In today’s episode, I’m sharing one of my favorite mindset tips—and it all has to do with your ability (and willingness) to start from scratch. I call it strengthening your capacity for zero. Here’s a preview of what’s included:
[01:25] Your capacity for zero describes how willing you are to start over if something you’re outlining or writing doesn’t work.
[04:45] What happened when I told one of the writers I work with that she had to start over after writing a 40,000-word first draft
[11:00] How to strengthen your capacity for zero (including some question prompts to get you started thinking about your current capacity for zero)
[12:25] Final thoughts and episode recap.
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If you're struggling to answer these questions, it's important that you start strengthening your capacity for zero, because the higher your capacity for zero, you're more likely to take risks, you're more likely to put yourself out there and you're more willing to fail. And the more you're willing to fail, the more likely you are to eventually succeed. Welcome to the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilboe and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I wanna prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming, so each week, I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So, whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started. In today's episode, we're gonna talk about your capacity for zero. So this episode's gonna be a little different than some of the ones I've done before, because it's not a typical how-to episode. We're gonna get into some mindset tips and I'm gonna talk through some mindset blocks that I've seen writers go through, and then some hacks to help you if you're experiencing some of these mindset issues as well. So, no matter where you're at on the writing, editing or publishing journey, I know you're gonna get a lot of value from today's episode and even if you don't think you have mindset issues, I encourage you to tune into this episode anyway because there are gonna be some really good takeaways. So, like I mentioned, we're gonna talk about this concept called your capacity for zero, and it's essentially looking at how willing are you to start from scratch. How willing are you to say I didn't quite nail this outline or this story and now to make it work, I need to go back and start over and rebuild it from the ground up. So am I willing to put my ego aside and start from ground zero, not knowing if this idea or outline or story will work out or not? And this is a big deal no matter where you're at in the process, if you have an idea that didn't quite work out as you outlined your story, or if the first draft that you wrote doesn't quite work, or let's even say that you've published a book and you've had mixed reviews, or maybe you haven't gotten the best reviews right, at some point we all find ourselves in situations where we either need to find the courage to start over or start from zero or essentially just give up on something. And this is something I deal with a lot as an editor and a book coach, but also in my own writing too. So I'm not immune to having to start over just because I'm an editor and a book coach. I mean, unfortunately, right, I wish I was, but I often have to tell writers that their outline or their drafts don't work and they have to start over. Now, most of the time like 98% of the time, I'd say. When I tell a writer that it doesn't mean their idea is bad, I actually don't think that any ideas are bad. They're just kind of neutral and it's how you develop them that either works or doesn't work. But anyway, I have to tell writers that their outlines or their stories or their scenes don't work from time to time, and it's one of the more difficult parts of my job, as I'm sure you can imagine. But usually one of two things will happen when I have to deliver this news Either the writer is totally game to start over and they too see the flaws in whatever they're working on, or they shut down and they wanna give up on their writing altogether. Now, in the second instance. In most cases people do come around and they do find it in themselves to start over, because they really want to make this writing thing work. But sometimes it takes a bit of time. So, anyway, having the courage and the ability to say to yourself this story isn't working, whether it's an outline form, synopsis form or in a fully written draft and now I realize I have to start over Having the ability to do that is huge. And this ability or this capacity for zero is what sets certain writers apart from the majority. It's what allows certain writers to take their stories all the way to the finish line while others give up. So these writers with a high capacity for zero, they're willing to try something and fail. And then, second, they're willing to take what doesn't work and say to themselves okay, well, that didn't quite work out, but I'm gonna keep going with it anyway. Or if they're starting with something new, they might say to themselves you know, the story might not work or the scene might not work, but I'm gonna give it a try anyway. And if you think about it, that's like most things, right, we don't know how to do something, or we don't know if something's going to work until we try it. So the same thing, of course, is true for our writing, but it's not easy. We all want to write great stories and be successful, whatever success means to each one of us. And if you think about other areas of your life, like, let's say, with your kids or in your day job if you don't write full time or in any of your other hobbies you probably know what you're doing more or less, so you have a little bit of confidence baked in. But it's different when it comes to writing a book, especially when you're just starting out, because many of us don't know what we're doing right, and that's why having this capacity for zero is so important. If you've been listening to the podcast for a while, you might remember when I had Stephanie Medrick on the show and we talked about how, when we first started working together, she had about 40,000 words of a draft written and I had to basically tell her that, although her idea was really cool, we were going to need to dismantle those 40,000 words and start over from scratch. It's episode number 71, in case you wanna go back and listen to it, and I'll put that link for you in the show notes. But the reason I bring up Stephanie's story, and one of the many reasons I like working with Stephanie is because she has a great capacity for zero, so she's not precious about starting over or tweaking something if it means making her story better. And look, I'll be honest, and I'm sure Stephanie will agree, that it's never easy to kill your darlings, as they say. But you do have to consider the end result and weigh that against the piece of your story that you're trying to hold onto. That might not work as well as it could. So in Stephanie's case, she wanted to write a good book more than she wanted to hang on to those darlings, or more than she wanted to hang on to those 40,000 words. And that's really important in terms of being able to cross that finish line and write something you're proud of. And so I just wanna put it out there that, no matter where you're at in the writing, editing or publishing process, if you wanna be an author who writes more than one book, that means there's always going to be a new project on the horizon. Right, you might be writing your very first novel right now, or you might be on your fifth, but there's still this idea of a new project in the sense that you're going to have to start from scratch with whatever you do next. So I'd encourage you to ask yourself questions like am I willing to start from scratch? Am I willing to be perceived as an amateur until I get this figured out? Am I okay with not getting any recognition or maybe even getting some critical feedback as I figure out how to write a book? And am I willing to deal with all the messiness and uncertainty that comes from starting at zero? Am I willing for it not to work out over and over and over again until it does? And I do think this is relevant even if you are on your third or your fifth book or whatever number you're on. You might have more tools in your writing toolbox, but it's still a big undertaking to write a book from scratch. And there are some writers out there who switch genres, or maybe they've been working in one series but then shift into working on another series. So you know, there's always an opportunity to find yourself in the shoes of what feels like a beginner, even if technically you're not. And, on that note, being on your third or your fifth book does come with a new set of challenges too, when you've already done something like write a book and had various degrees of success with that book. Whatever success means to you, it can be really hard to go back to square one and just start something new. Now. I know, of course, that's not true for everyone, but I have definitely seen a lot of writers struggle with that. So anyway, back to the questions I posed earlier. If you're struggling to answer these questions, it's important that you start strengthening your capacity for zero, because the higher your capacity for zero, you're more likely to take risks, you're more likely to put yourself out there and you're more willing to fail. And the more you're willing to fail, the more likely you are to eventually succeed. And again, I truly believe this is what separates the writers who publish and who go on to succeed from the writers who don't. It's their capacity for zero and their willingness to keep going or to start over when things don't work out. So here's a good way to think about it. Imagine the numbers one through 10, and they're all listed out in front of you. Number one represents where you are now. So maybe you have a piece of a story idea, or you've just realized you want to write a novel. So let's say that's a one in terms of one to 10. And then let's say number 10 represents achieving that pinnacle milestone that you're aiming for. It's going to be different for all of us, but let's say, for the sake of simplicity, that that milestone is publishing your novel. So number one is I have a piece of a story idea, and number 10 is I've published my novel. So if you want to get from where you are now, which is, let's say, number one, to where you're killing it at number 10, guess what's in the middle. If you guess the whole lot of work, you are right, and that's why people call it the messy middle. Right. There's always going to be challenges, setbacks, confusion and overwhelm when you're trying to do something you've never done before, and I want you to think about this for a second. Why would you expect writing a novel to be easy when you've never done it before? Or why do you think it should come together quickly for you when it doesn't for most people who are just starting out? I actually had a conversation about this with a writer the other day. He was in the middle of his first draft and he was talking to me about how bummed he was that he already knew he's going to have to go back and change up quite a bit in the beginning section of his story and we have a good relationship. So I just kind of asked him like why wouldn't you expect to have to go make changes to the beginning of your story? I mean, you're learning so much about your story and it's developing into something that's actually really awesome, and you didn't know any of this six weeks ago. So why is it so outlandish to think that you would have to go back and update the beginning of your story? And we kind of had a good laugh about it because he was like yeah, that's true. Why do I think this way? And I do want to mention that I think it's totally fine to feel bummed about something like this. We are all allowed to feel how we feel and all of our feelings are valid. But also, when these kind of feelings and thoughts come up, it's a really great opportunity to look at our thoughts right. This writer could have stayed stuck in the mindset of I'm so bummed, I have to go back and revise Act 1. But instead we had a laugh about it and he landed in a place of excitement. So by the end he was like wow, it's true, I know so much more about my story and actually, now that I think about it, I know how to make Act 1 really impactful and intriguing for readers now. So the point here is that mindset is super, super important, but so are the expectations that we put on ourselves and our writing, and I guarantee you that, although this writer that I was just talking about will most likely have downer moments in the future when he feels defeated I mean, we all will, right, we can escape it, we're human but although he will have those kind of moments, I think he will be much more able to get out of them now and turn his thoughts and his perceptions and feelings into something that's much more constructive. I also think his capacity for zero has grown now because of that conversation and because of this whole experience of writing a messy first draft. So I just wanted to share all of this with you, because the higher your capacity for zero, the more opportunity you have to write amazing stories and succeed as an author, whatever success looks like for you. So what it all boils down to, in my opinion, is that we have to take our ego out of the equation. It means we have to be willing to be a beginner or an amateur and not quite a pro right out the gate. We have to be willing to say, okay, that didn't work and what can I do instead. And we have to be willing to take risks and go back to the drawing board and throw everything out and start all over. You might not need to, but you have to be willing to do that. And, most importantly, you can't give up, because showing up for yourself consistently and continuing to practice your craft, that's what's going to help you build your confidence muscle over time. This is why I always say that so much of being a successful writer comes down to mindset, and everything we talked about today will most likely require a mindset shift if this resonates with you. But your capacity for zero the stronger it is, the more willing you are to stay in the game and to make it work, which means the closer you are to success, whatever success looks like for you. So here's what I want you to do to strengthen your capacity for zero. You're going to need to come back to these questions and this idea again and again so you can start to ask yourself some of the questions I asked earlier, things like are you willing to start from zero? Are you willing to be or feel like a beginner or an amateur? Are you willing to crash and burn and get back up? And then I really want you to think about that, because this is by no means an exercise to discourage you from starting a new project or from setting out to be an author. It's an exercise to help you become the best author you can possibly be, no matter what end result or goal you're going after All. Right, that's my message for you today. I will get off my soapbox. I hope this resonated with you and you know, if you have a friend who's just getting started with writing or who's struggling and maybe needs a pep talk like this, grab the link to this episode and share it with them. My goal is to get these types of episodes out in front of as many people who need them as possible, so that the world can benefit from their stories. So if you have a second and if anybody's coming to mind who might like or need an episode like this, go ahead and send that to them. I would really appreciate it. So that's it for today's episode. As always, thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you wanna check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them in the show notes listed in the description of each episode inside your podcast player or at savannahgilbocom forward slash podcast. If you're an Apple user, I'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to and, in turn, your reviews will help this podcast get in front of more fiction writers just like you. And while you're there, go ahead and hit that follow button, because there's going to be another brand new episode next week, full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer. So I'll see you next week and until then, happy writing.