The phrase “level up” has well and truly entered the cultural lexicon, with a generic meaning of improving or developing something. Its origin is in role-playing games, both tabletop and videogame varieties, where it has the specific meaning of reaching the next threshold of a character’s strength and abilities.
In role-playing games, everything is based on numbers, with a bit of luck thrown in. Your level determines the power of your attacks, and your resistance to attack, and lots of other things, and the currency of increasing your level is usually called experience, or XP. Just like in real life (for the most part), the more experience you have, the better you are at things. As you play these games, your characters gain experience, and when certain thresholds are reached you level up, which further improves your abilities.
The thing is, it’s not a linear progression. The strength of your attacks and so on will only increase when you level up, not continuously as you accrue experience — and the main way of gaining experience, which is to engage in battle, will only award experience once the battle is over.
That’s exactly what writing books is like. I can’t explain why, but it’s definitely how it is for me: you feel the improvement after you finish a whole story, not during the course of writing it. I feel this way with the KESTREL series most noticeably. You spend months writing a hundred-thousand-word book, and there’s a sense that you’re staying at the same level of ability — in writing, in plotting, in telling a story generally — then once you actually finish a whole book, that’s when you have the sudden ding! feeling that you’ve got better at it.
You notice when you start writing the next one most of all, and note that I said the actual writing part rather than the planning. I do absolutely think that my plots have improved, but it didn’t feel that way when I was working on the novel outlines and plans. The act of writing seems to be the key to it, just like battle in a role-playing game.
I mention all this because you may well have the feeling that you’ve stagnated while you’re in the middle of a longer work, but it’s just self-doubt and fatigue talking. You are absolutely improving, and gaining experience, and getting closer and closer to that threshold. You’ll notice it when the time is right.
You just haven’t levelled up yet.