Wayfinding on the writer’s journey

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Silk’s Post #119 — We 5writers blog a lot about making progress on our writers’ journey. Or, more to the point, not making progress. We have seen the enemy, and he is us.

We have identified the many and varied hurdles we all face – things that hold us back, drag us down, keep us from forging ahead, or even prevent us from enjoying the journey. Our demons include writer’s block, procrastination, distractions, self-doubt, lack of discipline, competing priorities, inspiration deficit, disorganization, fear of failure, lack of focus, time constraints, ad nauseum … you name it, one of us has been stymied by it at one time or another.

Based on the fact that my post on procrastination last fall, Wasting Away in Mañanaville, has now attracted nearly 1,800 comments in the Linked In Books and Writers Group, it looks like we’re not alone.

But, frankly, I’m tired of hearing myself talk about why I’m not getting there.

I just want to get there.

The “writer’s journey” – a parallel with the fabled “hero’s journey” – is exactly that: a quest for a desired outcome (in the writer’s case, reaching “the end” of a compelling story) that requires wayfinding over unfamiliar and difficult terrain, and the determination to overcome all sorts of hurdles to see the mission through. Maybe all writers should wear a T-shirt that says “I AM FRODO” in solidarity.

So, for the next few posts, I’m going to try to offer some tactical ideas to overcome these self-imposed obstacles to progress on the writer’s journey.

You may object to the idea that most hurdles are self-imposed. You might argue that some obstacles are thrown at us by a world that isn’t really designed to support people who have creative callings which may or may not ever make any money. Okay, granted. But we can’t turn the world into an artists’ utopia, sorry. The one thing we do have the power to change is our own reaction to external obstacles. If the world gives us a wall, we can beat our heads against it. Or we can go around, over, or under it.

So, really, I’d argue that all the walls are our own walls.

What I’m looking for is tactics that will help me, personally. So I’m not talking about advice like “just do it”, which I consider to be the most unhelpful comment in history. “Just do it” is not something you say to encourage someone (at least not someone like me, and I admit I may be hypersensitive about performance). In the boosterish but unforgiving language of athletic coaching, it says “I’m tired of listening to you – just quit your whining and get on with it.”

In fact, whenever I hear the word “just” in preface to a piece of advice, my inner skeptic takes her battle stance and goes on full alert. “Just” belittles the problem and suggests that anyone who hasn’t figured out how to solve that problem isn’t trying very hard. Or perhaps is an idiot.

The worst thing is when you find you’re saying things like this to yourself. This is supremely inhibiting. Essentially, you’ve just dismissed your artist and thrown cold water on your spark. The inevitable next step is a chocolate binge, or your preferred equivalent.

So don’t go there. Instead, you might focus on wayfinding.

Writer’s Journey Tactic #1: Milestones

Every journey requires wayfinding in order to get from the starting point to the destination, without getting lost in the wilderness or stuck in some dead-end place with an empty gas tank. The writer’s journey can be a long, daunting trip.

Some of the most helpful advice cited in my recent post on How to overcome writing inertia was this common sense prescription from Mark Twain:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.

Writing a novel is nothing if not a “complex overwhelming task”, but how do you break it into small manageable tasks? Often, this seems to be visualized in a mechanical way, like Henry Ford’s assembly line with its efficient division of labour.

On its face, this seems to make a lot of sense, and there’s no shortage of lists in the “how to” blogs and books that lay out the sequence of a novel’s construction, neatly broken down into discrete tasks. Of course, there’s no agreement among them, including the order, the tasks themselves, how big the chunks are, or how they all come together to form a novel that actually works. This is because different writers get there via different pathways. Also, these helpful lists are silent on what to do when you hit a wall.

Writing a novel in 16 steps (Novel Writing Help)

  1. Get motivated.
  2. Harness your natural creativity.
  3. Get organized.
  4. Discover your market.
  5. Discover yourself.
  6. Prepare to plan your novel.
  7. Sow the seeds of theme.
  8. Create the characters.
  9. Build the setting.
  10. Write the plot.
  11. Decide on the point of view.
  12. Add the magic ingredient of time.
  13. Write the first draft.
  14. Revise what you have said.
  15. Revise how you have said it.
  16. Publish your novel.

Writing a novel in 9 steps (by Kasia Mikoluk on the Udemy Blog)

  1. Pick a genre.
  2. Start from the end.
  3. Create your characters.
  4. Make an outline.
  5. Write the first draft.
  6. Get yourself a drink.
  7. Rewrite.
  8. Edit.
  9. Party.

Writing a novel in 5 steps (Mythic Scribe)

  1. Summarize your idea.
  2. Write a synopsis.
  3. Outline your story.
  4. Write with abandon.
  5. Revise your manuscript.

 Writing a novel in 4 steps (Writer’s Digest)

  1. Develop a kick-ass idea.
  2. Create 3-dimensional characters.
  3. Give yourself deadlines.
  4. Sit your butt down and write.

Any of that seem really helpful for “breaking complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks”? Hmm. No, not to me either.

I think there’s a different way to break down this long journey, and it’s through …

Milestones.

These don’t need to be based on completion of tasks, checklist-style. They can simply mark points in the journey that are meaningful to the writer. They can be practise or craft goals, like writing every single day for a month. They can be epiphanies, “aha!” moments that change everything. They can be waypoints that mark the completion of “legs” on the trip, like inns along the road.

Milestones are the moments when a writer reaches a significant point in the creative process that is meaningful to their progress. These need to be recognized and capitalized on – not ignored or rushed past. If you were literally hiking up a steep path, a milestone moment might be when you reach a viewpoint, where your natural inclination is to stop, catch your breath, take a swig of water and appreciate the panorama.

But not only would you take a break and enjoy the view – maybe give yourself a pat on the back for making it this far, and gather your energy to press on – you would also do two very important things:

  1. Figure out where you are. Milestones orient you in time and space. Wayfinding for a writer means taking stock of your work and yourself at those points where you have a real sense of where you are – a clear perspective – which may or may not arise from a task-related achievement.
  2. Start over. Each milestone generates a new beginning, where you’ve acquired some fresh insight that can help you on the next leg of your journey. In this way, the long and arduous path of writing a novel doesn’t have just one start and one end – instead it’s a series of fresh starts from milestone to milestone.

This is a different way to break down a daunting journey into a series of manageable legs. For each writer, the path and the milestones will be unique. The trick is to be mindful. You need to be aware of when you’ve reached a personal milestone, and then take advantage of it.

Of course, not every milestone will necessarily be a happy one. You could also find yourself lost in the woods, at which point it’s time to stop and do some orienteering so you can get back onto the path. Maybe your epiphany is that you’ve chosen the wrong protagonist, or that the first person point of view isn’t working. That’s all part of wayfinding.  Some fresh starts require retracing your steps.

I love this thought on writing process from Walter Mosley in his excellent how-to book This Year You Write Your Novel:

The process of writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continually set yourself on course. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination. It’s not like highly defined train tracks or a highway: this is a path that you are creating, discovering. The journey is your narrative. Keep to it and there will be a tale told.

One last thing. Celebrate all your milestones. You’ve earned it.

6 thoughts on “Wayfinding on the writer’s journey

    • Thanks Alison! This was my “milestone” for the day: realizing that, while rules and conventions — the dos and don’ts of writing — are helpful starting points, the reality is that you just have to find your path pretty much on your own. It’s all a big experiment, and you have to do your own wayfinding on that writer’s journey. As you say, just like life.

  1. I try to celebrate milestones now, something I had to learn over the years. I want to thank you for this Mosley quote. So many books seem to take it for granted that writing a book is starting from the train station and just following the tracks. Or maybe it’s a highway, where you might even have a few decisions as to turnoffs. But the vision of sailing across water — I’ve done that, and writing is exactly like that, isn’t it? You are setting a course that only you can see, and it’s up to you to make sure you stay on that course. Or if you veer off, it’s because you’ve seen a new star to steer by. I guess now I’ll have to hunt up that book and buy it!

    • Thanks for your kind words Eugenia. I’m a sailor too, so this metaphor felt right to me. There are so many “recipe books” for writers … but in the end, an original work is always an experiment, not a formula. Thanks for visiting our blog and good luck with your writing!

  2. Nicely done, Silk! You’ve included a lot of great morsels. I love Mark Twain’s advice but have little use for ‘Writing a Novel in 16 Steps’. It sort of sounds like ‘Just do it’. But Mosley got it right. Thanks for your words of wisdom about milestones. A superb post!

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