Friday, November 16, 2012

S.M.A.R.T Goals

I know this is the sort of article you see in January when everyone is setting goals for the New Year. I could suggest that, if you wait until January to set your goals for 2013, you have waited too late, but that would be disingenuous because that's usually when I start setting them. The reason I'm thinking about goal setting now is that I am involved in National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). Like thousands of other writers around the world I'm striving to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. Actually, my goal is two novels for 100,000.

Now, this goal isn't practical for every writer, however, one can learn a lot from the experience. Mostly, what one learns is the power of a deadline and support in increasing productivity. Also, one learns something about goal setting, and, more importantly, goal keeping.

Many people treat goals like wishes. A goal is something they hope will somehow happen if they work real hard and have good luck and the stars align properly. In reality, a goal is the first part of an action plan. That means you have to think through your goals carefully. I just read this acronym and loved it. S.M.A.R.T. goals.

S - pecific

Your goal needs to be specific enough that you will know instantly if you achieved it or not. Take a look at Nanowrimo. The goal is to write 50,000 words as the first draft of a novel. I know exactly when to crack open my bottle of Classic Coke ( I don't drink alcohol ) and celebrate. Too many people will tell me their goal for the coming year is to "write more," "get to work on my novel," or "build up my business." With goals like that, not only will you not achieve them, you won't even know when you did achieve them.

Some examples of specific goals include:

  • Write an average of 1000 words a day on non-holiday weekdays. 
  • Edit and put in the mail the following novels/short stories/nonfiction books/articles
  • Complete two novels. 
  • Write and send out 25 magazine articles.
  • Send out at least two query letters per week/month
M - easurable

Being specific means your goals need to be measurable. As mentioned before, "doing more writing" is not only a vague goal, there is no way to measure it. Some types of things that can be measured in writing are:

  • Word Counts
  • Pages Edited
  • Projects Completed
  • Projects Submitted to Editors/Publishers
  • Projects Self-Published
  • Number of local clients contacted
  • Number of blog posts written
  • Number of social media connections made
A - ctionable

 Too many people set goals they have no direct control over. For instance, they will set a goal like "Publish three novels." Now, unless you plan to self-publish, that is not an actionable goal. There is nothing you can do to ensure it will happen. Much of that goal is outside your control. First, an assistant editor has to pass along your proposal to an editor. That editor has to meet with an editorial committee. They have to consider budget, market trends, the composition of their fall catalog and a dozen more factors before deciding whether or not to publish your work.

So, what is  under your control? Writing the novel. Editing your novel. Sending out proposals or meeting with editors at writers conferences. So, frame your goal in terms of the actions you will take. like: "I will complete three novels and submit them to at least five publishers each."

R - ealistic

Now, this is one where people fail by either overestimating or underestimating. Your goals should challenge you, but not to the extent that they are virtually impossible to attain. For instance, Nanowrimo's 50,000 word challenge is doable for most people if they can put in an hour or two a day on the project. That's 1650 words a day or about seven double spaced type written pages a day. Now, to determine if this is reasonable for you or not, you need to know some things. First, you need to know how fast your write, rough draft speed. You can find this out by writing for fifteen minutes three times, counting the number of words and creating an average for an hour of writing and reducing it by 25 percent. So, if you average 1200 words an hour, call it 900 so you have some wiggle room for slower days.

You can do the same with other writing activities like editing, preparing the final manuscript, formatting an ebook for publication, even writing your blog. That way when you say you want to be able to write 10,000 words a month on your novel, you will know approximately how much time that will take and be able to decide whether or not that is realistic.

T - imed

There is nothing like a deadline, even a self-imposed one, to motivate completion of your goals. One of the values of Nanowrimo is the fact that by the end of the month, you either have written your 50,000 words and you get your badge to put on your website, or you didn't. As those last days of November tick down, you feel the pressure of the deadline to either keep up the pace or increase it.

When setting your goals, make them time sensitive. For instance, don't just say you want to complete such-and-such a novel, say, "I will complete such-and-such a novel by the end of March." That sets a specific time frame for completion.

So, as you begin to think about your goals for next week, next month or next year just how S.M.A.R.T. are they.

If you enjoy these articles, you might enjoy my series of writing essentials books on Amazon including Time Management for Writers, Elements of Plot: A Personalized Approach and The Road to Success in Nanowrimo with more coming later this year.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Of Tortoises, Hares and Writers

We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. The two were in a race. The hare was fast, so he figured he had it made. So, he ran fast for a few hundred yards, saw the tortoise far behind him, so he laid down and took a nap. By the time he woke up, the tortoise was crossing the finish line.

Over the past 30 years, I've been in various writing groups, and I've seen the tale of the tortoise and hare acted out over and over again. Some people won't write unless they have an hour or an entire afternoon where they can get some "serious" writing done. Unfortunately, such times come rarely, so they end up writing sporadically. They may write 2000 words one Saturday, but don't get anything else written for another two weeks. Others, though, write everyday, or nearly everyday, but are apologetic about "only" writing 300-500 words a day. Guess which ones end up finishing their novels faster and sell more writing? You got it. Our writing Tortoises get more done even though, their individual writing sessions are shorter and "less productive."

I am a member of the ACFW  (American Christian Fiction Writers) Novel Track Writing email discussion group. A few months back we started the "Ten Words a Day" club. A lot of people were reporting that they hadn't written anything that day. So, many of us pledged to write at least ten words on our novels every week day, before we reported in on our daily totals. After all, it took at least ten words to report we didn't write and why.

Since that time many people have used the Ten Word a Day club to good use. Many write saying "Thank You, for the Ten Word a Day club. It has improved my productivity." How can this simple thing - writing ten words a day - improve productivity? It's because the practice breeds consistency. There are three reasons consistency produces better results than marathon writing sessions.

Consistency Creates Habitual Behavior

Okay, I have a terrible time keeping track of my keys. I'm always looking for them. Why? Because I come in from the car and drop them anywhere I happen to land. So, about a month ago, I decided I was going to have to start hanging up my keys on the key rack as I come in the door. But, I knew that having a good idea wasn't enough. I needed to train myself. I needed to create a habit of hanging up my keys. So, everyday, if I forgot and laid down my keys on the kitchen table or washer, I stopped at the point I remembered, set aside everything else and hung up the keys. After doing that for nearly a month, I almost automatically hang up my keys without thinking.

You can create habits for creative behavior as well. If you sit down at your computer to write just ten words every day, you create a habit of writing daily. Eventually, you will automatically get started on writing projects on a regular basis, even if it is only a few words at a time. You know the irony of our Ten Words a Day club? Most of us end up writing 100 words or more when we sit down to write just ten.

Consistency Reduces Preparation Time

Whether we call it "inspiration" or "the muse," many writers need to get in the mood to write. That, often requires reviewing what they already wrote, going over their notes and research, and finally getting into character and writing. This prep time can be several minutes. However, if  you write consistently, you will find that you get in the mood much quicker. Also, not having a week or more go by between writing periods means you don't have to review what has already been written to know what needs to be done next. You can sit down, open your file and start typing.

Consistency Turns Small Efforts into Big Results 

What can you do with just 300 words written in a day? That's a little more than a double-spaced typewritten sheet of paper. Most of us can do that in about 15-20 minutes at rough draft speed. In a month that would be 9,000 words. In six months it would be 54,000 or the length of a small novel. In a year, that's 109,000 words.

Now, let's look at the person who will only work when they have an hour. They get 1500 words written in their hour session, but they only do that once a week. That's 6000 a month or 78,000 in a year. Still a respectable number (Again, due to consistency), but it's 31,000 words less than the  300 word a day "tortoise."

A last word of inspiration. Lewis and Clark crossed half a continent traveling only about 25 miles a day. But they kept moving forward. As writers we can learn from that. Consistency will produce results over time.

Sometimes the problem is finding the time to write. I have addressed this issue in Time Management for Writers: You DO Have the Time to Write