Your Writing Year in Review
Every year when December rolls around and I can see the end of the year rushing toward me, I like to think about what has happened in my writing life so that I can plan for my steps in the new year. This kind of checkup of what I’ve accomplished should be uplifting.
As you review your own writing year, be sure to focus on what you have accomplished, not what you haven’t accomplished. It’s easy to focus on things that were completely out of our control: the rejections, the agents who passed, and the less-than-stellar feedback on our efforts. But all those things are really only proof that we are writers, and we are working at our craft. The only way to really know where we are and where we’re going is to focus on what we did accomplish, not what we didn’t.
What Did You Produce This Writing Year?
The first thing to look at is what you’ve actually written this year. This doesn’t simply mean books you’ve written to completion. It can include writing exercises you’ve dipped into for inspiration and practice. It can include short stories. It can include writing about writing. It can include projects you’re in the middle of or even projects you abandoned when they didn’t work. All of these things help further your writing skills, and they all make you a writer, which is a fine thing all by itself.
The next thing to do as you look at what you’ve produced is to celebrate it. Every word represents effort toward your goals. Every word has value, even when it wasn’t the right word. You cannot be a writer without writing, so it all counts, and it all matters. Publication isn’t what makes any of us a writer. It is what makes us professional writers, but you’re a writer far before the first piece is accepted for publication. And publication is terrific (most of the time), but it’s not what defines us. What defines us is the ability to translate thoughts into printed words in a clear, engaging way that can be communicated to others. So how much of that did you do this year?
Once you’ve looked at what you produced, you may (or may not) wish to compare it to what your goals for the writing year were. Sometimes you’ll exceed your goal. Sometimes you’ll meet it. And sometimes you’ll fall considerably short. But not meeting a goal isn’t failure. Failure is not reaching for it in the first place.
One of my goals for this writing year was to try my hand at horror. I hoped to produce one horror story per month. I actually produced one horror story— period. I didn’t sell it. I didn’t even submit it anywhere. But I did write it, and I learned quite a bit from the writing including lessons about tension and the balance of action and sensory detail. I definitely didn’t meet my goal or even come close. With my workload, it was an impossible goal, but it did (1) get me to write a story and (2) made me think about horror writing and possible stories all throughout the year. That has value so this would fall into the miss category, but it wasn’t a failure.
What Did You Learn This Writing Year?
If you’ve come along with me week after week, you may have learned from my nattering on. You may have even learned how to write a book (or some elements of it, anyway). You may have begun thinking about the whole process of learning through how-to books, writing workshops, and writing courses. You may also have learned from writing.
My efforts to write horror have taught me things about horror. I’d already read books about horror writing. I’d also read horror stories and horror novels and even watched horror movies, but the things I learned through the actual writing were different and far more specific to my needs and my writing. So, I’ll count “horror writing” among the things I’ve learned. I’ve not learned all about it, by any means, but I’ve learned a good bit.
What have you learned this year? Did you learn to create more well-rounded, motivated characters? Did you learn to include sensory detail to make your story moments stronger and more compelling? Did you learn to balance dialogue and action? All these things would be part of learning how to write a book, so I’d go ahead and say you’ve learned how to write a book better than you knew before.
Learning is essential for us to reach our publication goals. Writing and writing and writing has value because all that work is a tool for learning and for skill building. Researching markets and seeking information on contracts and agents and publishing is all great, but it won’t help until we work on the writing itself, until we learn. Learn by examples read. Learn by instruction received. Learn by doing. And because of this, looking at the things you’ve learned this year deserves a bit of time and of celebration. The truth is that you’re a better writer now than you were at this time last year. And this learning and improvement can happen so slowly and incrementally that it’s easy to overlook and feel stagnant. But none of us are stagnant if we’re learning and practicing.
One thing you may have learned is what you still need to learn. I’m constantly discovering gaps in my skills and knowledge that I want to fill, so when I’m working on my goal setting for 2023, the goals will definitely include specific learning goals as well as writing goals. It’s great to set goals for big-picture learning: learn how to get an agent. Learn how to write a book. Learn how to self-publish. But consider more zeroed in learning as well. You may wish to learn what opportunities lie close to home or you may need to learn specific skills such as purposeful dialogue that still sound natural or learn how to build tension.
How Did You Invest in Your Writing This Year?
Every year I want to be sure I invested in my writing. The first, and most obvious investment is time. I wrote virtually every day this year. Since this is my profession, that’s not a difficult investment for me to make. I have the support of my family (mostly) and the encouragement of deadlines and the demands of bills needing to be paid.
However, I also need to invest time and sometimes money in becoming a better writer. Without this investment, I run the risk of losing forward momentum in my writing career.
I buy writing books on topics where I feel weak. I sign up for workshops offering useful information about craft or about the industry. Covid didn’t exactly make our lives better, but one thing it did do is increase the number of online learning opportunities. There are even Zoom workshops on all sorts of things. At the Institute of Children’s Literature, we offer a few writing workshops each year and will continue to do so. The narrow focus of many online workshops meant I could find information on specific weaknesses I had at a price that isn’t too high for me to justify. Also, the investment of time wasn’t too high either.
I sometimes feel envious of the writers I know who took full-length writing courses early in their careers. Many of them got a serious jump start from the learning an in-depth writing course brings. I had to spend a lot of time building my skills in bits and pieces when some folks I know immersed themselves in learning for the length of a course and learned so much more quickly. So if you’re investing in a children’s literature writing course this year or next—good for you! If you’re in the middle of your course, push through. I know a lot of writers who are solidly ahead in their careers for having done what you’re doing. Don’t give up. If you didn’t finish the writing course this year, be sure you do it next year so you can check it off during your writing year in review next year! That time will pay you back with a boost in your knowledge and the skills necessary to get where you want to go.
This investment check can help you see where you need to invest next year. There are always new things to learn and new opportunities to learn them. Consider which investments worked best for you. Did you read the writing books you bought? What did you learn from them? How about workshops you attended, in person or online? How about skill-building courses? What was the best way to learn for you? Consider focusing your writing investments that way next year. And commit to the time investments as well. Whether you invest time or invest money, value those investments because you seriously cannot get where you want to go without them.
When your analysis of 2022 is complete, you’ll be ready to plan for 2023 with clear eyes and the knowledge of how best to get where you’re wanting to go.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.