This an almost complete update of a post I had here in late 2012.
I figured it was worth my time and energy to get this updated and out again, especially since so many of you have been watching me with my “Writing in Public” posts and some of you are even subscribing to Smith’s Monthly to read what I actually write.
Thank you, everyone, for that support over the last year. It’s made this all great fun.
Some basics to start:
Any business and production plan you decide to set up for yourself is made up of goals that can be attained with work.
The focus of the goals you set is to attain a dream.
A dream is what you work toward with a series of goals.
Setting Up For Failure: A Warning
I’m starting this post with a couple of warnings: Understand what is failure in a goal and what isn’t failure.
Every time I talk with writers at the end of the year, I hear goals being set that are seemingly impossible when you do the math. I’ve set a few of them myself, to be honest, over the decades.
I honestly have no problem at all with impossible goals. None, as long as the person setting the goal understands that the likely failure can also be deemed a success. But most writers I know don’t understand that simple detail.
For example: Three years ago here I set a goal to write from titles and publish here and online 100 short stories. And even though slightly behind, I felt I was pretty much on schedule to hit that goal when one of my best friends died and I took over his estate. I turned away from writing almost completely to do the estate and only did what deadline work I had.
So did I fail? Nope. I wrote and got out over thirty original short stories that year, plus a number of stories for original anthologies that didn’t count in the challenge. Not the year I hoped, or even my best year, but not a bad year considering all the factors. It would have been far, far worse without the challenge.
But most writers I know, when faced with actually missing their goal, just stop completely. The problem is that the goal sets them up for a failure, and then they use the failure or life issue as an excuse to stop writing.
So caution when setting goals so extreme you can’t make them in any fashion. And if you do set an extreme goal, have fall-back success levels.
The first steps needed…
— I assume you have done the math to know how many original words you can produce of fiction per hour.
— I assume you have figured out how many hours you have each week to write original fiction outside of your family and job requirements.
— I assume you have set up a writing space, and have told your family and friends how important your writing is to you.
— I assume you will protect your work, your time, your art in the new year.
Goals must be set from a position of knowledge, not from a position of wishful thinking.
A Sign of the Classic Want-To-Be-Writer: Another Warning
Every long-term professional fiction writer can spot a hopeless want-to-be fiction writer easily.
— They are the fiction writers who talk about writing, but never finish anything.
— They are the fiction writers who feel jealous of all your writing time because they can never find the time.
— They are the fiction writers who come up with one idea and spend years on it, talking about it, researching it, workshopping parts of it, but never finishing it and moving on.
— They are the fiction writers who believe they will never succeed because they don’t have a major fan base like a major writer, so why bother. Or worse, they finish one thing and spend all year “promoting it.”
— They are the fiction writers who decide they are going to write in the new year, but set no plans, no goals, no structure.
— They are the writers who just get to their fiction writing when they can, when the muse strikes, because ideas are hard and writing is hard. They “just can’t find the time.” And then the following year they try the same thing that didn’t work every year before.
If you don’t want to be one of those “writers,” be a writer who makes your production of new words important.
How to Set Fiction Writing Goals in 2014
I’m just tossing out suggestions here. There is no one way for every writer, or only one way for the same writer from year-to-year. Use what strikes you in these ideas, alter them to suit your needs, and set the goals for yourself.
And also I think it would be fine to combine some of these suggestions.
Set your plan to strictly follow Heinlein’s Rules.
The rules are:
2) Finish what you write
3) Do not rewrite unless to editorial demand. (Meaning New York book editors who can buy your work, not someone who you hire. It is fine to fix mistakes first readers find and spelling mistakes.)
4) Put it on the market for someone to buy it. (Either a New York editor or readers indie published.)
5) Keep it on the market. (For indie publishers, this means leave it alone.)
If you are one of the very few who have the courage to even try this, let alone succeed with the attempt for an entire year, you will be stunned at how far you will move toward your writing dreams and how much fun you will have. If you don’t understand Heinlein’s Rules, I did an entire lecture explaining why they work. You can find it under the lecture tab above.
Warning on this one. Deceptively simple looking rules, fantastically difficult to actually follow because of all the myths that swirl around fiction writing. You will find yourself spending a ton of time coming up with excuses to not follow them. (Please, don’t comment on your excuses here. These rules are a Yoda situation. Either do. Or Don’t.)
As Robert Heinlein said about his own rules. “But they are amazingly hard to follow — which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants…”
Set a new word count you would like to hit for the year.
“New words” means finished words that can be either indie published or sent to traditional editors. Rewriting, researching, and all the other excuses you have do not count. New words only.
(If you hear yourself say right there, “But…” you may have an issue to deal with.)
Here is how to do this:
Say you would like to finish a quarter of a million new words this year. A very solid, but scary goal. A very large elephant.
1…. So divide the total word count desired into 50 weekly parts. (Two weeks off for vacation.) Example: 250,000 words divided by 50 weeks = 5,000 new words per week.
2… You have determined you can do about 1,000 words per hour. So divide the 5,000 words by 1,000 = 5 hours of writing per week.
3… Look at the fiction writing time you have figured you have each week and find about eight hours total to get those five hours of writing done safely in your schedule. (The extra three will give you a cushion.)
4… Then protect those eight hours and write during that time every week to make sure you get the 5,000 minimum words per week done.
At the end of the year you will look back and have finished one quarter of a million words. And trust me, you will be a much better fiction writer at the end of the year with that much practice, and if you finished and mailed or indie published everything, you will be on your way.
A quarter of a million words a year sounds like a great big elephant. But 5 hours of writing per week does not. Yet one equals the other. Weird how that happens, isn’t it?
Set up a production goal.
A lot of people, me included, like production goals more than word-count goals.
When I started seriously writing, I set up a production goal to write and mail one short story per week. That sort of breaks down to the same word count as Idea #2 of 5,000 words per week. But the focus for me was on the finishing and mailing. (I was following Heinlein’s Rules religiously also during the challenge and still do, which is why I am still a professional writer.)
My ongoing challenge is also production based if you notice. I need to write enough to not only fill outside work, but fill Smith’s Monthly every month.
The reason production-based goals sometimes work better is because of the end date. If your goal is to finish one short story every week, that keeps your mind off of the larger goal. You only focus down on one project at a time.
If you are writing novels, I would highly suggest you break it down into smaller goals, such as finishing a scene per day or a chapter per week. And then only focus on that small bite.
Again the key with eating an elephant is to not think of the task, just chew up one bite at a time, only thinking of the bite.
Get one new book up indie published every two weeks. (Take two weeks off, so you are aiming for 25 by the end of the year.)
This is a great challenge a friend of mine is running and a lot of people are taking part on a private list. Set up your own group.
The idea is that the book can be a short story or a collection or a novel. And the key is to have the total at the end of the year.
So if writing a novel, a month or so will go by with nothing new up, then do some short fiction and then a collection before going back to the next novel.
Also, if you have some stories you have written and haven’t sold, or backlist of stories that were published and you now have the rights back, get those up as well. They would count.
There are lots of ways of doing this, and it really works. And having 25 new books in print by the end of the year is something you are going to be very happy about. Trust me.
Reporting In To Someone
Here is the key to success for every major method of goal-setting. You must have someone, or some method, or some way to keep you on track.
If you don’t make your weekly goal or word count, you must tell someone you didn’t make it. If you did make it, you must tell someone you did.
When I started writing fiction seriously with my short-story-per-week challenge, I actually had a bet going with Nina Kiriki Hoffman. If I missed my story for the week, I had to buy her a steak dinner. I couldn’t afford a steak dinner.
Sometimes you can put your progress on your web site as a weekly update. Even if not that many people show up to your web site, you know some will and your failure or success will be out there in the open. You can even use one of those word counters that you can get as a plugin for your site if you are doing a word-based goal.
(Interestingly enough, my posting of my Writing in Public blogs don’t really push me. It’s getting Smith’s Monthly content that pushes me. The Writing in Public daily blogs I can miss writing on some days and it’s no big deal. I don’t want to miss a Smith’s Monthly. Subscribers paid money for those. Remember, every writer is different. You would think that people coming to this blog would push me. Nope. I just hope the posts help other writers at times, and people tell me they do, so I’ll keep going for a while on them. But Smith’s Monthly will continue for a long time into the future.)
When I was writing media novels, I had very hard and fast deadlines. Sometimes I was trying to beat the movie out when I wrote novelizations. There could be no excuses. (I have done about twelve movie novelizations, including Rundown, The Core, 10th Kingdom, Final Fantasy, and so on.)
And with ghost novels, it was the same way.
Sometimes this person you report to is just another writer, sometimes it is a family member, sometimes a post on your blog. But with every small goal achieved or missed, report to someone or post it somewhere where people will see it. Set it up ahead so that person knows what you are doing. (No I will not be that person for anyone and you can’t use these post messages for the task either. Sorry.)
And if you don’t report to the person you have set up, make sure they know to ask you how it is going.
If you hate this idea of reporting in some fashion or another, check in with yourself to see where the fear is coming from. And then use that fear to drive you even more.
An important reminder right here. NEVER SHOW A WORK IN PROGRESS TO ANYONE. Protect your art. You can say you finished chapter 52, but don’t show it until you are ready to release the entire book to the world.
What Happens When You Fail?
Everyone with a family and a day job and a life will fail on short-term goals set at the beginning of the year. There are almost no exceptions to that rule. And if you think you will be the exception in 2014, you are delusional, I’m afraid.
So what do you do when life derails you?
Climb back on the next week. Or as soon as you can.
Say you are doing a short story per week with the intent of getting to fifty by the end of the year. Suddenly life gets in your way and you miss three weeks in April.
DON’T TRY TO CATCH UP. Just get back on the focus of the weekly goal and keep going. Trust me, at the end of the year you will be very happy with 47 stories finished.
But if you let it stop you cold, you won’t be happy by the time the end of the year rolls around.
And these year-end check-in-points just keep happening every year.
So here are my suggestions when life derails you and you miss your short-term goal.
1… Don’t even once think about catching up. Can’t happen and will make things worse.
2… Climb back onto your production challenge or weekly page goal as soon as you are able.
3… If life alters so much as to make the original weekly pace impossible, stop and reset a new goal for the year and for each week and then stick to that.
4… Somehow, with help or with some mechanism, remember these suggestions.
Chances are you will not remember. Sadly.
You will be buried in a life crisis and then when that clears you will be mad at yourself for not doing the impossible and protecting your writing time and meeting your weekly goals. And you will be swirling in the failure instead of just focusing on being successful the following week.
Wow, was that easy for me to type and so hard for any of us to do. (grin)
The real key to having a successful year (writing fiction) is that when you get stopped, and you will, to start back up as soon as you can.
— Get your available writing hours figured.
— Get your writing speed per hour figured.
— Tell your family and friends around you how important what you are going to do is. Be prepared to remind them all the time.
— Get ready to protect your time. Set up an office without distractions and a computer without e-mail or games only used for fiction writing.
— Figure out a yearly goal for words or production, then back it down into weekly goals that will get to your yearly goal. Make sure your weekly goals have extra time in them for small life events.
— Plan in time to keep learning, to go to a conference or two, to take some classes, to read some writing books, to read other novels and stories for pleasure.
— Set up someone or some place to report your progress and failures to.
— Then decide to have fun.
That’s right, I said have fun.
If the act of fiction writing isn’t fun for you, get out of this chase now.
If you aren’t excited and scared about the coming year and the learning and writing, get out of this chase now.
Fiction writing isn’t brain surgery. It is entertainment.
You are trying to be an entertainer in 2014.
For heaven’s sake, have fun doing it.
2014 is a brand new year. The world didn’t end. Traditional publishing didn’t fail. More fiction writers than ever are making money with their fiction.
It’s a new golden age for fiction writers.
Have fun. Happy New Year.
Copyright © 2014 Dean Wesley Smith
Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime