The Trick To Keeping The Big Picture In Mind While Working Out All The Details

Editor’s note: this is a guest post by Stephen Watkins of The Undiscovered Author.

Whether it’s because you have kids, or a day job, or family crises, or you’re looking for work, or you’ve got a heavy class schedule at school–whatever it is, many of us have a lot of demands on our time, and those demands compete with the need to write.

A lot of the time, writing has to take the back seat to all those demands.

And that’s okay.

It’s easy to get hard on yourself when you’re not writing as much as you’d like. I do it all the time. If I go too long without writing, I start to feel uneasy and unhappy.

Writing is just a part of who I am. I know I’m not alone in feeling that way. But when life gets in the way of your writing, sometimes you have to let it go.

An important tool I’ve developed to help me cope with this reality is “taking the long view:”

When The Big Picture Gets Lost Among The Details

Taking the long view is about keeping things in perspective. It’s about finding balance in our lives. And it’s about keeping the dream alive and making progress toward our goals without losing our grip on our sanity or on the day-to-day things of life that we just can’t put down, even to write.

You already know that writing a novel isn’t easy.

There’s “NaNoWriMo” encouraging you to write a 50,000-word novel in a month.

There’s the “3-Day Novel Contest” which challenges you to write a novel in three days.

Sometimes, the stars align and you can make the writing happen.

But most of the time, writing doesn’t go that way. Life doesn’t have an “off” switch to let you write as much as you want whenever you want. Some of us write faster all the time, but some write slower. So, planning a writing career can mean thinking months and even years ahead.

“Someday” My Dream Will Come

By taking the long view, we condition ourselves to this process. We don’t expect overnight success and we don’t expect to be finished with our novel tomorrow. It all happens in the future.

But taking the long view doesn’t mean giving up on our goals and dreams. It doesn’t mean waiting and sighing and hoping for “someday” to come. It means doing what we can now, and taking each day as it comes: one step at a time.

5 Steps to a Keeping The Big Picture In Mind While Working Out All The Details

Here are my five steps to help you take the long view in your writing life, while keeping you moving forward with short-term goals:

  1. Have a Long-term Plan: You can’t take the long view if you don’t have a vision of where you want to be in the long-term. My “long-term plan” is equal parts Achievable Goal and Wildest Dream, and I think both parts are necessary–at least they are for me. I need to have something actionable and concrete that I know I can achieve: something like “finish my novel” or “write the next novel” and so on. But the dream of what might be possible for me if everything works out perfectly also sustains me. For me, that’s becoming a well-known and sought-after author in my preferred genre.
  2. Have Short-term Goals: Your long-term dreams and goals are little more than pipe-dreams if you don’t have something you can do in the here-and-now to make progress toward that dream–even if it’s just little baby steps. So you’ve got to set short-term, achievable goals for yourself that help you along toward that long-term dream. That means setting goals about how much, or how often, you’ll spend time writing.
  3. Be Accountable: You’ve got to be accountable for achieving those short-term goals if you’re going to progress. So, find someone you trust–someone supportive of your goals and dreams–to report your progress to: be that a friend, a family member, or even the audience for your blog. Being accountable means you have to be able to measure progress towards your goals. So your goals have to be based on something you’re willing to track and measure. Maybe that means tracking the word count you write each day or each week. Not into tracking your word count? Then track the number of hours you spent writing each day, or the number of days you spent some time writing, or even take note that you sat down once during the week to write. Make that part of your short-term goals, and then be accountable and report on your goals to the other party. This keeps you working out all the little details while moving you towards accomplishing the bigger picture of your dream.
  4. Be Forgiving: Some days, or some weeks–or some months–you’re going to miss your goals. Because of life? Yes. It happens. Sometimes it happens a lot, in rapid succession, leaving you little time to breathe. So when it happens, don’t get hard on yourself. Cut yourself a little slack, and…
  5. Keep On Going: When you run into bumps in the road, sometimes you have to slow down, or stop, or wait until things get smoothed out. But when you pass through the bumps, don’t dwell on your missed progress toward your long-term goals. Instead, pick up right where you left off and keep on going. You can lose a day, or a week, or a month, or a year of progress. But make sure that you’re still pointed in the right direction, and if you keep moving forward, eventually you’ll make it to the right destination.

Writing is a Journey

If you’ve got supportive people around you and a clear direction forward, there’s nothing to stop you from being successful on your own terms. There are a lot of things you can’t control: the vagaries of life, the tastes of readers, and everything in between.

But just remember this isn’t a sprint.

It’s not even a marathon.

It’s not even about whether or not you cross the finish-line.

It’s a journey. And the journey is all about what happens along the way to the destination. It’s all about what you learn along the side of the road, and how you handle what comes with each step.

Stephen A. Watkins lives, works, plays and writes in Atlanta, Georgia, where he recently completed his Master’s degree. He’s been an avid reader and writer (especially of fantasy and science fiction literature) since he could count his age in the single digits–and he still can’t get enough. Day-to-day, he precariously balances the demands of his day job, loving his wife, playing with his toddler, and walking the dog to find the time to read and write. He blogs about his misadventures at The Undiscovered Author.

What are some of the ways that help you take the long view in your writing life? How do you handle the day-to-day moments of life that sometimes interfere with your writing? How do you keep the big picture in mind while working out all the details? Please share your wisdom with us in the comments below!

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16 comments on “The Trick To Keeping The Big Picture In Mind While Working Out All The Details

  1. Thanks Stephen, I enjoyed reading this post. I’ve recently been dwelling a little too much on the details and punishing myself for not achieving my goals, so I must say that it was a therapy to open my inbox this morning and be reminded “to take the long view,” and put things into perspective. I also liked your tip on combining achievable goals with wildest dreams 🙂

    I am terrible at managing life with writing. I tend to close the door and shut the world out while I write, which often means that nothing gets done around the house and I can go ages without seeing family and friends. What is strange, however, is that I don’t manage to get much writing done either! I write full-time so it’s not a question of time, instead I get obsessive to the point where I can spend hours writing and re-writing the same sentence or paragraph. Perhaps it’s fear.

    Many thanks for the post, and I look forward to more..

  2. Robert says:

    I just finished my first draft – some two and a bit years after I started. It came to a halt within sight of the finishing line about 3 months ago. I reverted to pen and paper instead of the computer. I took my notepad everywhere, and I wrote whenever I had a spare 10 minutes. The internal editor switched off, and I made it through. I know I can fix the errors – I just needed to get to the end.
    So for me, the answer is many of the above points – but most of all – just keep going.

    • Robert, yes, I agree completely. I always start with pen and paper. Always available, no going back to fiddle with what I just wrote, no booting up. Editing can always come later.

      And, yes, keep going. When people are reading your novel, they won’t care how long you took to write it or how many drafts it went through. All that will matter is that it’s good.

  3. Shawneda says:

    I’d love to read the author of the posts blog but there is no link to The Undiscovered Author…great post by the way.

    • Ollin says:

      There is a link at the top and bottom of the post to Stephen’s blog. I’m sure he’d love it if you’d check him out.

  4. […] got a guest post up on Ollin Morales’ blog {Courage 2 Create}.  It’s called “The Trick to Keeping the Big Picture In Mind While Working Out the Details“. But it’s not about the “big picture” and the “details” of […]

  5. Troy Skog says:

    This is exactly what I struggle with, feeling the pressure of not finding the time to work on my next novel. I like the idea of setting small achievable goals. Thanks

  6. Divya says:

    Love the fourth one, specially because I miss the goals so often 😀

  7. Hey, thanks to everyone who’s commented so far. I’m having one of those “life doesn’t have an ‘off’ switch” moments I talked about… so I’ll be back hopefully sometime tomorrow to respond more directly to your comments.

  8. Life doesn’t have an “off” switch — and that’s a good thing (other than the big OFF switch, of course). In addition to the many rewards of the non-writing parts of life, that is the raw material for writing, after all. Would you want to read a story written by someone whose main life experience was writing stories? So, if Real Life has asserted itself and you’re focused on other things for a while, take good notes. I had to spend a lot of time in hospitals a couple of years ago, but since then I’ve written two mystery stories set in hospitals. 🙂

  9. I love this because it’s what you need to do when writing a novel, or any long-term project–keep your eye on the big picture, the overall arc of the story, and manage the details as well.

  10. RD Meyer says:

    I think the most important part of this post was the “Be Accountable” portion. Yes, we’ll all fall off the wagon sometimes, and we have to forgive ourselves when we do. However, we also need to make time to write, even when we have a headache, our boss has been a bastard, or we just want to go to bed. Writing is like going to the gym – if we too often fall victim to “I’ll do even more tomorrow,” it’ll get easier and easier to not go back.

  11. MarinaSofia says:

    I am such a big picture person (and usually fail at the boring nitty-gritty admin things that still need to be done). But sometimes the big picture can get too vast and overwhelming, sometimes you just need to take it one day at a time. I especially like it when you say ‘It’s not even a marathon (because this is how I usually feel), it’s a journey.’

  12. […] The Trick to Keeping the Big Picture in Mind While Working Out All the Details by Stephen Watkins at Courage 2 Create […]

  13. @ triflingtravel: Heh. I’m definitely not the best person for advice when you get stuck in endless sentence rewrite hell. Good luck with that! But yeah, regardless of our goals, I think we do more harm than good when we beat ourselves up for not achieving them.

    @ Robert: I know exactly how you feel. I never quite finished my first novel – after years of working on it. My plan for my current novel-WIP is based on expecting to take about 2 years to write it. It was realizing that the prompted me to start thinking about this topic.

    @ Shawneda: I think Ollin covered it, but in case you missed it my blog’s address is

    @ Troy Skog: I think it’s in having smaller, more immediately achievable goals that we set ourselves up for continued success. Tackling a big project is daunting. It’s easier if you only have to think about the next little step.

    @ Divya: Yeah, I don’t think it works without #4. Because we’re all gonna fall down at some point. What’s that old adage: “No use crying over spilt milk”, right?

    @ Anthony Lee Collins: You’re absolutely right, of course. 😉 It’s the experiences of life that enable us to write authentically. I alluded to this (briefly) in a post I wrote in February of last year: “Write What You (don’t) Know” (it’s near the end of that post).

    @ Charlotte Rains Dixon: That’s true, this advice can be generalized to virtually any long-term goals and plans. It’s good for not just writers, but anyone with a dream! 🙂

  14. @ RD Meyer: I think you’re right in a sense: you can’t make progress toward your goals – either long- or short-term – unless you make progress. Even if we make mistakes or fall behind, the point is we have to forgive ourselves and move on and then go back to that point of making progress. Staying accountable, I think, helps us do those things. If we stop our accountability it’s easier to make excuses to ourselves, easier not to forgive ourselves, and easier not to keep going. So it’s definitely integral to this process.

    @ MarinaSofia: Yeah, I was originally going to just write that old platitude that “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon”, and I had to stop myself and think about it. It can be a marathon if that’s how we want to fashion our journey. And I think it’s good to have a destination in mind, at the very least (as I think should be clear from my first two goal-setting steps). But if we make of it only a race, I think we run the risk of losing sight of why we write in the first place. For me, it’s because I love writing, and writing is a part of who I am, and I know that’s true for a lot of other people. Many, probably most of us want to make it a career, but I still think we can’t lose sight of that deeper motivation, because that’s what’s going to drive us to pick ourselves up and keep going.

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