An 8-Step Guide to Doing the Impossible

by Brian on February 2, 2017

in Behind the Scenes, Commentary

There’s one factor that changes any scenario which exceeds what you believe you’re capable of doing: a gun to your head. What’s that, Hercules? You say there’s no way you can possibly clean out the Augean Stables in one day? [clickety-click] How about NOW?

Augean-StablesFor most of us, the guns may be metaphorical, but they’re no less motivating. I found myself in just such a situation last year, when I had seven weeks to write an entire novel. From scratch, not something with an existing framework, like a novelization of a screenplay (although it did involve existing concepts). And not just a first draft, but researched and finalized and as polished as I could make it. This is a feat I would’ve once considered impossible.

It shouldn’t have gone down like this, but did anyway. I’d been approached about doing an original novel — 100% my characters, settings, situations, etc. — set in the world of the White Wolf role-playing game Mummy: The Curse. I’d kicked around some ideas with the main game designer, C.A. Suleiman, but the project never seemed to get green-lit.

Then came the day when the publisher was wondering where it was.

Because everyone on the other end had been under the impression that the contract to make the project official had been sent out, when in fact it hadn’t. What I should’ve had several months to wrangle was now down to seven weeks, or else the project would be scrapped. There was no room to fudge the delivery date. Seven weeks was the fudge time.

For some people, this timetable would be no problem. They routinely bang out novels in a month. But that’s immaterial. Their pace is not my pace. My comfort zone has nothing to do with yours.

Then again, growth is all about pushing outside of comfort zones. So I forged ahead, for multiple reasons: to keep my word, to keep the project alive, to keep the payday from going away, to make sure the idea-time already invested hadn’t been wasted. But a big part of it was just to see if I could.

That novel, Dawn of Heresies, just came out. So yes, I could. And did. Here’s how.

This isn’t a primer on writing a novel, at any speed. Instead, it’s a bigger-picture overview of how I approached doing what I considered impossible. It may not be a perfect fit for your own Herculean labor, but there should still be plenty here to adapt as needed.

(1) Get Resourceful

Once I knew this was going forward, the first thing I did was sit down with a yellow legal pad and convince myself why the impossible was possible after all.

I like to think on paper. Making notes, brainstorming, planning. The physical act of putting pen to pad helps clarify thoughts and clears a path for ideas that might otherwise get lost looking for a way out.

I explored a number of things. In order:

  • The challenge. This we know.
  • The main feeling it triggered in me. Mainly, a sense of overwhelm.
  • My primary obstacle. Not time, not energy, but rather the limiting belief that my ceiling for maintaining quality control was around 1000 words/day.
  • All the times I could think of when I’d already blown that belief out of the water. There were quite a few. The circumstances were never exactly the same, but I chose to look at that as being even more encouraging, because, hey, adaptability.
  • The relevant strengths and advantages I could draw on. The reasons why I knew I could do it, and what was in place to help. I found 13 of those.
  • Action items describing exactly how I was going to do it. This amounted to a list of next steps to take, plus a daily code of conduct for the duration.

Sum total: two pages. I kept it handy and read it periodically, as a reminder.

This was probably the most important thing I did, other than the work itself. As anyone in any sort of competitive arena will tell you, you first have to triumph in your mind before you can pull it off in the outer world.

(2) Eliminate the Nonessential

This project didn’t happen in a vacuum. It came amid other projects and obligations. The next thing I did was get in touch with the people involved and wheedle for extra time. Some things could be postponed. Others, already moving through production, couldn’t wait. These I tended to fit in late at night, because they were less demanding.

Other activities had to drop away entirely. I resolved to temporarily say goodbye to things I love doing, even things that may be beneficial long-term, but didn’t serve the short-term. I put all self-study regimens on hold. I didn’t make any music. The early start I wanted to get on the year’s garden? It didn’t happen. My nightly reading dropped way down, because when my brain feels like sloshy pudding at the end of the day, all the cognitive activity I can handle is a TV remote control.

(3) Keep Your Infrastructure Strong and Intact

Infrastructure is my term for the habits, activities, mindsets, etc., that we put in place around us because they support our endeavors. I suspect most of us know intuitively what can slide and what’s non-negotiable, but in case you’ve never given it much thought, get clear on this, because when attempting the impossible, you need your infrastructure more than ever.

Two essentials I find imperative to keep in place are working out and meditating. Eliminating them wouldn’t save time, because whatever time they demand more than pays for itself in benefits to body and mind. They’re an investment in energy and mental clarity.

I also made sure not to skimp on sleep. And all due props to my partner Doli, who in all ways was exactly the kind of understanding soul you’d want to be with while tackling a challenge like this … something I did not take for granted.

(4) Maintain a Routine

The key behind routines is to make doing what you need to do so habitual that you fall into it automatically. Often, it helps to chain activities together so they become associated — A leads to B leads to C — with something quick and easy leading into the tougher challenge.

With strength training, I’ve seen a similar principle referred to as greasing the groove: practiced repetition leading to the development of neurological pathways that eventually result in strength gains.

Fortunately, I had this locked down already. I just made sure to never miss it.

Generally, I begin each day with a brisk walk or run around the park we live near. I started this years ago as a way of waking up and tricking myself into being a morning person. Twice or more around, about 20 minutes. Early on I do rhythmic breathing. Later I progress to self-talk. This is something people often scoff at, because their association for it is stuff like now-Senator Al Franken’s pitiful Stuart Smalley character (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough…”). But if mantras are good enough for Navy SEAL commanders … yeah, I don’t argue with Navy SEALs.

After that, I’m at my desk to get started around 7:30am. I work in focus blocks of a couple hours or so each, with breaks in between for renewal. For the theory and practice of this, I highly recommend The Power of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

And that’s how the novel got done. Seven days a week for seven weeks, without a single day’s breather.

Those first couple of weeks, every morning I woke up scared. Every dawn I circled the park scared. Until the day I woke up and the fear wasn’t there anymore. There was just the routine.

(5) Shit Is Still Going to Happen, So Deal and Move On

Life’s little shitstorms aren’t going to let up for your convenience. Expect that, and roll with it.

Within this seven-week span, water came through our bathroom ceiling. For separate reasons, we had to have a plumber over. Nationally, we toggled over to the nobody-wants-it tradition of Daily Savings Time, which tinkered with the gears of my body clock. A rodent, probably a squirrel, wriggled up into my car’s engine compartment, found the one tiny cluster of exposed wires, and ate them. It still ran, but only long enough for it to break down halfway to the shop. Between Toyota, State Farm, and Marv’s Towing, I lost more than half a day I couldn’t afford to lose.

So perform triage: Fix what can’t wait, and whatever can, leave it for later. Get your inner Matt-Damon-in-TheMartian on, solve your problems, deal with the emergencies, then get back ASAP to trying to return to Earth.

(6) Darkest Before the Dawn, So: Ice Cream

It’s a widespread glitch in the human psyche: giving up when the end is just over the next hill. So many projects never get finished because we reach this lonely place of exhaustion and demoralization. Our initial enthusiasm was tapped out a long time ago. Our reserves are depleted. We wonder what made us think we could do this in the first place. We ask why we’re putting ourselves through such an ordeal.

Marathon runners know it well. Hitting the wall, they call it — that point a few miles from the finish line when every brain cell, every muscle fiber, is screaming the same word: Quit.

I hit that point six-and-a-half weeks in. I pretty much cratered that final Thursday.

But then somebody said something nice to me on Facebook. I told him it was well timed, and why.

Here’s what he came back with: “Ice cream. That’s what you need.”

I thought about it awhile, then went out into a foot of slushy March muck and got some ice cream. Turned out I also needed an episode of Daredevil, but together, they did the trick.

Thanks, Aaron.

So don’t argue with yourself that you’re not feeling this way. That you don’t have time for it, or have no right to it. But don’t obey that screaming quit-voice, either. Go fetch your ice cream, in whatever flavor it takes, then get back to the task when you can. Things will feel better.

(7) If You See a Way to Ethically Cheat, Take It

Seven weeks, I said? It was actually seven weeks and three days.

With most labors we take on, we get a vision in mind of what DONE looks like. But does everything have to shake out exactly as you’ve envisioned it? Is there anything you can eliminate, truncate, or overlap that will get you to the same result?

For me, the writing process has always been to complete something, then hand it over in its entirety. I’ve done it that way for so long it feels like a cosmic law.

Then I realized: Who says it has to be that way this time? Who says my first editor can’t start working on the beginning of the novel while I’m still working on the end? He doesn’t need the end to begin at the beginning.

So, on the due date, I began delivering it in installments. The editor still got his part done on time, and I squeezed out an extra three days. Those three days made a huge difference.

(8) Debrief Yourself

If you push through to the end of a project or pursuit that has exhausted you, scared you, temporarily crushed you, smashed the limits of what you believed yourself capable of … if you’ve been through all that and haven’t learned anything about yourself, you’re still doing it wrong.

So I ended as I began: with that same yellow legal pad, thinking on paper.

In the aftermath, it’s easy to squander momentum; to let inertia take over and reinstate the status quo; to regard what you’ve done as an aberration instead of a new normal. The best thing you can do for yourself is clarify whatever you’ve learned, so you can more effectively take it on board and carry it forward.

Because, whatever it is you’ve done, it shouldn’t be looked at as your ceiling. Instead, think of it as the base camp for your next climb.

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