Micro-Progress Your Novel

A few weeks ago I spotted an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started’ (you can read it here) and realized it was tailor made for us writers (especially after I’d seen a number of posts on my writing groups about writers writers feeling overwhelmed about their projects).

The idea of ‘micro-progress’ is simple: For any task you have to complete, break it down to the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time.

In many ways, it’s an obvious concept. But what caught my eye, was the fact that studies had shown that micro-progress (or establishing micro-goals) can actually trick the brain into increasing dopamine levels, providing satisfaction and happiness. Sounds like the perfect plan for anyone facing the daunting prospect of completing a novel:)

Online I was seeing posts from people who felt overwhelmed by revisions, who were despairing that their novel had run aground mid way through, or who were experiencing chronic writer’s block and desperate for advice. In all of these situations, focusing on ‘micro-progress’ seemed a useful place to start.

The concept of ‘micro-progress’ has also helped me. I currently have a number of projects out on submission and a couple of ones with my agent – so it was time to start a new WIP. I faced a dilemma though – I had the first 50 pages of a YA novel that I’ve been noodling over (actually driving myself insane over is probably more apt) and yet I was concerned it still wasn’t quite ‘there yet’. I struggled with whether I really knew what the book was about (despite a synopsis and outline, mind you). So I decided it was best to put it aside and start a completely new project – yet at the back of my mind I still couldn’t quite let the old project completely die. Enter ‘Micro-Progress’!

I decided to use the advice in the NYT article and tackle both projects but with a different mindset. For the brand new WIP I’d sit down and get started in the usual way. I have the synopsis and outline so it was time to face the blank page and get writing. I’d focus on this everyday except Friday – when I’d allow myself to tackle the old project but with a ‘micro-progress’ approach. I’d just take it scene by scene in Scrivener and see what happened – without placing too much pressure on myself. The regular WIP could progress in the usual fashion – but for this one I’d be happy setting smaller, more manageable goals to see how it would all come together. In this way a ‘micro-progress’ mindset helped overcome my confidence issues as well my concerns about abandoning the project all together.

A ‘micro-progress’ mindset could be helpful in almost all our writing as it focuses on the smaller more manageable steps that can be taken. The evidence also seems to demonstrate that this approach can stimulate our brains, enabling us to continue, progress and feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction – rather than becoming overwhelmed by the totality of the task ahead. But I guess the key question is – TKZers – what do you think about ‘micro-progress’?


Writing Success is Yours for the Thinking


by James Scott Bell

Retro-Golf-Man-2-Clip-Art-GraphicsFairyFor some strange reason I decided to take up golf at the age of forty-one.

I informed my old college roommate, who was a superb high school golfer. The first words out of his mouth were, “Do you have a good psychiatrist?”

He knew whereof he spoke. My initial attempts at the game left many a chunky divot on the fine grasses of local courses. Scores of balls were lost in both natural and unnatural waters. So frustrated was I that one day, after yet another shank, I hurled my five-iron like a German hammer thrower. It whirligigged through the air before settling into the leafy arms of a eucalyptus tree. It is there to this day.

I took lessons, but it seemed like every time I tried to put something into practice my playing partners would run for cover.

I was about to give up the game when I came across an intriguing sounding book. It was called The Inner Game of Golf by a fellow named W. Timothy Gallwey. The book made an astonishing claim. You could actually lower your golf score simply by mastering what goes on inside your noggin. You could learn to relax, perform under pressure, and make a repeatable swing. You could learn to get out of your own way, so you were not overthinking everything. The game would even become fun.

I was ready for anything! So I spent several months working on my mental approach to golf. And you know what? I qualified for the U.S. Open and finished second!

Oops. Sorry. That was a dream I had one night.

What actually happened was that I got better. I really did. I reached a point where I knew I could go onto any course in the world and not embarrass myself (except in the way I normally do at large social gatherings).

I bring this up because, like brother Brooks, I find a lot of analogies between sports (especially golf) and writing. And I believe the mental game of writing is every bit as important as typing and a good cup of java.

There are so many ways a writer can feel beaten down. Rejection, envy, discouragement over sales, self-doubt. These mental land mines threaten your productivity and growth, which are the engines of your writing career.

As someone who pursued the writing dream after being told you have to be “born” a writer; and as someone who has been making a living at it for twenty years; and as someone who has been through all of the slings and arrows of outrageous writing fortune — I finally decided to write a book about the mental game of writing. That’s why the title is, amazingly: The Mental Game of Writing: How to Overcome Obstacles, Stay Creative and Productive, and Free Your Mind for Success.

How Make Living Writer-printed version

The book covers everything from decisions, goals, courage, creativity, and growth to dealing with envy, stress, comparison, and burnout. It has chapters on increasing your joy, discipline, and production. There’s even a chapter filled with my favorite inspirational quotes from other writers. These can be a tremendous boost to you in time of need.

For example, before I was published, upon hearing again the “you can’t learn it” mantra, I came across this quote from Brenda Ueland:

“Work with all your intelligence and love. Work freely and rollickingly as though you were talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters.”

That was enough to keep me going. I never looked back at those doubters again.

The legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, defined success as “peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

That’s what I want you to have. Peace of mind because you took the steps you could to be the best writer you can be.

It starts by going mental.

The book is available here:





So what are the major mental obstacles you’ve faced in your writing life? How did you overcome them?