Blog | writing craft | craft | time management | writing for children and teens
December 29, 2016
The New Year is galloping toward us at an alarming rate. Are we ready for new challenges and the work to meet them? For many of us, preparing for the New Year means setting goals. Now, goal setting can get us in trouble as we either set unrealistic goals, goals dependent on the behavior of people and factors outside our control, and goals that reflect what we think we ought to do rather than things we are actually motivated to accomplish. This year, I've decided to pursue a new method of setting goals based on the things that have been the most rewarding for me in the past. I thought you might be interested in this seven point process.
Goal One: A Thing I Will Learn
One of the things something successful writers tend to be are learners. This goal is within your control. I know I am always looking for new things to learn with an eye toward improving my writing. For example, I used to see writing workshops and other such events for learning and I felt a sense of longing, but simply couldn't give myself permission to walk away from work long enough to attend. Plus, there was the matter of expense and my personal guilt over leaving my family to fend for themselves while I went off and learned something new. But I finally realized that I had probably done about as much in a certain direction as I could on my own, and I simply wanted to do better. So I attended a conference to get a really focused, intensive look at a new genre. I prepared for it by doing what I could on my own, and then I went. And it was wonderful. I had enough preparation to make the most of every moment. Plus, there is just something about investing in improvement that made me feel so much more committed to that new direction.
For many of the readers of the IFW newsletter and blog, and the listeners of the Writing for Children podcast, your investment in learning has been in taking a course at the Institute (yay), so your goal might be to double down on making the most of that step. Or maybe you're taking a new step. The step doesn't have to require a huge expense. Instead of traveling to a workshop or conference, you can attend an online event, like Picture Book Summit, held the first Saturday in October every year. You could make a goal of doing self-study on English grammar. Or attending a webinar of some sort. Or even just reading and taking notes from a really good writing book each month of 2017. But learning is how we open new creative options for ourselves, so a goal of learning is always good.
Goal Two: A Thing I Will Teach
Long ago I learned that the best way to become truly fluent in anything is to teach it to someone else. When you teach something, you have to examine it from different directions. You have to be prepared for questions and come up with answers. You have to focus.
Every year, I teach Educational Writing in a multiple-day workshop with the brilliant Paula Morrow. I do it because it's a topic I know a lot about, but an amazing thing has happened through the teaching of it: I have grown so much more in the breadth of my understanding of the topic. Now teaching something doesn't have to mean setting up a week-long workshop. It can mean writing a tips piece for a writer's magazine or ezine. It can mean doing a talk about it for your public library. It can mean offering to talk to a school classroom on the subject. So think about the thing you've spent time learning, and try taking the next step of teaching about it. There are few things to benefit your growth more.
Goal Three: The Thing I Will Quit
We all have bad writing habits that aren't helping us at all. Maybe we take too many Facebook breaks. Maybe we quit too soon when submitting new works. Maybe we tend to send out work without enough revision. Maybe we talk down our own work. Maybe we spend too much time glooming about the success we don't have, to the expense of noticing the success we do. Or we succumb to envy. For most of us, we can't take on all of our bad writing habits at once. Therein lies failure.
But consider making a list of all the things that hold you back from taking the next step or being more effective in the steps you're taking now and pinpoint just one of those things you could quit. Make a plan for quitting––a plan is much better than just saying, "Okay, I'll stop." Consider using some behavior modification techniques (visualizing how your writing life will improve without this bad habit, planning rewards for each preplanned segment of time when you haven't slipped into the habit, and planning "punishments" for when you do slip into the bad habit. For instance, if I catch myself bad-talking my writing, I will go donate to a writing scholarship program, or if I stop and check Facebook, I must immediately go clean a toilet.) Quitting an ingrained habit is tough and tends to have moments of failure and moments of success, but it's like your writing journey: what counts is the journey and the effort.
Goal Four: The Fear I Will Face
I personally have always avoided doing school visits. I'm uncomfortable with large groups of people. I like kids, but don't necessarily feel like I have much to bring to them as a writer. And frankly, the idea of school visits makes me a little freaked out. But I don't like being someone who has unfaced fears, so when a company came to me and asked me to do a series of school visits, I decided to ignore the inner screams of "No, no, no," and say, "Yes!" instead.
Then they told me they wanted me to do the visits on the topic of "Research." Can you imagine a more interesting topic for third and fourth graders? Yep, I can too. In fact, nearly any topic sounded more interesting for third and fourth graders. This sounded like a sure horror show. But I refused to give in to the fear. I came up with interactive ways to talk about sources. And I realized I'd researched a lot of interesting things during my years as a writer, things I could tell the kids about. And they loved it. Now, that didn't mean it wasn't scary. It also didn't mean I wasn't more than a little freaked out when the company came to ask me to do it again in 2017. But facing fears makes you feel like a stronger person as well as a better writer.
So what's your fear to face this year?
Goal Five: The Thing I Will Start
Giving up bad habits is good, but starting good ones is even better. My habit for this year is one of exercise. As a person who writes a LOT of books each year, I spend much of my day sitting in a chair with fingers on the keyboard. That's great for my productivity, but less great for my body. So I began looking for a way to add exercise into my life.
First, I had to find a way that wasn't odious. Since I'm an introvert, joining an exercise class was eventually going to have me bail and run away. And living in New England, many solitary exercise activities are too easily ruined by the weather. So I got an exercise bike that doesn't cause me undo suffering by just sitting on it, and I link my riding of it to a guilty pleasure I rarely allowed myself (watching old reruns of Supernatural). So now I give myself permission for this thing I like (watching Supernatural) with my new exercise routine and I find that I actually look forward to the exercise and stick with it for the full hour without any real urge to quit, because I'm getting this treat at the same time. Starting a new habit tends to go much more smoothly if you can link it (Share in the comments!)
Goal Six: The Thing I Will Try
Years ago I had an agent and there were a lot of things I liked about it, but other things I did not. Since then, I do most of my writing in the area of work-for-hire. This is great for budgeting my time and money, but doesn't really ever need an agent.
But I have these things piling up that I really would like to sell: a picture book, a chapter book, and an easy reader. And I like doing my own projects as well as the work-for-hire projects, but tend to avoid them because I hate the whole submission process. An agent could be a big help in that.
So the thing I've decided to try for 2017 is to get an agent again. I have an agent in mind. I know the process for contact. It's not something I need desperately, and I cannot make someone represent me, but I can try to get an agent. I can go through the process for submission. Then whatever the result, I've still met my goal. My goal won't be "getting" and agent, my goal will be sincerely trying and working to get an agent. That is a goal I can meet.
Goal Seven: The Thing I Will Practice
Many things in writing need constant practice and polish. Knowing this, I often thrust myself into situations that force me to practice. For instance, I knew I needed to be constantly looking for new markets and new market opportunities or I was going to miss out on opportunities to sell my work. But looking for markets is something I could easily allow to fall to the back of my "things to do" list. So I needed to find something that forced me to do it. So I started a website listing markets (a website I no longer have) and later, I took on this blog (which starts in the ICL newsletter, which always includes markets––you can subscribe by clicking here). This means I simply cannot give up the practice of looking for new market opportunities.
Another thing I feel is essential to my writing is the ability to create "reality" in my scenes, so I constantly practice things like place description (where I go to a new place and list the sounds, smells, sensations and sights I encounter, thus making a "sensory snapshot" of the place that can be used if I ever set a scene in that place) and I spend time studying how people move and behave in conversation with others (TV can be good for this. While watching your next movie or television show, notice what the people are physically doing as they talk. Do their actions tie them to the location, like whipping eggs in a bowl in a kitchen, or tie them to the other character like putting a hand on the person's arm, poking them). I do these things so the scenes I write will feel as if they occur in real places with real people.
So that's my seven-point goal list. Maybe picking some of the things from this list could help make your 2017 more successful. What do you think?
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.