our word count increases when we push ourselves or stay more focused. And remember that we often learn just as much (if not more) from failure.

The point is that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we fall short, especially if we do show improvement. Any amount of improvement is better than we were before we pushed ourselves, so falling short does not equal failure, especially if we’re going to try again. (And maybe we learned something to help us succeed next time.)

Here’s a tool to help us come up with SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This tool walks us through each of those steps with questions to ensure we’re being as SMART as possible.

Realistic People Can Still “Dream Big”

Similarly, none of those tips are meant to say that we can’t dream big. Dreams are fantastic for motivation, and we don’t want to limit our dreams by boring practicalities.

But dreaming big is different from setting big expectations that make us feel like failures when we can’t possibly live up to them. Fantasies about being a bestseller (or whatever our big dream might be) are great for motivation, not so great for expectations.

As I’ve quoted before:

A dream is just a dream.
A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.

It’s that plan that needs to be realistic. Our dreams can be as big and as grand as we want. *smile*

Each Path Is Unique

We also need to remember that each of us is on a unique path. The holes in my knowledge that I need to learn for improving my writing are different from the holes in your knowledge.

So we can’t compare our progress with others. Maybe their grammar is better than ours, but we might have a better instinctive grasp of story structure. Maybe their writing is technically flawless, but we have a more engaging voice. Maybe they’re great with plots, but we excel with characters. Or vice versa for any of those.

In other words, we’re not in competition with others. We’re only in competition with how we were yesterday, or last week, or last year. Have we made progress since then? Yes? We win!

Recognizing Our Progress

I want to end with a note about how, just like with my brother’s situation, our progress might not be as bad as we think. Learning to recognize our progress can be the first problem, especially as when we first start writing, we don’t know what all we don’t know.

When we’re new writers, we can’t see how big the learning curve is ahead of us. Just when we think we’re “getting close,” we might learn about a new aspect of writing that we didn’t even know existed. Constantly feeling like a newbie can make us despair that we’ve made any progress at all.

But as long as we’re open to learning, we will eventually feel less like a newbie. It just might not be on the time scale we originally envisioned because our path might be longer or more zigzagging than we expected.

One way we can recognize our progress is to compare our current writing to our older writing. Sometimes I force myself to cringe through reading an old story or blog post of mine. Everything I see that I would now change proves I’ve learned. Every technique I’d use to improve it shows how I’ve grown as a writer. And every wince is a badge of progress. *grin*

Or if we want to see progress in increasing our word count, we could keep a chart of words and time spent. Or we could keep sales charts to compare one book’s debut week with the next book’s debut week. There’s usually some way to measure how we’ve improved.

Sure, writing can be frustrating when others look like they’re further along than us or progressing faster. However, we’re not all on the same highway. In fact, some of us might not be on a paved path at all. River rafting, anyone? *smile*

Do you ever get frustrated with slow progress? What aspects of your expectations create that frustration? Can those expectations be adjusted to reduce frustration? What’s the most frustrating aspect of your slow progress? Do you ever stop to recognize the progress you’ve made?

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38 Comments on "Frustrated with Slow Progress? Join the Crowd"

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Carradee

Something to also keep in mind: Sometimes folks work better with micro-goals than they do with stretch goals. They get more done if they under-plan rather than over-plan.

Also: Missing plans and deadlines sometimes is healthy. Hitting every single goal, all the time, is not.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)
I’ve got to speak to this, Jami, and I hope I don’t sound mad, if I do, it’s not aimed at you (or your brother, which I get to at the end…) First, you make some great points in your post, and I’m forever working not letting my impatience blind me to growth opportunities, but for writers BEYOND the newbie phase, but aren’t necessarily at the pro stage with a few projects under their belt yet, I NEED to speak to something- I don’t think it’s ALWAYS “childish impatience” that causes frustration with writers “waiting” challenges. I understand many need these intense “Reality Checks” but I now know for me, I’m hard enough on myself, the last thing I need is a “Nurse Wretched” figure outside of me pushing me to be more unstable than I already am by default! I’m half-joking here, Jami, but I’m also DEAD serious about this, too. Also, as I’ve said many times before, mortality doesn’t help learning to be patient with ourselves for the exact reasons you outline and this your previous post about your brother and “waiting.” Finally, on the subject of “Deadlines” the older I get, the more I HATE that word. That doesn’t mean I’m saying “We don’t need order and structure” I just can’t use the word “Deadline.” It sounds morbid and stress inducing to NOT HEALTHY level, when the basic point of deadlines is to force ourselves to get serious and not dawdle in ways that don’t. I’m not… Read more »
Kim

Great reminders!

I had to lower my expectations for daily word count. I wanted about 2000, but writing historical fiction is slower than I expected. I’m constantly coming across something that my characters do or say that I have to look up. I can’t even name them without verifying that a particular name was used in my time period in my location!

I did a lot of research leading up to writing, but I find I have to look up some little detail every single time I write. Sometimes I can skip it and go back later, but sometimes I have to know in the moment.

Sharon
Sharon

Wow, did I ever need to read this article. Always striving, never satisfied with the progress I’ve made, I’m always looking ahead to see how far I have to go. Sometimes I just need to be reminded to stop for a minute and appreciate how far I’ve come. Unrealistic expectations breed frustration which can stop you dead in your tracks. I should read this article everynight before falling asleep.

Kit Dunsmore

Great post, Jami! I am constantly wanting things NOW, so getting frustrated with how long things take is a common challenge for me. One thing I started doing to help me see my progress and honor my effort is to actually track the time I put in on my writing projects. I’ve been filling in spreadsheets since 2010 and it’s really improved my appreciation for what I do get done, and also increased my productivity. My total hours of effort keep going up every year. I’ve almost matched last year’s effort and I still have 2.5 months to go this year, so this really works for me.

I really appreciate the point you made about realistic goals. One of the hardest things for me to do is estimate how long it will take to do certain jobs. For example, I’m starting my first novel revision ever. I’m trying to estimate how long various stages of the process will take, but I know I’m guessing. I’ll keep working and adjusting my effort and my self-imposed deadlines to help me get this done in a timely manner without going crazy (I hope!).

Novel writing is one of the longest hauls I’ve ever undertaken. It’s not surprising that I occasionally look up and am shocked at how much more I have to do. I keep reminding myself I can’t do it all today, but I can do what needs to be done to move things forward.

Marcy Kennedy

Life balance is another topic I’ve thought about blogging about.

Life balance is the one I’ve struggled with most because I’ve lost track of the number of posts and articles I’ve read telling writers to sacrifice (almost) everything to reach their goals and about the production level we need to hit if we want to be successful. Thing is, I want more from my life than writing.

I love my work. I love to write. But I don’t want to be only a writer. I want to be a friend. I want to be a good wife. I want to be able to devote time to my faith. I want time with my pets and time to enjoy my hobbies. I want time to protect my health and mental well-being.

I’ve been told I’ll never be successful as long as I hold that mindset, but I refuse to buy into that mentality. One of my struggles has been to be happy with slower progress in order to have a better quality of life. Just because I hit some “success milestone” more slowly doesn’t mean I’ll never be successful. As much as I love writing, there are things in life that are more important to me than my writing is.

Caoimhe

Hi Jami,

As always, a well thought out blog post! Never stop doing these!:-)
Best wishes for your brother’s recovery.

All the best,
Caoimhe.

Deborah Makarios

Golfball – ear – EYEBLEACH! Excessively vivid imagination? Perhaps…
Thanks for these words of encouragement. I’m feeling a bit frustrated about lack of progress as I spend a second day in bed trying to get rid of the cold that’s been dragging at me for a couple of months.

Audrey Kane

Loved your post, loved your insights! And hearing that the struggles with mindset are not mine alone…always a helpful and reassuring thing:)

Emerald
Emerald

Great post Jami and very timely for me as well.
For me, I think the stress of not being where I want to be with my writing career in general sometimes gets me down. Never too far down, and usually it ends up motivating me to set realistic goals for myself, as you’ve pointed out.
I think another reason I stress on my progress is when I look to others for advice/guidance who are where I hope to be in their writing careers. I don’t think it’s about comparing them to myself, because I know they’ve had more experience, as much as it is a wish to get where they are once I’ve put in the work.
I’ve been working on letting myself be a beginner for a while now and I think it boils down to that. I get stressed knowing I’m still a beginner, and knowing it will take time to gain more experience. I’m so passionate about what I do, and I put my heart into it, so although I get down about slow progress sometimes, I feel positive about the future in general.

Laurie Evans

Great post. I write slow, and I still feel overwhelmed with what I don’t know…but I’m realizing I know a lot more than when I started.

Most days end with me thinking “I should have done more.” But if I really added up all the things I did each day since January, it’s more than I think.

Dani Jace

As I wait for edits back from my editor, your post came at a great time! Blessings to your brother and his continued speedy (though not his opinion) recovery.

Petrina Meldrum
Petrina Meldrum

Hi Jami,

An excellent post. Succinct, easy to follow and useful advice right to the end where you give us permission to break the rules if the result is a less bumpy ride for the reader. Thank you.

Julie Musil

Oh, Jami, I hope your brother recovers well! How scary that must’ve been for him.

Yes, writing is slow, publishing is slow, all of it is slow. Perspective is super important. Like, having a tumor removed puts this whole writing thing in its place.

I sometimes feel frustrated because I’m a slow plotter, slow writer, slow reviser. I’m blown away by writers who pump out a trilogy in a year. But each of us works in our own way in our own time. It’s important to enjoy the journey along the way.

Gloria Oliver

Glad your brother is up and puttering around. Awesome news!
Been through some surgeries myself and yeah, there’s a lot of sitting and watching TV or reading no matter what else needs taking care of. But the priority is in getting well. 🙂 Hope he continues improving by leaps and bounds!

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Reading this in 2016, I hope your brother has recovered okay.
Good post, it is hard to be a prolific and quality writer while leading a normal life, even if we are not ill.

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