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The Forest for the Trees

[1]One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn—and am still constantly learning—as a writer has been patience. Not just moment-to-moment, don’t-re-check-your-inbox patience, but long term, forest-for-the-trees patience. I have had to learn my craft, learn the industry, and then learn to readjust my expectations accordingly. I have had to learn as much as I can about all the things I can (_o/) so I have the confidence to admit that the rest is out of my hands. I have had to learn to show myself grace, to release the fatalism that comes with failure, and to know when to step back and take the broad view.

I’d like to say I learned all that smoothly and quickly, but it’s been a struggle every step of the way.

One of the beautiful things that comes with having over a decade in the thick of it behind you is that you begin to see the broader picture more easily. I remember when I first started out how I felt drafting my first novel. I was certain that I had to do it as quickly as possible. I’m not sure why. Generalized impatience, I guess. I’d decided what I wanted to do and so I wanted to get it done. I wanted to write it fast, edit it fast, sell it fast. I wanted to be twenty years in during year one. Obviously, that’s not how it works. Perhaps luckily, I didn’t realize that at the time, and so I started at the beginning, which is the only way to do it.

With almost every project I’ve ever worked on, I feel a sense of urgency. Some of that is creative drive, which is a glorious, magical thing that I cherish and don’t mess with. But some of it is impatience. I want the next thing. I wanted something published. I wanted an agent. I wanted a book deal. I want, I want, I want, and wanting makes us (or at least me) hurry.

Hurrying isn’t the same thing as working hard. That’s another lesson I’ve learned the hard way. You can do both sometimes, but usually you have to choose working hard as your priority or hurrying takes over. Getting it finished becomes more important than getting it right. When we think about it that way, it becomes obvious that we need to take our time and do the work. But in the thick of things, it can feel almost impossible to slow down and resist the temptation to cross things off our list by taking shortcuts.

How do we step back far enough to see the forest for the trees when we’re already deep inside the forest?

I stop for a minute.

“What do you mean, stop?!” you wail from deep inside the forest. “I’m only ten thousand words away from finishing this dang book!” Or one more conference away from landing that gig. Or ten more queries away from snagging that agent. Or…

Exactly. All the more reason to stop. Have you been sensing that you’re way off track in your WIP but are plowing forward anyway? Have you spent too much money on networking already but keep thinking the next one will be the one that pays off? Have you already lowered to your second- third- or fourth-tier on your agent wish list? There’s a good chance that you, my friend, are stuck in the trees. Trees are lovely, but if you’re looking for good choices long-term, you can’t be looking at bark from an inch away. You have to step back, find some perspective.

Stopping, even at the angstyiest, most inconvenient possible time, is the best way to do that. I’m not saying take a month off or anything—unless you need it—but I am saying you need to allow yourself time to remember that there’s more around you than a few trees. There’s a whole forest. Thinking you can see a field up ahead is great, unless you’re actually headed to the wrong field. Your book can wait two more days. You can miss one conference sign-up. And the agents on your next tier down aren’t going anywhere before next week. Take some time and ask yourself if what you’re charging toward is right, and if you need to charge so hard.

Do you want to finish your WIP to say you’ve finished if it means you gave it a sloppy ending that doesn’t fit? Do you want to pay for a conference just to pitch to an agent you could query via email? If the agents on your next tier down actually offered you representation, would you really feel comfortable saying yes? If the answer to your step-back is “no,” then congratulations: you’ve saved yourself time, effort, stress, and maybe some heartache. If the answer is “yes,” then no harm done. You can spare the pause. Almost always. It’s hard to remember, but our now now mantra isn’t actually accurate.

The more we practice stepping back and seeing the forest itself instead of just the trees (even if it means climbing up one and looking down to see the canopy from above), the easier it becomes to enact patience. When we’re wandering in circles in the thick of it, it’s easy to just want faster faster faster, but when we remember that there’s this whole wide forest and a specific place we’re ultimately trying to go, it becomes easier to slow down and correct our course—even if that means doing harder work to get there.

Patience. For me, it’s all about learning to stop and give myself time to rediscover that broad view. The harder it is to do that, the more I usually need to try. Do you struggle with patience in this writing world? How do you see the forest for the trees?

About Annie Neugebauer [2]

Annie Neugebauer is a two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated author with work appearing and forthcoming in more than a hundred publications, including magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Apex, and Black Static, as well as anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 3 & 4 and #1 Amazon bestsellers Killing It Softly & Fire. She’s a member of the Horror Writers Association and a columnist for Writer Unboxed and LitReactor. She's represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. She lives in Texas with two crazy cute cats and a husband who’s exceptionally well-prepared for the zombie apocalypse. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com for news, poems, organizational tools for writers, and more.