A long walk down a short trail
For the last three months, I’ve been drawing a steampunk web comic. Thanks to all of you who have shared such positive feedback and also shared the story with your friends.
I finish a page a week. This is no small feat, given the pages are done entirely by hand in pencil. And they are 9″x13″ size at that.
Overall, I consider a page a week a pretty good pace for someone who is not a graphic novelist by trade, already blogs regularly, has another business to run and maintains other regular writing projects. But when I started out, I heard interesting feedback from people on my choice of production schedule.
“Only a page a week?” they would say. “Why, that’s not much at all. At that rate, it will take you forever to finish!”
At first, this observation stole all my happy vibes. Until I turned it on its head.
“Yes,” I took to replying, “at this rate it will take me 24 weeks or 6 months to finish a comic. But by next April (one full year), I’ll have completed two 24-page comics and be putting them together into a 48-page graphic novel. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a very good year.”
Looking back, I realized that these negative comments were quite well-meant. Any sizable creative project always feels like a mountain at the outset. Our temptation is to stand at the base, gawking up at the distance between us and the snow-capped peak that looked so enticing in the travel brochure.
In between there are sheer cliff faces, landslides, and subzero temperatures to conquer. We begin to doubt ourselves. “What were we thinking, taking on Everest, when we could have just climbed a rock wall back home?”
But there’s a trick to mountain climbing, and every good climber knows it. Even Everest can be scaled one step at time. If you’re committed to concentrating on the next step instead of the destination.
Now that’s an empowering thought.
These boots are made for walking
The more I started thinking about it, the more the idea of that “next step” really gripped me. It’s the secret behind any creative project. It’s the secret to managing overwhelm. It’s the secret to getting anything done that’s really worthwhile.
You take steps. Steps add up to a trail. And that trail carries you somewhere … often faster than you think it will.
Ultimately, I wonder if that isn’t why so many of our projects fail: because we get so busy looking at the distance we have to cover that we forget to take the next step that would get us to the finish line. Most of my unfinished creative projects are like this. There was so much to do I couldn’t manage it all in my head. And in my panic, I forgot that a little by little, moment by moment, I could really get a lot done.
So I’ve quit thinking about the end game.
(Okay, not entirely.)
But once a project is green-lit, I put all my energies into drafting a set of steps and knocking them out one by one. And I’m seeing the strategy pay dividends in … well … actually getting things done.
Things like 9″x13″ comic pages. Novel chapters. Blog posts. Pretty much whatever I decide I’m crazy enough to stop talking about and actually do.
And there’s another benefit. I can multitask on projects easily when they are nothing more than a series of steps. Whereas before I could not rip my mind out of one world and into another until the whole project was done, mentally I can now take a break from Book A to work on Book B. Or Comic Page C. Or Steampunk Costume D. Or … well, you get the idea.
I’m thinking in micro achievements. Micro achievements add up fast. And I really, really like fast.
Ultimately I’m able to hold the finished product in my hand (er… see it on my computer?) and share it with the world. So I can go right back into the studio and take that next metaphoric step on whatever is next on my docket.
Simple right? Yes … and no. But it is effective, and if I can do it, anyone can.
Here are a few tips for leveraging that simple power of the next step in your own creative work:
1) Consciously put the results out of your mind.
I do this with a ritual. Imagine the next Great American Novel or Graphic Novel (or whatever your huge creative project is) being published to acclaim by millions. You land on the map as a creator and have a chance to share your work with the wider culture. Okay, good. I know you’ve got that whole scenario down pat in your imagination.
Now toss it.
Yes, visualize yourself wadding up that dream and throwing it away. It doesn’t matter. It’s no longer part of the equation. Why? Because the person who will lose themselves in delusions of grandeur will be too afraid and blocked up to actually write a book from start to finish, let alone revise it.
You are a creator just taking the next step on their next project. That is all.
2) Break every project into a series of steps.
This can be as detailed or loose as you like. But when you get done with your work every day, you should have a sense of what needs to happen next in order for you to move forward. And that’s really all you need to know about. Have your series of steps handy either mentally or on paper or in a program like Evernote or Scrivener with lots of built-in “pegs” for you to hang information on.
And when you get nervous or get blocked, just ask yourself, “What’s one next step I could take?” Movement, amazingly, cures that sense of stand-still.
3) Get tools to help you stay organized
If you have trouble plotting your own course forward, get tools that help. I’ve already mentioned Evernote and Scrivener. You could also get a to-do app like To-Doist, where I plot my daily steps forward on all my business activities (including books I’m writing for my business). There are also tons of productivity apps online. And old-fashioned standbys like Microsoft Word and Excel that you can use to suit your own purposes if you prefer. Heck, if you must, get a notebook and write things down in pencil! Do what you need to to stay on track—not with with your behemoth project, but with your one next step. Perfectionism will wither in your moving shadow.
4) Schedule in intervals to share your progress.
One of the things that helps me stay on top of Alethia Grey panels is the promise of sharing them quickly this doesn’t work for every project, of course, but it can for many. You may choose to share process updates rather than finished components, but either way, you’re communicating with real, live people on the other side of your screen. And nothing incentives us to take that next step than the encouragement of someone else. Plus, it keeps us accountable that we are actually creating what we say we are creating.
5) Make step-taking a way of life.
Ultimately, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other has to become a way of life if we’re going to get anywhere. I had to let go of my dream of the finished products and the impact they would have . . . so I could actually relax and make them. When you get focused on what’s in front of your feet, you’re all that more delighted when you pause to look back and see how much ground you’ve covered. It’s a wonderful feeling. And while it take some of the mystique out of the “creative life,” it also means that you get to share your creative work with a real audience because that work actually gets done.
I can think of no greater achievement than that.
How about you? How do you break your work down into steps you can accomplish? What other techniques have you found for combatting perfectionism and bringing your vision to life.