Setting Goals

As a writer, I have lofty goals. I’d like to have my books in bookstores and libraries. I’d like to do signings and conferences. I’d like to get at least one of my scripts produced.

It’s fine to have big, overarching goals. But the only way to reach them is to break them down into steps and sub-goals.

This is not easy for me, but I’m trying. For instance, one of my grand goals is to have print books on hand for my author table at the conference in October. Only one of my books currently exists in physical form, but I’m hoping to add at least one more. There’s a chance Changers will be in print by then, but I’d like my current WIP Brynnde to be ready and in print, too.

Okay, so that goal needs to be broken down into finishing Brynnde with time for formatting and printing. I’m aiming to be done writing by the end of June. I did the math, and that means writing 650 words a day.

There. Bite-sized goal, totally doable, as a stepping stone toward a much bigger goal.

As for getting a script produced, well, the best I could maybe do is to have a goal of sending out one query a day until I land a manager, agent, or production company. If your dream is to be published, maybe you should set a similar goal: a certain number of words per day written, or a certain number of queries sent out. Keep a spreadsheet on each, and you’ll find that you feel productive when you can see the numbers and the progress.

Another one of my writing goals is to sell, on average, two books each day. It doesn’t sound like much, but I wanted to pick something attainable and sustainable. Right now I sell 1.2 books per day, so I’m more than halfway there. Once I add some new titles, I hope the number will go up. All the more reason to set writing goals—words per day, deadlines for finishing projects.

Writing can feel like such an amorphous thing. It’s creative and subjective, but it is quantifiable in some ways. Word count, page count, number of queries, sales . . . We writers don’t often want to reduce our work to hard numbers, but sometimes it can’t be helped. And sometimes it IS helpful to do so.

What are your big goals, and how have you broken them down into achievable units?

Write (and Pitch) a Story, Not a Theme

Recently I’ve been fielding pitching questions from authors planning to attend conferences. One writer in particular told me he was concerned about pitching his “theme.” My response: You don’t pitch a theme, you pitch a story.

You don’t write a theme, either, I hope. You write a story and themes arise and develop. It should be an organic process, not something you build around.

If you approach your work with this mindset: “I want to write a story based on the theme of [fill in the blank],” it’s not going to be a good story. I realize that’s a huge generalization, but I can safely say I’ve yet to read anything written for theme that wasn’t clunky and heavy handed. And readers can tell the difference. They know when they’re being lectured and preached at.

Story should always, always come first. I don’t mean plot it to death, but I do mean there had better be interesting people and some stuff happening. Else it’s not a story. At least not one anyone will want to read. (As an aside, some people do start with plot. I start with character. I think either way can work, but starting with a theme or message does not.)

As for pitching, I approach it from this angle: I have a book [my own] that I’m trying to convince a friend [or agent or publisher] to read. First I’ll tell them why I think they’ll like it. “Oh, if you liked that John Le Carré book, you should definitely read The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller.” The next natural question they’re likely to ask is, “What is it about?” So I attempt to answer that in a natural fashion, same as if they’d asked me about any book. “It’s about a British spy in the 1960s. He’s gay, and his lover gets accused of being an enemy agent. So then Peter gets them both out of England, and after traveling for a while they end up in Austria. But then Peter starts to believe maybe Charles is a counteragent, so when Peter gets invited back to London, he starts to dig into Charles’ records . . .” And so on, depending on how much the agent or editor wants to know. They may ask more questions; when pitching Changers I had an editor ask questions about the world I’d built. After I answered them, she told me, “Good. You were able to answer all my questions, which shows you’ve put thought into why things are the way they are. I hate hearing, ‘It’s just that way.'” So be prepared for that, particularly if you write fantasy or sci-fi, anything that requires world building!

And do Peter and Changers have themes? Sure. Peter is about love and trust and being caught between one’s duty and one’s heart. Changers is about loyalty to one’s friends, and also about figuring out your true nature and accepting who you are. If an agent or editor were to ask, I’d be able to tell them that. But their first question is always going to be, “What’s it about?” And they don’t mean theme when they ask that. They mean story.

WIP Wednesday

More from my Regency romance novel Brynnde:

“Am I to understand that you travel a good deal?” asked Brynnde.
“I do. I enjoy it. And I find the country unutterably dull.”
“I am sorry, then, that you were coerced into coming to our house party.”
“Well, it was either come along or knock around Ridgemow alone,” Garrick said.
“So we are the lesser of two evils.”
Garrick grinned. “Oh, Miss Archambault, I cannot imagine you to be the lesser of anything.”

I’ve done the math, and if I write 647 words per day, I can reach my goal of being finished by June 30 (assuming 55k words total). Seems doable, but some days I get almost nothing written, and with summer holidays, etc., who knows? Still, I have to try.

The Veneration of Charles

He was hungry, in that gnawing way that he hadn’t felt in a long time. How far he’d come in the world . . .

He thought of the stories he’d told Peter. Lies, he admonished, forcing himself to face it no matter how much he hated to. The happily married parents, the little sister, the cozy home in Dorset—all the things he’d dreamed up as a child, and Peter had given him the opportunity to pretend further, to embroider the fictions.

Later, in the trenches, he would often think about how no one would miss him if he never made it back.

And Peter. He’d been only too young for the war, or perhaps barely old enough but protected by that mother of his. She’d lost one son and would not risk the other. No matter what Peter said, that his mother held no love for him, Charles knew better. The woman was a bear and Peter was her cub.

Too young or too sheltered, either way, it left Peter oddly innocent. And wasn’t that what Charles loved about him, really? That, surrounded by every machination, Peter slipped through the world doe-eyed and hopeful.

He would hate to know Charles saw him that way. Peter liked to think he was efficient. Which he often was. And brusque. Which he could be. And shrewd. Which he certainly was. But there remained something between Peter and the world, something impervious, like sellotape—Peter saw through it, sometimes distortedly, but remained clean and dry. Visible (also sometimes distortedly) but untouchable. Everything that made a mark could be easily wiped away, leaving Peter pristine.

Charles’s stomach growled a reminder. He would go to Papa’s. Maybe there would be meatballs tonight. Maybe Peter would be there, and they would talk and be friendly. Not like old times, no. Never like that, never again. No use mourning it. But there was hope yet for something new . . .


To read more about Charles and Peter, pick up The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller.

Writing Conferences

Though I’ll be attending my first Writer’s Digest conference in August, I’m pretty versed in conferences in general now. They’re a bit addictive; I enjoy the “juiced” feeling I get, even though in the end I’m always exhausted and want to crawl into a hole for several days.

My first conference was actually a screenwriting conference—Austin Film Festival in 2012. (I don’t count the year I helped out around SXSW while an undergrad at UT because I didn’t really get to “attend” anything.) Though I went alone, I was familiar with Austin and still had friends in the area. Looking back, that probably wasn’t actually a good thing. Much as I enjoyed seeing my friends, it kept me from being fully immersed in the conference itself.

In 2013 I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference. Then that fall I went to another screenwriting conference in L.A. that was held in tandem with the Writer’s Digest conference. In 2014 I did SFWC again, but the workshops were almost identical to the year before, so I decided to sit out the next couple years. Last year I had a great time at DFW Con—and saw Texas friends again, but kept it to just the one dinner this time.

This year I’ll attend Writer’s Digest, and I’ll also be a guest author at InD’Scribe. I’m enjoying the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to try conferences in a lot of different places. In this case it will be New York and Burbank. My first New York conference! I’m especially excited about that. Last time I was in New York was 2011. I miss the pizza.

Writer’s Digest will also be the first conference where I won’t be pitching. This allows me to relax a bit.

So how is it that an introverted writer gets revved up by rooms crowded with strangers? All those interactions? Well, I find conferences motivating. They get me excited about writing, and I need that—a kind of jumper cable—now and then when I’m feeling slumped, drained, battery dead. And knowing that most everyone else there is in a similar boat as me, that they’re just as shy and introverted and unsure . . . Yet they all have stories to tell . . . We find common ground there, and support. Hope.

I’ve met some great fellows at conferences, made some wonderful connections, and it’s so exciting to see how each of them progresses with his or her writing.

In short, I’d encourage writers who haven’t attended a conference to find one, even just a small one. Test those waters. Feel that high. I generally prefer larger conferences myself; they’re easier to get lost in, and usually have a wider variety of workshops and topics. But I know that’s not possible for everyone. Larger conferences often require travel and are usually more expensive to register for as well. And some people simply get too nervous to try something so overwhelming. New Pages keeps a list of conferences by state, and Tomi Adeyemi has compiled this handy list as well.

Have you been to a conference? Which one? What did you think? Would you do it again? Are you as addicted as I am, or is that just me? Let me know in the comments!

No. Hot.

The first two words I learned to speak came in tandem. “No” and “hot.” This is because my parents used those words to keep me from doing things they didn’t want me to do. Like change the channel on the television. I would reach up to grab one of those alluring knobs (I liked the clicking sounds they made when I turned them, I remember that distinctly) and Dad would say, “No, Manda, it’s hot.”

Somehow I knew “hot” was not something I wanted to touch. I don’t remember that particular lesson though. What I do recall is that it wasn’t long before I figured out it was a lie. The knobs weren’t hot. These people, these so-called parents, were just trying to keep me from doing things I desperately wanted to do.

Cue a lifetime of having to learn things for myself. Never trusting when someone else warns me or tries to share their experience as a caution. What if they’re lying? What if their experience was an aberration? Do they really have my best interests at heart, or are they just trying to make things more convenient for themselves in some way?

Yeah, I have trust issues.

Once I figured out the television knobs weren’t hot, it became a game. I would creep toward the telly, looking now and then over my shoulder.

“No, Manda, that’s hot.”

I’d reach out slowly. Look back. “Hot?” I’d ask, grinning madly.

“That’s right. Hot.”

“Hot!” I’d cry as I gave the knob a sharp turn. Then I’d run away laughing hysterically.

As for “no,” well, that’s the word I probably heard most as a young child. Whether or not I took it seriously is another matter. Perhaps my parents unwittingly primed me for a lifetime of rejection. Such is the writer’s lot. It’s not fun to hear, but I’ve become long accustomed to it. And there are worse things. Things that really are hot, that leave a blister, a scar. Not always physical. But at least I know I tried instead of taking someone else’s word for it. That, to me, is living.

WIP Wednesday

For a change of pace, I thought I’d share a little bit of the Changers sequel I’m working on. In this YA fantasy series, 16-year-old Cee has a dragon named Livian inside her and a crush on her best friend Marcus. Marcus, meanwhile, has an alter ego of his own, one that has more than a passing interest in Cee.

Cee stared up at the river of stars coursing its way between the treetops and wished they could stay that way forever, her and Marcus, shoulder to shoulder and wrapped in shared warmth from a borrowed blanket. . . It occurred to Cee she once would have counted this a dream come true, being alone with Marcus, sharing a blanket and talking late into the night. Then again, “alone” was relative when one had a split personality and the other was inhabited by a dragon.

Prioritizing Projects

So I recently read Grit by Angela Duckworth (you can read my review of it here), and one thing this book caused me to reflect upon is: What are my ultimate, top-level goals as a writer?

It’s a more complicated question than one might think, and for every writer it’s probably slightly different. What I do know is, I’m not in it for the money. If I wanted to make big money, I wouldn’t be a writer. There’s a notion that writers make a lot, but aside from a very few, no, we really don’t. Especially not in today’s crowded marketplace.

That said, after drilling down, I do believe I want to be a bestselling author. Not in the NYT sense (do those lists mean anything any more?), but in the sense that I’m somewhat known and respected. I want acknowledgement. It feels selfish to say (type?) it out loud, but there you have it. If I’m being completely honest with myself, this is my goal. To have a modest fan base, to be invited to conferences, to be accepted as a peer in certain circles.

So what does this have to do with prioritizing projects? Well, the path to my goal relies on the books I write. I had really hoped Peter would be my breakout book. I was planning at least one, possibly more, sequels. Started writing one, in fact. But seeing as it hasn’t been the hit I was hoping it would be, I’m not having to rethink my next projects. Is writing another book in this series worth my time and effort given my ultimate goal?

The same goes for The K-Pro, which was moderately well received, and for which I also planned a sequel. But maybe that ship has sailed, given the book is already three years old.

In truth, my Sherlock Holmes stories remain my best sellers. The path to my goal would then seem to be to write more of them, and I’ve started another one of those, too! But . . . Those stories require something from me I’m not always in supply of. I can’t spin them out as quickly as I’d like. I need to explore the barrier there a bit more, see if there’s a way to breach it, but until I can, I must turn in other directions.

So now my hopes rest with the forthcoming Changers: Manifesting Destiny, first in a potential trilogy. And with Brynnde, my Regency romance WIP. I realize there is an aspect of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks to this approach, but I’m also the type who must write what I feel like writing in the moment. I’m undisciplined that way. Which is probably why it’s so tough to reach my goal. I need more discipline!

Except that would take all the fun out of it.

It’s a trade-off. I acknowledge that. I can write what I want, willy-nilly, and possibly never reach my goal. Or I can buckle down and focus on the stuff that will sell . . . Hopefully. Most likely. But the fun is in the getting there, so if I’m going to be walking this road, I might as well enjoy myself. By writing what I want to write and hoping others will join me for the journey.