On Goal Setting

This time of year, there’s a lot of talk about resolutions and goal setting. Here are some things to think about when setting your writing goals for 2022:

–It is important to set goals with outcomes you can control: For example, a goal of making X amount of submissions is better than a goal of being published by a specific publisher or having your work accepted for publication X amount of times. In the first case, you are in control of whether you achieve your goal. In the second, someone else controls the outcome.

There is nothing wrong with dreaming big, with wanting to be published by a specific publisher or publication–I have a few myself, just like any writer–but the best way to get there is to focus on what you can control rather than worry about what you can’t.

–Focus on the process, not just on the product: You need to hone your skills and develop the attributes of a successful comics creator. In addition to goals about completing projects, submitting, and publishing, commit to improving an area of weakness in the new year. Perhaps you need to work on writing more realistic dialogue, better metaphors, etc. Maybe you need to improve your business skills, such as marketing, social media management, crowdfunding, etc.?

Athletes develop their attributes by training to run faster, jump higher, or lift more weights because they know that these exercises will translate into better on course performance. Chess masters study specific, isolated “problems” in addition to playing full games. Professionals, like lawyers and teachers, are required to complete many hours of professional development classes to maintain their licenses. It behooves creators to develop their skills, as well. Practice intentionally, and your work will improve.

Here is a blog post I wrote a couple of years back in which I discuss goal setting and intentional practice in greater detail.

–Strike a balance between goals that are attainable and goals which challenge you: There has been a movement in goal setting recently which encourages people to set attainable goals. Setting attainable goals builds confidence, which is important, but it is also important to set goals which challenge you. If your goals are too easily achieved, you are not pushing yourself enough. While not reaching a challenging goal could be disappointing, upon reflection, you may find that you’ve advanced further by partially achieving a big goal than you would have set a lower goal. As always, it is important to strike a balance between the two extremes, and…

–Know yourself: Are you the type of person who needs the confidence boost of a series of smaller, achievable goals, or are you a person who does better when you challenge yourself? Are you being honest with yourself about your current skill level? Your strengths and weaknesses? Your assessment of your previous year? Only by knowing yourself can you set the goals you need to take your creative journey to the next level.

Keeping Up With Your New Year’s Resolutions, Part 2—On Discipline

As I detailed in last week’s blog, by now, about 80 percent of people have given up on their new year’s resolutions. One of the most common reasons people site for this is a lack of discipline. While it is true that one needs discipline to stay on track with one’s goals, the way that most people look at discipline—as an all or nothing proposition—makes it difficult for most people to achieve this virtue. I would like to present an alternate approach.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was given to me by my chiropractor, Dr. Stephen Howard Cooper, when I was recovering from a martial arts injury. My orthopedist had suggested that I restrict my physical activity and exercise following the injury to an extent that I knew I couldn’t follow, and I asked the chiropractor, who is a martial artist himself, for advice about how I could modify my activity in a manner that would allow me to keep practicing kung fu.

  “If you can’t do the best thing, do the second-best thing, not the worst thing,” he said.

The specifics of what that statement meant relative to my injury and kung fu practice are a bit “inside baseball” for this forum, but the advice, which I’ve applied in a myriad of other situations is powerful, nonetheless. To illustrate its import, I would like to look at a common new year’s resolution that has nothing to do with writing.

Let’s say you’ve resolved to lose weight and to eat better in the new year. As part of your plan, you’ve decided to cut out snacking throughout the day. Three o’clock rolls around, and you’re really feeling sluggish. The afternoon malaise is setting in, and you know that you are going to have to eat something or risk falling asleep at your desk and not get your work done. Losing weight is an admirable long-term goal, but staying employed is higher on your immediate hierarchy of needs. There goes the resolution, right? Wrong!

Many people, when faced with this situation would completely abandon their goal, consider the resolution a failure, and opt for an unhealthy snack, like a doughnut or a candy bar. After experiencing this situation a few more times, they would give up on their resolution altogether.

Now, let’s say that instead of eating that doughnut, you opted for a healthier snack, say a banana or an apple. Is that ideal? Of course not. Your goal was to eliminate snacking, and you have not done that, obviously. But, is it better than eating a doughnut or a candy bar? It most definitely is. You’ve made a healthy choice, which is something of which you can be proud, and which is something that might help you achieve your larger goal of losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle.

You didn’t do the best thing, but that didn’t lead you to do the worst thing either. You have made progress, which, hopefully, will keep you focused on toward your ultimate goal.

It’s easy to see how this advice applies to writing goals. You come home from a tough day at work, cook dinner for the family, and struggle to put your kids to bed. You’ve resolved to write 500 words tonight, but you just don’t have the energy or focus. It’s late; you’re tired, and you just want to relax a bit before conking out yourself. Your daily word count goal is gone. Your resolution has failed—and it’s not even the end of January. Might as well give up, right? Wrong!

Maybe you could bring yourself to write 250 words, 100 words, or even a 50-word paragraph. Perhaps, if you feel you’re not in the frame of mind to add to your primary work in progress, you could do a writing exercise (there are many books and websites that offer these; I like this one) or a journal entry, which is a lower-pressure way to work on your writing because the stakes aren’t as high.

Maybe you’re too tired–or your creativity is too drained–to write at all. Maybe tonight’s the night to send submit a short story or two to a literary magazine. Maybe you could do some research. Instead of watching that dumb sitcom, maybe read a book (which is an essential, and often neglected part of the writing process). Have to watch that tv show? Fine. But keep some notes on the decisions the writers make regarding, characterization, dialogue, storytelling, plotting, etc.

There is a wide variety of activities that will make you feel like you’re making progress toward your writing goals instead of giving up because you missed out on one mile-marker.

Do the second (or third, or even fourth) best thing rather than the worst thing, and you will feel like you’re making progress. You will come back stronger the next day, ready to tackle your next challenge as you proceed to achieve your larger goals.

Discipline is not about being perfect. It’s about staying consistent with your principles to achieve your goals and not giving up. Sometimes that involves doing the second-best thing instead of the worst thing. Making good choice—even if they’re not the best choices—can help you achieve the kind of consistent progress you will need to move forward on your journey, both with writing and in life.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Re-examining New Year’s Resolutions—Part 1—Reassessing Word Count Goals

Research shows that, by now, over 50 percent of people have given up on their new year’s resolutions. By the first week in February, that number will jump into the 80s. While those numbers refer to all resolutions (and you can click through to the articles for the whys and wherefores), I can only assume, based on anecdotal experience, that the numbers for writing resolutions are very similar. Over the next three weeks, I will present some ideas to help you stay—or get back—on your path to success for the rest of this—still young—year. This week, let’s take a look at writing consistently and hitting your daily word counts.

The most common writing resolution seems to be “I will write X amount of words (or time) every day.” This affirmation stems from the idea that to be a writer, one must write, and the related idea that one must practice if one wants to improve one’s craft. There are myriads of famous, successful writers who shout some version of these statements from the hilltops and present it as their first piece of writing advice for aspiring writers.

While writing consistently is a virtue, this advice is somewhat disingenuous. It is easy for a professional writer whose primary source of income is their writing, and who has an agent on retainer to search for and submit to venues for their writing, to say that you need to write a certain amount a day, but for the rest of us, life happens. Work exhausts us; family obligations arise; health situations must be considered. Moreover, this type of goal prioritizes quantity over quality (more on that in the coming weeks). How does research and reading fit in? To what extent should one prioritize actual writing—keeping your pen moving—over researching, querying, and submitting?

I would like to suggest an easier way to achieve your word count goal: Instead of setting a daily goal, set a weekly goal. Let’s say you set a modest goal, 250 words a day. Two hundred fifty words is approximately one double-spaced page. If you can write just one page a day, the thinking goes, you will have 365 pages by the end of the year, enough for a full-length novel. That’s all well and good until you start missing days. Given the very common issues delineated in the above paragraph, it is easy to find yourself falling behind and feeling disheartened.

Consider, instead, setting a weekly writing goal. Instead of setting a 250-word a day goal, set a weekly goal of 1750 words. If you hit the goal, you will have written the same amount of words, but if you happen to miss a day due to circumstances beyond your control, you can still achieve what you set out to do, as long as you make up those words by the end of the week.

A weekly goal will also allow you to schedule time around your own individual schedule. Perhaps you have a big family dinner every Sunday, or your wife works late on Thursday nights. You can work around those (and other similar issues) by scheduling writing time when it is more convenient both for yourself and for others in your life. Need to block off a day for editing, querying, submitting, an/or working on your author platform? A weekly goal allows you integrate these activities with your writing schedule and to stay consistent with these other areas of your writing practice as well.

Why a weekly goal instead of a monthly or longer-time-period goal? Well, writing consistently is still important. A weekly goal still sets a regular, measurable deadline. If you have to hustle to reach your goal on a Saturday night, good. That’s why you’re setting goals for yourself in the first place. I believe that weekly goals provide a good medium between consistency and achievability.

What is you still fall behind? What if your word count goals push you toward quantity over quality? Tune in next week for my proposed answer.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

A Birthday Tribute To Isaac Asimov (And Not Exclusively To His Science Fiction)

Today is Isaac Asimov’s 100th Birthday, and while it is also World Science Fiction Day because he was born on this day, I would like to draw your attention to some of the grand master’s other, non-science-fiction writing.

Like many of you, I was introduced to the science fiction genre through Asimov’s writing. Caves of Steel was the first hard science fiction book I read, and everything I’ve read and written in the genre since can be traced back to the day when my father gave me that book as a present when he returned from his latest business trip. I could easily write a blog explaining how that book—and the themes contained therein—influenced me personally, and science fiction in general, but I imagine, that if you have any interest in Asimov at all, you’ve read your share of those kind of articles today.

Instead, I’d like to focus on a different aspect of Asimov’s prodigious canon. Asimov wrote widely and prolifically, about many subjects, not just science fiction, and not even just fiction. Some of you may have encountered Asimov’s books about science fact before. Certain elementary and middle school teachers use these texts to try to get students interested in learning about science. “You enjoy reading his work about fake robots and space ships,” the say, “you might enjoy his writing about real robots and outer space.”  

Fewer of you, I’d venture a guess, are familiar with Asimov’s literary analysis. Books like Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and Asimov’s Paradise Lost Annotated are excellent study guides that provide insight, excellent, and analyses, As a student, I used Asimov’s Paradise Lost to help me understand Milton’s, and as a teacher I’ve often steered struggling students away from spark and cliff notes and toward Asimov’s texts, which, in my opinion, are vastly superior as study guides (and not unimportantly, are best used in conjunction with, rather than instead of reading the original texts). I have even used quotes from the book as part of my planned lessons.

This is not a blog about teaching, however, at least not about teaching Shakespeare to high school students. It is a blog a about writing, and I believe that we–as writers–can learn a lot about writing from Asimov’s “Guide To” series. The master knew his stuff. He knew enough about science to write a guide to science, and that is part of the reason his science fiction rings so true; he knew enough about literature not only to dissect some of the greatest texts in the history of literature, but also to explain these difficult books to a lay audience clearly and concisely. One can see echoes of the books about which he wrote guide, Shakespeare, Milton, and The Bible, in his science fiction writing, both in terms of plot and in terms of characterization (but that is a subject for another blog post).

In short, Asimov knew about both his craft and his subject matter in a way that few other writers have before or since. While many writers call on their peers to read widely and to “write what you know”, few read as widely or knew as much as Isaac Asimov did.

As writers, it is incumbent upon us to educate ourselves in a similar fashion. While will probably never read as much—or know as much—as the grand master of Science Fiction, we can  likely all do more to improve these areas of our practice than we currently do. In this season of resolutions, let us all resolve, on his birthday, to try to be more like Isaac Asimov.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.