Writing my way to the next plateau?

In my New Year’s post on my writing goals for 2014, I asked whether my goals met the Attainable part of SMART goals. That’s a very good question given that I’ve failed to meet my “write two, publish two” goals each of the last two years. Those goals were the equivalent of “write 200,000 words, publish 200,000 words,” and I hit about half that. How do I think I can now jump to a million new words written and half that much published? The betting alien would say I’ve got a comet’s chance in a supernova, and on most days, I would agree with him. But not now, and to explain why, I have to go down the rabbit hole of “mastery” for a bit first.

There’s a book called Masteryby George Leonard that talks about learning a new skill. It describes the path from novice to master. It frequently falls back on the metaphor of sports (aikido and tennis specifically), but I have found that the broader topics are applicable across a wide variety of skills. This is also somewhat related to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he states that it typically takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a new skill.

Anyway, on this path towards Mastery, Leonard talks about how we spend most of our time on a plateau. We’re not really getting any better, despite all our efforts. In fact, some days we almost feel like we’re getting worse at it. Then, out of the blue, we suddenly jump up to a new level of skill. It’s that breakthrough moment when you suddenly “get it.” It’s wonderful. You gain a lot of understanding and apparent skill very quickly. It’s that time when you feel the most fulfilled for learning this new skill.

Aaaand then you’re back on the plateau. It’s a higher plateau, and you are better than you were before, but that flash of sudden insight has passed. You have to learn to love those plateaus, because that is where brand new skills go from something you think about to something you do automatically.

I have been on something of a plateau for the last year or so. I have learned how to write a good novel, how to edit it and polish it and how to get it out the door to readers… eventually. Still, I spend a lot of time struggling through that edit period, but in the last month or so, I’ve begun to see why I’m struggling and how to fix it. It feels a bit like I’m on the verge of making that breakthrough to the next plateau of smoother edits and significantly faster production.

So I feel like challenging myself to do what had previously seemed impossible.

The last time I did that was in 2004 when I first attempted NaNoWriMo. I had never written a novel before. In fact, my total short-story fiction to-date was only then getting up to novel length. My previous three attempts at writing a novel had gone from bad to worse and ultimately ended in a six-year period of not writing fiction at all. But I felt like I’d worked through what was going on with that. I felt poised to make that leap.

And sure enough, I did. I pounded through that NaNoWriMo with relative ease, and I did one again the next year. In fact, I’ve completed four NaNoWriMo’s in the last decade. I’ve also ground through two complete edit/publish cycles and most of two others. And it feels like I’ve worked it out, that I’m no longer groping my way forward through the dark.

At least that’s what it feels like. Who knows? But anyway, it feels like the time to make the attempt to leap up to that next plateau. I’d say I’m going to try, but Yoda instructs otherwise.

So I guess I will.

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