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Avoiding the treadmill effect in writing

Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint, we’re told, our resident sprinter notwithstanding. Most of us complete novels a teeny bit at a time. And it can often seem to take for…ever.

The difference is that when you’re running an actual marathon, at least the scenery changes. And there are fans at the sidelines cheering you on as you pass each milestone. But there are few to rejoice with you when you finish that difficult fight scene or weep with you when you have to delete the last thousand words you wrote because they’re all info dump and backstory.

Writing is more like walking on a treadmill. The few doesn’t change, and there are precious few indicators of progress. The treadmill will say how many miles I walked, and the word count will tell me how much I wrote, but that’s all.

Dan Pink interviewed Harvard business school professor Teresa Amabile, who studies productivity and motivation. Along with her husband and co-author Steven Kramer, she found something kind of scary about workers who feel they are on a treadmill. Amabile said when you’re in this kind of job, you are “running all day to keep up with many different (often unrelated) demands, but getting nowhere on your most important work. That’s an absolute killer for creativity.”

Yet that’s often how we feel as novelists. What can we do about it?

Amabile and Kramer “did find some instances in which people were terrifically creative under high time pressure.” Those instances were when “people felt like they were ‘on a mission’— working hard to meet a truly urgent deadline on an important project, and protected from all other demands.”

If you don’t have a contract, it’s hard to manufacture a “truly urgent” deadline, though Avily’s goal of getting her books ready for Realm Makers is the kind of thing that is within our reach. Having accountability partners also helps, which is why the NAF team reports our progress monthly. And you have to celebrate your small wins.

The two other aspects Amabile describes are also within our reach. First, we can view writing not just a hobby, or even a job, but as a mission. Second, we can protect our writing time, even if it’s only 20 or 30 minutes a day.

Run your race. Keep pressing ahead.

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About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

2 comments on “Avoiding the treadmill effect in writing

  1. Writing can definitely feel like a treadmill at times. And the lack of fans cheering on the sidelines can be especially depressing.

    Which is why I feel so blessed to have a small handful of close friends and family members who believe in what I’m doing and who ask me how it’s going. Some of them are even helpful as beta readers, since they enjoy the genre(s) I write.

    So I’d chime in with this suggestion: Find some fans! It may take a while, but keep your eyes open for even just one or two people who like your writing and treat those relationships like the priceless treasures they are! Tell them you need them to cheer you on occasionally. Good friends are often quite happy to do so!

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