This is part three of my “Draft One” series: Writing the first draft of a novel.
Let’s start with a dogsledding reference. My last two articles were a foray into this framework: A strategy (i.e., Go Big) selects the route, tactics (i.e., Pomodoro) are the gear that fills the sled, and principles supply guidance when the route gets rough. This learning is a principle.
#3: Don’t Miss Two
This summer, my dad and I visited Carlsbad Caverns. That place is the physical manifestation of cavernous: Cathedral-like ceilings, “bottomless” pits, and rooms the size of city parks. Stalactites and stalagmites decorate these caverns like statues in a museum. Stalagmites (the ones on the ground) are towers that formed one calcium droplet at a time. The plunk, plunk, plunk of the droplets echoed through the caverns—slowly sculpting stalagmites for thousands of years. This commitment was nothing short of awesome. It inspired me: If little droplets could create giant sculptures, why can’t a person write a book?
We are the only creatures with the high-mindedness to see dripping water and assign it some deep meaning. At the end of the day, we’re still animals that need food, sleep, and a sense of belonging. We’re more like our dogs than those industrious calcium droplets. Yet, unlike dogs (as far as we can tell), we’re burdened with silly ambitions and abstract desires, like having a purpose and finding fulfillment in things greater than ourselves. As I think about these competing priorities, I see a duality within myself: A master and a dog. One part is the high-minded plotter, making plans for his hopes and dreams; another part is the animal seeking nothing but food and sleep, lazy by default and savage when his basic comforts are threatened.
The thing is—the master can’t achieve anything without his dog. Imagine being in a tundra, hundreds of miles from civilization. With all the gear and harsh conditions, you couldn’t get anywhere without a team of sled dogs. You might know the direction, but the dogs need to carry you there. Likewise, for the master to create anything, he must encourage his dog to work. When handled with care, this is possible, but care alone will not pull the sled. As anyone who has trained an animal knows, the key to creating good behavior is consistency.
For years, I struggled to train the dog within. In 2019, I tried to do five minutes of daily meditation but couldn’t keep a streak longer than a few days. For years, I could go weeks without flossing, despite the warnings of my dentist. I’d push myself too hard on days with motivation (making my gums bleed) but slack too much on days when the going got tough (let plaque build up).
Near the end of 2020, I read about the first expedition to reach the South Pole. Two parties ventured out in 1911—one from England and one from Norway. The English had a more nuanced approach: On days with good weather, they’d push their dogs and themselves dozens of miles per day. On bad days, they’d hunker down and wait for storms to pass. The Norse had a more basic approach. Each day, they’d go 15 miles—storm or no storm. In the end, the entire English expedition died, while the Norse reached the pole and lived to tell the tale.
The Norse were consistent. They trained their dogs, literally and metaphorically, to follow a strict but sustainable pace. Inspired, I adopted a similar principle for 2021. On January 1st, I aimed to write one pomodoro (25 minutes) per day and kept a calendar of my progress (marking my words per day in green pen). The quarantine and dreary weather removed distractions and I fell into a strong routine—trod down so far that the rut became a tunnel, and I developed the tunnel vision that came along with it. This streak lasted 71 days.
Until it broke in mid-March.
A big red zero scrawled itself on my chart. I broke my streak. In the past, this failure would’ve made me throw in the towel and scrap the whole thing. But by some minor miracle, I picked up the pen the next day and green numbers returned to my calendar. My dog had gotten off the leash, but he didn’t run away.
In a strange way, this slip strengthened my habit. I returned to writing with more vigor but even more kindness. I was pushing my dog too hard, and an infinite streak wasn’t realistic. It was okay to take a break here and there. Missing one day wasn’t going to derail my progress, so I honored the Sabbath and reset my writing habit from seven to six days a week. Keeping this buffer, I continued my journey to The End. The consistent plunk, plunk, plunk of progress sculpted a draft. I missed another day here and there—a pause between the plunks—but I didn’t miss two days. My master got the progress he wanted, and my dog wasn’t overworked. It’s a principle I still use, both with writing and other habits: Don’t miss two.