January 13, 2016

The Most Important Thing You’ll Write in 2016

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Well, after that shamelessly click-bait title, let me go on record right away that I’m not about to tell you what the next million-dollar-idea is and how to write it– sorry. After taking a break over the holidays (“holiday” being a word which here means “any Tuesday on which I don’t have a good idea for a blog post”), I’m back to blogging on Tuesdays about craft, and looking forward to all the good writing discussion to come in the new year on the newly revamped blog!

Today’s topic is one that will make some of you excited and inspired and others of you rebellious and bad-tempered, and that’s fine– we welcome all kinds of writers here, though obviously, any comments which disagree with me will be deleted immediately. I want to talk about the practice of writing down your writing goals and the role of a written goal/task list in helping you move your writing career forward. This sort of planning or “vision-casting” goes against many writers’ strong belief in spontaneity, in trusting to the creative process, but even the most seat-of-your-pants writer should take a moment to consider how a little thought and a written plan of action can mean the difference between stagnation and momentum as a writer.

I love making lists. I can’t leave for a trip without making a giant list on my phone of everything I want to remember to bring and then referring to that list every 3 seconds on the morning of departure. If I need more than two things at the grocery store, I make a list. ¬†If I see a pretty notepad in a dollar bin at Michael’s or Target, I will buy four, so I can make more lists. If I run out of notepads, I write “notepads” on a list. You get the idea. Some people are like that– we get immense satisfaction out of organizing our lives on paper.

Others get immense satisfaction (and feel superior to and sorry for the listmakers) out of going with the flow, letting their creative impulses drive the bus, making spur-of-the-moment plans and changing those plans on the fly, having and acting on an idea all in the space of five minutes– not surprisingly, there are a lot of this kind of person in the writing world. When I wrote a post on outlining last year, I heard from far more writers who preferred to write by the seat of their pants (“pantsers”) than I did from those who plan their plots out in detail in advance (“plotters”)– it’s not a surprise that many creative personalities work best when they follow where the muse leads rather than sitting down and manufacturing a story in cold blood.

There is, however, a time for all writers to sit down and make a definite plan, not for their characters or their novels, but for their own careers. Many writers, even multi-published authors doing several books a year, work at a job other than writing, whether outside of the home or as a stay-at-home parent. Those who don’t are usually juggling multiple deadlines, working on several manuscripts, writing one, editing another, and proofing a third. Holidays and deadlines and busy seasons rush up out of nowhere and most of us spend a good portion of our time just trying to keep our head above water, never mind making any forward motion during the crazy spells.¬†Before you know it, it’s five years down the road and you’re still sitting on that manuscript, or doing the same small deals, or selling the same number of titles (though in the recent CBA fiction climate, sales that hold steady are the new “wildly successful”), or writing one kind of book when you really want to be writing another.

Writing can be a discouraging enough art without letting years at a time pass with no real progress to show for them. Without identifying specific goals and planning specific steps to take to achieve them, progress can be elusive, or at the least, difficult to recognize. Goals are the horizon you can keep an eye on to keep from going crazy when it feels like you’re on a treadmill going nowhere– sure, you still burn calories on the treadmill, but if what you really want is to get from point A to point B, you want some way of measuring how far you’ve walked: that distant mountain getting closer and closer brings some much needed assurance that you’re not going to die on the plains. Some mindful examination of where you currently are and brainstorming on where you’d like to be in a year can ensure that your 2016 writing is both satisfying on a creative level and purposeful on a professional one.

The Importance of Being Specific

One challenge that creative personalities often face when thinking about their future is that, for many of us, our default mode is “the sky’s the limit” type thinking. We recognize that it makes a great story for the guy who’s never acted before to stumble into an audition for the next blockbuster and be cast, rocketing to fame overnight. We have no trouble picturing ourselves a year from now as the previously unknown author whose debut novel was nominated for a Pulitzer, or as the author of the year’s surprise runaway bestselling hit– I mean, it could happen, and we spend enough time making implausible things happen on the page that a lot of us are predisposed to think of the future in big, exciting terms. And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, if you’re setting goals to give yourself a way to measure your success/progress and so be able to recognize momentum in your writing career when you see it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to set goals that are unrealistically huge or that depend on circumstances out of your control (by definition, you can’t predict what will make a book a “surprise” hit).

Instead, you want to start by looking at where you are currently, and then ask yourself what the logical next step or level of success might be– if you’re an aspiring novelist but have never finished a book, “completing a novel” is a great, measurable, realistic goal for a year. If you have finished several projects but have never been published, “sell a book” would probably be the logical next step. If you’ve sold books but would like to publish with a bigger house or receive a bigger advance than you have in the past, that’s a logical next step. All of these goals are realistic not because “you can only achieve small goals,” but because each one makes sense based on what you’ve done in the past and the foundation you have to build on.

Control What You Can, Accept What You Can’t, and Learn the Difference

Another difference between a goal that’s achievable and one that’s not is how much control you have over what needs to take place to meet that goal. If your goal is for your book to be a bestseller, there are going to be a lot of factors out of your control– maybe your marketing department will do a lousy job, maybe a bunch of reality TV stars will write books that bump other writers off the lists, maybe George R. R. Martin will release five books at once and no one will have any money left to buy any other books. If, however, your goal is to increase your sales by 25%: well, it’s still not a sure thing, but there’s a LOT more you can do to make that happen– hire a publicist, buy ads online, attend more conferences, solicit endorsements, engage readers online, put together a book tour, stand on a corner wearing a sandwich board, etc. The amount of control you have in promoting and selling your books means that you could probably have a measurable impact on sales if you did the right things (assuming you wrote a decent book), so this is a goal you can control to a greater extent than “have a bestselling book.”

Write Everything Down!

Once you have a couple goals set for the next year, write them down– write them down several places and put them where you’ll see them often, so you will be reminded on a regular basis what you’re working toward. Break them down into action steps similar to those I mentioned for increasing sales, and write those steps down. Put those steps in an order than makes sense and then break THOSE steps down into smaller actions– e.g., “hire a publicist” can break down into “search writing blogs for posts about using a publicist,” “make a list of ideas/tips I find on blogs,” “ask contacts for recommendations for publicists,” “research publicists online,” “ask 3 publicists about pricing,” etc. Writing down these small, specific, actionable steps is the key to achieving your larger goals. Once you have a list of tasks like this, your list reminds you every day what your next step needs to be, what those extra ten minutes of Internet browsing need to be spent on, how close or how far you are from achieving your bigger goal, and these indicators of progress and reminders of what you’re trying to achieve help energize and encourage you in your writing life.

Obviously no list is going to guarantee that you achieve the goal you set for yourself, and even if you do, no amount of “success,” however you define that, is going to magically satisfy you, but written lists of writing goals and the tasks involved in meeting them can be an antidote to writing without direction, to being frustrated by vague aspirations or discouraged by how long the road to the writing career you want appears to be.

What about you? What are your goals for your writing life this year? I’d love for you to chime in and share your successes or advice in the comments as the year unfolds. Thanks for reading!

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