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Monday, December 28, 2009

Setting, Keeping, and Achieving Your Writing Goals in the New Year

I don't believe in New Year's Resolutions.  You know why? Because they're good intentions you half-plan to break anyhow.  I do, however, believe in setting achievable goals all year long, and in this post I'm going to teach you some tricks to help you keep and achieve your goals for 2010.

1. Write your goals down.

Putting your goals in writing not only makes them more concrete, it also tells your brain that you're more committed than you might be if you just made a mental promise.

Just make sure that you differentiate between wishes and goals.  Goals are within your reach; wishes have more to do with luck. Compare it to playing the lottery.  You can buy a ticket or tickets religiously and tell God or your teddy bear or whomever just how much you want and need that money, but in the end it's dumb luck whether your numbers are picked.  In other words, you can't set a goal to win the lottery.  You can only play and wish.

Likewise, you may hope to see your book go to auction and pull in an advance in the tens or even hundreds of thousands -- but there's little you can do to make that happen.  Obviously you can write the best book possible, and you can even choose the agent with the most lucrative sales if you get multiple offers, but in the end it isn't your goal to go to auction and make a mint -- it's a wish.

So be sure that you're writing down goals.

2. Be specific.

It's harder to reach vague goals, so be specific.  Sure, you want to get published, but by whom? In what format?  There are a lot of ways to get published these days.  Rather than saying "I want to get published," try something like "I'd like to see my work published with a major print sf/f/h publisher" or "I'd like my short story collection to be e-published by a small literary press" or "I'd like to try self publishing, and my goal is to sell ___ copies by January 1, 2011."

Another example: Rather than saying, "I want to write more," choose something more specific: "I want to spend at least an hour a day on my writing."

Now that you've written down specific goals, it's time to pick one.  Which is most important to you?  That's the one you need to focus on.  Keep your list with the other goals on it -- you can go back to it after you accomplish your first goal.

I know, you want to multi-task, but you're far more likely to meet a goal if you're focusing on it, rather than juggling several.

3. Break your target goal down into smaller steps.

Arguably the biggest mistake people make in trying to reach goals is focusing on the big goal without creating a series of smaller, more manageable mini-goals to help them along the way.  Being able to break a large goal down into specific steps (which may also be broken down, depending on how large they are) is crucial.

So let's say you want to spend an hour a day writing. You may well spend an hour writing every day for the first two or three days, or -- if you're stubborn -- a week or so.  But unless you already spend quite a bit of time writing each day, you'll never be able to ramp up to a whole hour a day from nothing.  If you try, you're likely to get a goal-violation effect. In other words, after you've failed once or twice, you proverbially throw your hands in the air and decide you can't do it, so you give up.

Instead, start with a specific mini-goal you know you can achieve.  For example, "I will write for 15 minutes at least twice a week over my morning coffee."  Caveat: start smaller than you think you need to.  If you set the goal too high -- say, 15 minutes every day -- you're likely to fail and get the goal-violation effect, and then it's all over.

4. Be realistic -- and use common sense!

If you want to get an agent, write out all the steps not only of getting the agent, but also of preparing your manuscript and query.  Too many people rush out to find an agent before their work is really ready.  Build in plenty of mini-goals in which you get lots of feedback from other writers -- and listen to what they have to say.  Then you can consider sending your material out.

5. Take it slow.

Once you accomplish a mini-goal, take some time to make it a habit rather than rushing on to the next mini-goal.  If you're able to write for 15 minutes at least twice a week over coffee but you feel like you just barely pulled it off, the very last thing you should do is move up to your next mini-goal of writing for 15 minutes at least four times a week.  Instead, take some time making writing over your coffee a habit. Only once the task is regularly coming easily -- perhaps you even find yourself looking forward to the two days -- should you move on to your next mini-goal.

Likewise, give yourself at least six months to a year to find an agent.  Longer -- think two to five years -- if you have yet to have your work critiqued by objective strangers, if you need to build a platform, or if you need to get some short stories published to establish yourself.

I know you're impatient, but remember, it's better to get there a little slowly than not to get there at all!

6. Reassess at least once a week and make changes as necessary.

If you get to the end of week 2 and you're really struggling with your mini-goal -- say, you just weren't able to get yourself to write for 15 minutes twice a week -- don't beat yourself up.  Just troubleshoot and adapt. Make the mini-goal 5 minutes twice a week.  Then work your way up to 15 minutes.

Plan to make adjustments in your goals and mini-goals as you see what works and what doesn't.  Rather than seeing adjustments as failures, see them as what they are: effective problem-solving.

7. Have a FAIL-prevention plan.

Know ahead of time what you're going to do if things don't work out the way you want them to.  Maybe your goal was to secure an agent, but everybody and their brother has rejected your material.  Now what?

Now try to realistically figure out where the problem is.  If nobody even requested your partial, your writing probably needs work. If you didn't get many requests, your writing may be good, but your query may need work. If you got lots of partial and full requests but no offers of representation, your writing is probably good, but your story may need work.  Again, tap objective crit-mates for feedback -- don't harangue agents.  It's not their job to tell you what's wrong with your writing, only to decide whether they can sell it.

When you hit a setback, back up a little bit and figure out how you can take a new approach.  Face any problems with a creative problem-solving attitude, and you'll find that there's always another approach if things don't work out the way you'd hoped!

If you stick to the tips above, though, I bet you'll find that your goals are much more manageable and achievable than they were before!


Jen said...

Wonderful tips, Carolyn. Thanks for sharing! I hope you had a wonderful Christmas.

Happy Monday,

Suzette Saxton said...

This is a fabulous article! Thank you.

Windy said...

Thanks for the sound advice, Carolyn!

The Daring Novelist said...

At a quick glance I misread your title: "Keep setting and achieving your writing goals..." While that is in your article, it bears repeating. Persistence is important to achieving anything.

Annie Louden said...

I'm bookmarking this and printing it out!!

Annette Elton said...

Great post and a great reminder. #6 is the toughie for me. Reassessing on a regular basis seems to be where I lack consistency and that of course throws the whole goal setting and achieving off.

Stina said...

Great advice as usual, Carolyn. It's easy to see why New Year's resolutions usually fail. If people followed these steps, it'd be a Resolution Pass instead of a Resolution Fail.

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

A most informative piece thanks for sharing. Every happiness in the new year.