Design your writing journey to reward incremental progress
“I write very quickly; I rewrite very slowly. It takes me nearly as long to rewrite a book as it does to get the first draft.”-John Irving, author of Cider House Rules
When I completed the first draft of my middle grade fantasy I knew it needed some work, but I still loved the plot and hoped someone would recognize its promise. Eagerly, I sent it to a literary consultant for feedback. I imagined the literary consultant liking my story so much she would share it with all her agent and publisher friends. Ha!
When the report arrived I tore open the envelope with trembling hands. This was it! The fate of my first book rested in this report.
Except that it didn’t. The report was in no way a determining factor for the success or failure of my first novel. It was merely the first step in a long journey to write the best book I could.
The consultant’s report contained 10-pages of constructive criticism. My novel’s point of view jumped around, the plot didn’t work as a standalone book, and my main character was flat and uninteresting. The words broke my heart, but changed the trajectory of my writing journey. True, those damning words highlighted my amateur attempt to write a novel, but they also revealed the way forward.
As time passed, I realized there was a wealth of helpful advice in the report. When I was able to look at it dispassionately, I saw encouragement as well as criticism. I still loved my idea so I decided to rewrite my novel using the literary consultant’s concrete advice to level up my writing.
The Psychology of Gaming and the Power of Leveling Up
What is it about video games that keeps children, teens, and even some adults coming back for more even when they fail to beat the game?
“Games insert players at their achievable challenge level and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgment of incremental goal progress, not just final product.”-Judy Willis MD, neurologist and teacher, Edutopia
The key here is the acknowledgment of incremental goal progress. When gamers earn tokens, achieve badges, or hear celebratory music, it’s like a pat on the back. They are recognized for growth even if they haven’t passed the game.
However, the real excitement comes when a gamer meets a challenge and levels up. “When the brain receives that feedback that this progress has been made, it reinforces the networks used to succeed. Through a feedback system, that neuronal circuit becomes stronger and more durable.” Memory of the actions used to meet the challenge and achieve the dopamine hit are reinforced.
How can we apply gaming principles to level up our writing?
Writing an entire book is a daunting task. So is telling yourself you’ll write a blog post every day for a month. If we only find fulfillment in accomplishing huge goals, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. Instead, writers need to be like video game designers and reward ourselves for incremental learning and growth.
Make your daily writing goals small and achievable. Take the time to reward yourself for meeting your daily goal. It’s important. Apply the psychology of game design to help you level up.
“After making a prediction, choice, or action, and receiving feedback that it was correct, the reward from the release of dopamine prompts the brain seek future opportunities to repeat the action.”-Judy Willis MD, Edutopia
The quickest way to level up as a writer is to solicit feedback.
If we solicit feedback and get encouragement, we’re more likely to keep writing. If you write stories on Medium and are recognized with curation, claps, responses, or a top writer badge it prompts the release of dopamine. Your brain will seek opportunities to repeat the actions that led to the dopamine hit. Likewise, if a first reader likes a chapter of our manuscript or we get positive feedback from a writing group we’ll be motivated to keep writing.
How do you level up quickly?
Read craft books, solicit feedback, and enter contests and competitions. These three actions will help you get over rejection and quickly level up.
1. Read Craft Books
I’ve sure you’ve read the advice to invest in yourself (usually offered by gurus trying to sell online courses), but most of us don’t have the financial means to pay for expensive courses. However, there is one free/inexpensive way to invest in yourself – read craft books.
When I got over the feedback from the literary consultant I decided to request the craft books she suggested I read. They were so helpful I researched others online and quickly compiled a list to work through as I revised my novel.
Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft gave me some useful tips and practical exercises. Stephen King’s On Writing was both entertaining and useful, and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey filled my head with ideas for improving my book and writing a sequel. I loved The Writer’s Journey so much I purchased my own copy. Finally, I came to Saves the Cat! Writes a Novel and it has totally transformed my writing process.
Reading craft books inspired me to tackle my rewrites with renewed enthusiasm.
2. Solicit Feedback
Sending my manuscript off to the literary consultant was embarrassing (my manuscript wasn’t anywhere near ready), but it allowed me to level up quickly. Once I got over the disappointment that my book was not an instant best-seller, I realized I had a playbook for my first revision. The advice was specific and the consultant had clearly identified the areas I needed to work on in my novel. I was able to propel myself forward without wasting time, knowing exactly where I needed to go. I just had to find my way as a writer.
If you want to level up, solicit feedback from friends, family members, and fellow writers. Even inexperienced writers can tell you where they start skimming in your story. Maybe that’s a section you need to cut or inject with action.
View feedback as an opportunity to improve and you’ll keep leveling up. Every so often, take a look at what you wrote a year ago and you’ll see how far you’ve come.
3. Enter Contests and Competitions
Even if you feel like you don’t stand a chance, enter contests and competitions anyway. You can get so much out of the instructions and resources. Look at the experience as a learning opportunity. Read through all the materials available to help you write your query and synopsis. The competition should have clear instructions and sample submission materials for you to read.
This year, I’m entering #PitchWars, a mentorship program where published authors choose one unpublished writer and help them polish their manuscripts for an agent showcase. I have nothing to lose in trying and I’ve already gained so much. Each day writers choose sample queries and break them down so we can see their critique style. I’ve learned so much from their suggestions to other writers. Several past members offer to look over queries for prospective mentees. I’ve already had a previous winner and published author look at mine and offer useful advice. I’m taking advantage of the synopsis samples and query tips available on the website as well. It’s like a mini-course for free.
Finally, I’m supporting other authors. It’s nice to expand my writing circle and feel like others are rooting for me.
Rejection is always painful, but if you shift your mindset and think of it as an opportunity to learn and grow, your persistence will pay off. Think of yourself as a video game designer and design a writing journey that acknowledges growth and incremental improvement rather than just a focus on a final product.
It’s important to have a growth mindset when you approach writing.
If you want to level up quickly, read craft books, solicit feedback, and enter contests and competitions. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. If you want to see how far you’ve come, take a look at what you wrote last year.
“Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.”―Alain de Botton
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