Making Goals in Uncertain Times

Making Goals in Uncertain Times

Planning for things you have the power to do

by Jan Fields

December 3, 2020

With publishing still adjusting to the results of a pandemic, there has never been a more important time to recognize that goal setting is all about planning for things you have the power to do, instead of wishing for things that are out of your control. Goals that involve things outside of your control tend to set you up for failure and encourage abandoning your course. So as you plan your goals for the new year, think about those things you can do, even now. Make your goals action-based instead of wish-based.

A Goal of Priming the Pump
One goal every single writer should have for the new year involves reading. Reading pours writing in so that you can gush writing out. You can consume story in other ways: conversation, movies, television, but only reading allows you to feed your brain story, voice, and structure. Reading actually educates you as a writer and does it without you even realizing it. (This is why it's so helpful for those writing picture books or other short fiction forms to read picture books rather than novels for a while. Novel readers are teaching themselves to be novel writers, but when picture book writers concentrate too much on novels, it can make the picture book writing process so much more difficult.)

The Goal of Making Time
Look at how you are spending your time. Consider keeping a record for a week of everything you do (think of it like one of those food diaries, only more intensive). Then look critically as spots where you spent time with little or no return. Sometimes we need time like that, but those also represent spots where you might mine your schedule for more writing time. The best way to make time is to develop a habit of squeezing in. Many of us spend much of our writing time getting ready to write. You want to cultivate an attitude of readiness so that when these empty moments pop up, you can slip in and write.

The Goal of Reasonable Production
Writers often see statements like "you must write every day" or "you cannot expect to succeed if you don't devote daily time to writing." Writing every day is a great discipline, but I will tell you honestly that I don't do it, and I write more than most of the people I know. Most years, I produce at least six books and sometimes up to ten, including full-length novels. The thing writers need to do is write, but accepting blanket statements like "you must write every day" will set you up for failure. Sometimes, under the pressure of pending deadlines, I will write every day, but I also have family that needs my time, and I cannot maintain that kind of grueling schedule without burnout. This is true even though writing is my full-time job.

Now, having said that, I do write a solid five days a week and sometimes six. If I'm taking a writing break, it's usually because I'm traveling. Still, even five days a week could be too much. When I had a small child I probably didn't write more than one day a week. But I still produced and I guarded that writing time fiercely. I took it seriously so that the people around me would take it seriously. Setting workable production goals (words written, pages filled, or hours spent writing) is important, because it will keep you moving forward. Setting unworkable goals will only make you feel defeated and make it easy to give up.

The Goal of Self Analysis
Are you pursuing the writing that fits you best? When I began writing on a steady basis, I focused on writing for magazines, and I did pretty well. Editors were happy with my work, and I was sometimes contacted by editors asking if I'd write something specific for them. But I quickly learned I enjoyed writing fiction so much more than nonfiction, and that meant I needed to change my focus. I didn't completely abandon nonfiction and continue to produce nonfiction books today, but I became primarily a fiction writer.

I also learned the difference between what I wish I had written and what I was best able to write. I loved picture books. My daughter loved picture books. I tried to write picture books. I read stacks and stacks and stacks of them. I analyzed which ones I loved most. I typed them out to help internalize the structure. And I tried to write picture books. That's when I really learned that I am not cut out for that kind of short form writing. My picture book efforts weren't horrifically bad. Editors said I had talent and that my characters were charming and they liked my humor. But I couldn't do that form well enough to stand out in such a crowded field. So I began to write longer works.

Ultimately, I discovered that I write educational publishing chapter book fiction really well. The pacing, the style, the focus on action and humor were perfect for my personal style. I enjoy writing them. I enjoy reading them. It's the perfect niche for me. I also write cozy mystery novels for adults for similar reasons. These are the areas I thrive in, but it took some trial and error and really looking at the sort of writing I loved and which type of writing I did well to find my niche. And I had to discard a picture of myself as a picture book writer. Finding the writing where I could thrive was probably the best thing I ever did for myself. So that might be a worthwhile goal for the new year. If you've been struggling in your writing, look at what you love reading, what you find smoothest to write, and shift around a little to find your sweet spot to success—it may not be where you think.

The Goal of Networking
One of the last really good spots to consider for your goal setting is connecting with other writers. I learn so much good information because I have writing friends. Many of my best writing friends are people I've never met in real life, but we've chatted about the business, about family, about life so many times online. And because I've been a friend and a help wherever I can, I'm often one of the first people my friends turn to when they are offered a writing job they can't fill or when they simply learn something new about a publisher or editor or agent. So networking has done so much for me. I have people who understand writing and will share the good times and bad with me. (Both, by the way, are important. If I tell my family I just signed another contract for a novel, their response makes it plain they do not consider it a big deal. If I tell my writing friends, they cheer. And sometimes, we need a little cheering to get through the day).

So where did I make these strong writing relationships? Message boards, Facebook, and sometimes comment streams on writing blogs are my primary connections, but I know writers who have developed relationships with others through Twitter or on LinkedIn or via other social media like Instagram or Tumblr. You might also discover local writing groups through your public library or if you have a local college. If you're a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), they will help you connect with other writers in your area. The key is to focus on the fellowship and being helpful. Joining social media venues primarily to promote rarely results in the development of positive relationships. But if you develop relationships first, they may help you promote when the time comes to do it, but if you do it the other way around, people tend to feel manipulated and that rarely results in relationship building.

One important rule for any social networking goal: do what feels comfortable. There are social media I've tried to engage with but they simply aren't a good match for my style of interaction so they don't work for me. That doesn't mean they won't work for you. In this, as in virtually everything about the writing life, there is no single way that works for everyone. We're all finding our way. So choose goals for the year that will better help you find your way. You'll be glad you did.

Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.

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Jan Fields
December 11, 2020

Wow, thanks for the thoughtful comments of support. Andi, good for you on not giving up. I'll admit, I am going to send a picture book manuscript to a contest. I'll never be a PB author, I suspect, but I do dabble a little in writing them. Mark, thank you. I'm so glad you found it helpful. Maureen, thank you. I hope you find it helpful as you plan your goals for the year.

Andi Michelson
December 7, 2020

Wow, Jan, thank you for another insightful column! Your statement of having to give up your fantasy of yourself as a picture book writer because you do other types of writing more naturally really resonated with me. My dream for years has been to be a picture book writer! As yet, I have yet to have ANY book published, but have had two nonfiction magazine pieces printed. In my current ICL assignment I just tried my hand at writing a chapter book for the first time and... it felt pretty good! Anxiously awaiting my instructor's comments. I'm not giving up on PBs yet, but maybe there is something there with chapter books. Thanks for the thoughts!

Mark Redmond
December 5, 2020

Thank you, Jan. As usual, this article was both interesting and helpful.

Maureen Hoeffler
December 4, 2020

As always, Jan, your advice is so thoughtful and doable! Thanks so much!!

Maureen Hoeffler
December 3, 2020

As always, Jan, your advice is so thoughtful and doable! Thanks so much!!

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