It’s that time again, where I begin making wild Coyote-like plans to capture the illusive “writing career success” Roadrunner in the coming new year. My definition of success has changed a lot in the past few years (*cough*decade*cough*), and I think I’m in a much healthier place mentally regarding how to measure, define, and appreciate what “success” looks like for me. I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about what I want my day-to-day routines to look like, how I want to spend my time, what kind of things I want to write, and reviewed some of the weak spots in my process (namely, how hung-up I get on the editing process to the absolute detriment of A) getting things finished, and B) moving on to new work).
I recently revisited Tobias Bucknell’s post, “Pigeons,” on his blog, and it still feels deeply appropriate and important, especially at this time of year when “goals” and “aspirations” and “milestones” all get mixed up together in ways that seem interchangeable, when in actuality they’re not. Here’s a quick quote of the two spots I felt were the most important, but it’s a wonderful essay, so you should read the whole thing here.
Milestones are things you’d like to have happen to you. Selling a story. Selling a novel. Getting nominated for an award. Winning an award.
Goals are things you can actually achieve. Finishing writing a story. Writing a certain number of words. Writing a certain kind of story.
Too many people, when they create lists of goals they’d like to achieve in their year, choose to list milestones over which they have little control.
Early on in my career I hit upon a method of focusing and rewarding only the activities that I could control. I knew I wanted to sell a story, but that it was a random pellet. So I focused on writing and submitting stories. No one could stop me from that. I celebrated every 100 rejections (with champagne and nice food and a little mini-celebration) I got as proof that I was laying down the right actions toward hopefully getting a story sold.
What is important is the writing. Getting better at the writing. Writing as much as I can comfortably write. (edited to add: and reward myself for that. Reward myself for doing those things which I can control).–Tobias Bucknell, “Pigeons.”
After I read this post a number of years ago, (and after reading Atomic Habits by James Clear) I started doing the same thing: looking at my process as the focal point (writing, submitting, reading), rather than obsessing about the end-point (i.e. a story sale). For a couple of years, I tracked how many drafts I wrote and how many words and how many submissions I made, and how many books I read. Then, last year, I read The 12 Week Year by Brian P. Morgan and Michael Lennington, and thought I’d try that. I liked the idea of breaking the year into four quarters and tracking more specific goals that way.
Turns out, I didn’t really enjoy that method. For one thing, my quarters all end up VERY different, and it felt too compartmentalized to afford the flexibility I needed. One quarters I was really on the ball and tackled my goals (after having set probably too many of them). In the next one, everything fell apart and sucked the energy out of the following quarter. While I think the 12 Week Year mentality works really well in a business setting designed for quarterly performance reviews, it doesn’t work quite as well for me–at least at this chaotic time in my life. (Note about chaos: Thing 1 now has Strep, and Thing 2 has a whole new cold–WTF?!) I can’t always predict which quarters will end up being easier/simpler/busier, because I’m not in full control of that schedule half the time. Kids get sick. Sudden crisis happen. Unexpected trips come up.
The year-long planning gives me room to breathe and not start panicking if by March, I haven’t nailed my Quarter 1 goals. I do still think in quarter chunks, to some degree, more because of the school year’s fluctuations (Fall/Winter/Spring, then Summer Break), but while school hours SEEM more predictable and calm, I’ve found that often it’s just hectic and wild in a different way. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for when Thing 2 starts full-time school, but it’ll probably just be complicated in a new way, then, too. Flexibility, my friends, flexibility is king!
So I’m returning to the OG planning method: the granular, process-centric tracking. I enjoyed that. I produced well using that. I liked having my own stats at-hand to compare to the previous year and my benchmark Best Year. So now I just need to stick with it.
Which brings us to the fun part of a goals post! (*snort*goals…post…goal post…*teehee* I know I’m lame.)
So what exactly are you looking at here? Well, well, well! I thought you’d never ask!
- Practice Writing – Daily Pages / 3 Pages — This habit is to support getting better at writing. I’ve got Writing Down the Bones (and the prompt deck! Cute!) as well as The 3 A.M. Epiphany (and The 4 A.M. Epiphany) full of writing prompts and practical exercises, in addition to exercises from Writing Fiction and Writing in the Dark, all of which I need to FREAKING DO because I know they’ll only make me develop as a writer. Sometimes these may be more your standard “daily pages” from The Artist’s Way (another really interesting book, btw), in which I whine about how haaaaard everything is and how fruuuuuuuustrated I am, but I’m hoping more often to lean towards Natalie Goldberg’s effervescent brain-mining on those days (I’ve whine enough as it is, thank you very much).
- Read 1 Short Story a Day — This habit also supports getting better at writing. The year I was really dilligent about reading a short story a day, I felt like my own ability to write short stories grew by leaps and bounds. I could feel the structure of a story even before writing it, and that helped SO MUCH. Especially when I aimed at 5k stories or less, because it shaped the parameters in my head so that almost everything I wrote for that year was in that beautiful 3-6k range (Mmmm…I can smell the salability). Also I was just reading a ton of great short stories both from anthologies and top-notch markets, so it was a win-win all around. I also think I produced much BETTER stories during that year, just being so aware of what my competition was and how solid my work needed to be (I can get sloppy sometimes when I’m writing for myself, but my work benefits when I’m trying to impress people–Vanity, thy name is Me.)
- New Submissions — This one doesn’t look like much, but it’s the biggest tour-de-force habit I’m trying to establish this next year. In previous years, I’ve set goals for number of stories written, or number of drafts produced, but I’m ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE at getting things from rough draft to submitted. So this year, I’m only counting stories that are DONE, and DONE means submitted. Three may seem like a small number, but for me, taking a story from rough to finished is a big challenge, and I’m still accepting that my editing process needs to change. More trusting my gut, more fixing as I go, generally fewer drafts. I don’t tend to get stuck revising when I edit as I go–in fact, “shitty first drafts” and the “you can fix it later” mentality really hangs me up in the revision stage. I get too overwhelmed by the sheer crapload of work I need to do or the thinking I didn’t do the first time through, that I burn out on the story and set it aside (and therefore…don’t end up fixing it). I’m learning to accept this about my process, that I need to get stories out of me in a form I like at the end of it in order to polish it in order to submit it and get it gone. Still, it feels illegal to not conform to the “shitty first drafts” ideology. (Like, “Writing is rewriting!!!” I know! I know! But everyone’s process is different, and that might mean mine is different. It’s just scary treading new ground on that front.)
- Checklist Books — I really liked not setting a reading goal last year. I’m still in the process of tallying how many I read, but I’ve got a whole bookshelf of books read that tells me I did pretty good anyway. One thing I’m trying in 2024 is having “checklist” books. These are books I want to read for one reason or another (some I’ve got on my shelf, some I’ll borrow from the library): authors I want to try, books I think I could learn a lot from, non-fiction I’ve been meaning to read for ages but just don’t get around to but also don’t want to give up on. Some books I just need a tiny nudge on. BUT-! I didn’t want that to equal a “to-read” in 2024 list. So I picked a couple handfuls of books and I figure I’ll check them off as I go. I’m free to read whatever I like (I’m a poly-reader, meaning I read a lot of different things at the same time), but when I’m looking for my next read, maybe I pick up one of these specifically. We’ll see how it works!
- Other Stats — These aren’t goals, actually, they’re just my running stats (and they’re sad. So, so sad). This is where I keep track of how many submissions I’ve done, how many personal rejections I’ve received, and how many sales I’ve made (which reminds me, actually, the 2023 number of sales should be 3, not 2, because I sold “Showerlier”!). Anyway–I’ll also handwrite how many rejections I’ve gotten overall (which I’m not posting, because I’m horribly embarrassed–not of how many I’ve gotten, but of how few, because it means I haven’t been submitting nearly as much as I ought to have. See #3 above.)
- Total Word Count — This isn’t really a goal, per se, but it’s something to aim for, and given my typical year output, not terribly unlikely for me to hit. NOTE, though, these are just draft words, not published or submitted words. I just like to keep track.
- Make and Release 3 ‘Zines — This one I added late because I forgot I wanted to do this! I’ve actually got a couple ideas I really, really, really want to do, and I think it’ll be a fun visual-centric creativity to pursue this coming year.
So there you have it! 2024 laid out in shiny plans and goals. Is this all feasible? GOOD QUESTION. Life is looking to be pretty busy this year, with a number of trips and conventions, etc., so I have no doubt it’ll be a challenge. One goal I didn’t put on here (but which is central to my brain at the moment, so it felt silly to put it) is submitting my first novel to agents. That’s my ultimate goal (and thus, explanation for #3 being relatively low, too), but it felt too big to list as a habit/smaller goal. It’s my white whale. It’s my behemoth.
I’m excited for 2024 and for what I hope I can get done. I’m looking forward to establishing healthy habits and rewarding myself for accomplishing those little things I can control.
Do you have any process habits you find especially helpful? Let me know!
Oh! and in other news: I’ve started a newsletter! Oddscope will only go out once a month (if that) when I have news of upcoming publications, zine releases, or events I’m attending. You can sign up here (or anytime on the About Me page)!