Writing Goals for 2014: Building a Sustainable Writing Life

My goals for 2014 keep me company at work

Each January I try to set goals for myself for the coming year. Writing down my goals helps me visualize the smaller steps I need to take to meet those targets. As suggested by countless other writers, I try to keep my goals focused on actions I can control – numbers of submissions instead of acceptances.

So! Before I set my goals for 2014, I checked in on my goals for 2013 to see which ones I met and where I might have fallen a little short.

Goals for 2013 Check-in

  • Complete the first draft of one novel
    • I did not meet this goal, so I’m carrying it over to 2014.
  • Attend a residential writing workshop
    • Check! I attended the Beginning Novel Writers Workshop held at the University of Kansas, hosted by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, taught by the amazing Kij Johnson and Barbara Webb. It was a great experience, and helped me find the right path for my novel.
  • Keep my current stories in the submission/ revision queue until they sell or I run out of suitable markets.
    • Check! My stories have been on a steady submission regimen. I’ve been pretty good at sticking with the “send it out to a new market as soon as you receive a rejection” strategy.
  • Write 3 new stories and submit them. 
    • I’ve not stuck with this one as closely as I should have. However, I have done serious revisions on a few stories I have faith in and have submitted them. I’m going to carry this goal on to 2014 and try to write fresh stories and work less on the revisions.
  • Experiment with storytelling in different genres (like visual narratives and non-fiction). 
    • I didn’t meet this goal either. I’d still like to write a graphic narrative and write non-fiction, but I’m not adding them to my goal list for 2014 at the moment. I want to wait until I have a specific idea for each of these projects so that I can have a more concrete goal.

Goals for 2014

Looking at the goals I set for myself in 2013, I think I need to hold myself accountable for more writerly development, interactions with other writers, and set hard goals for activities I’ve had on my idea back burner for a while.

I’ve divided my goals for 2014 into different categories. My big idea, right at the top of my goal list, is to build a sustainable writing life. I’m not sure what this means yet. Ultimately, I’d like for it to mean a pleasant, steady job that gives me enough money and time to work on my writing life, which includes writing, attending workshops and conventions, and teaching writing to others. Until I can find a job that fulfills all of those needs, I’ll try building sustainability daily in small ways.

What are your goals for 2014? How are you stretching yourself from last year?

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Staying Sane

Two weeks ago life came to a full stop. For two days during the weekend, I was by myself with no means of transportation. I hadn’t planned to take that kind of break from life. I was going to distract myself with movies at the theater and family, but my family was busy, bad weather shortened our time together, and I wasn’t able to drive to the movie theater. I was stuck with myself and my two cats and an empty-feeling apartment.

You know in cartoons when someone is running really fast and they don’t realize they’re headed for the edge of a ravine until they’re right up on it? Then when they put on the breaks they keep skidding a little until their toes are curling over the edge? That’s what that weekend and the week after felt like. 
In the middle of the weekend, I started reading a book that my boyfriend had checked out of the library, Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane. Kismet, maybe. It was the book I needed during that long weekend. 
It’s a slim, easy to read book that feels much more like a gentle conversation than a condescending how-to book. 
There were two exercises that I’ve heard before, but Perry convinced me to try again. I think they’ve been really helpful for me as I try to strike a new balance between my writing life, my work life, and my personal life. 
1. Keeping a Diary
Sometimes I feel like all writing has to be productive writing. If I’m going to spend half an hour writing, shouldn’t I spend that time revising a short story or working on a novel? But Perry makes an excellent case for the benefits of keeping a daily journal, including a longer life. I’ve been writing in a journal for the last two weeks. Not every day, but most days. And I cannot tell you how much it helps to rearrange my brain so that there’s nothing left on my shoulders for the next day. 
I have to make sure I don’t leave the journal writing to the last minute, however. Journal writing in bed right before going to sleep leaves me with half-hearted scrawls on paper and waking up ten minutes later with a pen still in my hand. Journal writing fits, for me, into that awkward night space where I start to worry about the next day. Filling this time with journal writing helps me focus, keep positive, and use the rest of my evening time well. 
2. Circles of Increasing Challenges
The other exercise I found most helpful in this book is to draw a diagram of your personal boundaries and work on pushing through them one level at a time. An easy example of this is social interaction. In the center circle, you would write what kinds of social interaction are 100% ok with you. Like, staying at home watching Star Trek with your SO. Around that circle, you would draw a larger one, with interactions that are still doable, but maybe a little bit less comfortable, like going to a group event for a few hours. The idea of this exercise is to keep drawing larger rings around the original circle, filling each level with boundaries you would like to push past. Perry urges you to keep checking on your progress, pushing yourself bit by bit past your comfort zone, so that the leap to the person you want to be is instead a series of small steps. 
Perry also states that being mindful of pushing your boundaries is important to avoid slipping back into your shell of comfortable habits. Last year I made interacting with fellow writers and geeks regularly part of my writing goals, and I attended more events than I normally would have. I strengthened friendships, met new people, and was more productive as a writer. This year I didn’t include those interactions in my goals, thinking that I’d naturally keep up those habits. But they’ve fallen by the wayside, and I’m revising my goals to include conventions and crit groups both local and out of state this year.

There are many more exercises and great examples in this book, and I would highly recommend reading it, especially to writers. Not only for developing needs and obstacles for characters, but for working through your own as well.

Do you have favorite resources or personal exercises for staying sane as a writer? How do you balance writerly needs and ambitions with everyday life? 

Australian Women Writers Challenge

This year I’m challenging myself to read more books by Australian women authors as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

My specific self-challenge is to read six books by Australian women authors in 2013.

Here are two of the books I’m planning to read this year:

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
Selkies and witches and Lanagan’s brilliant prose. I’ve heard murmurs of greatness about this book, but I’ve not listened too closely for fear of having the details spoiled. And the details in Lanagan’s writing are so wonderful. I bought this book when it first came out and I’ve been holding onto it, waiting for a time when life quiets down so I can make sure real life doesn’t interfere with my reading. Maybe I just need to go ahead and start reading and then real life will have to make room.

The Sinkings by Amanda Curtin
I recently reviewed Curtin’s short story collection Inherited for the journal Antipodes. I had agreed to do a book review for the journal, but had no idea which book I would get. As soon as I started reading Inherited, I knew it had been the perfect choice for me. Her stories are gorgeous, and play with magical realism in ways I haven’t seen before. And the structure of the collection as a whole is also a wonderful experience. As a short story writer who is beginning to write novels, I’m very interested to read a novel by a writer whose short stories I adore.

The other four books I will read as part of my self-challenge I’m leaving open for now, but I’m going to try to read other genres in addition to fiction – one poetry and one non-fiction at least.

Do you have any suggestions of great Australian women writers I should read?

Want to Participate?

  • If you want to take part in the challenge, sign up here.
  • There are some wonderful recommendations on this post on short stories and poetry, and the blog is continually updated with reading recommendations.

Goals for 2013: Looking Back and Moving Forward

I recently looked at the goals that I set for myself for 2012, and I’m really pleased at how many of them I’ve met.

Here were my goals for 2012 and my assessment of whether I met them: 
  • Finish my MFA thesis – Check! My MFA thesis is completed, turned in, defended, I graduated!, and I now have the bound copy on my bookshelf. 
    • Submit these stories until they are published or I run out of suitable markets – Check! While I haven’t found a home for all of my thesis stories yet, they’re all on a healthy regimen of submission and revision. This is going to be an ongoing project, but I’m actively pursuing it so I’m calling it a goal met. 
  • Learn more about writing novels 
    • Begin writing a novel – Check! I particpated in NaNoWriMo this year, and while I didn’t complete a novel I did begin one. Actually, I started several. 
    • Workshop the first 5,000 words of a novel and the novel outline at DeepSouthCon – Check! Had a great workshop, got my butt kicked into gear, and met many lovely people. 
  • Attend at least one big convention (AWP & World Fantasy Convention are my top choices) – Check! I attended AWP and it was excellent. 
  • Continue to workshop stories with my Clarion West classmates – Check! 
  • Read more & seek out new authors – Check! I’ve been reading many more novels this year, especially YA, to get myself back into the groove of how a novel feels. I’ve started following YA review blogs, so that I have a better sense of which books will speak to me before I seek them out. 
  • Be more involved with my local geek community: writing, sci-fi, gaming – Check! I joined my local chapter of StarFleet and have attended events with my group, attended Con*Stellation, and participated in the Science Fiction Writers and Cake Appreciation Society reading this year at Con*Stellation.  

Shadow taking a rest after going for a walk
So what are my goals for 2013? 

  • Complete the first draft of one novel. 
  • Attend a residential novel writing workshop.
  • Keep my current stories in the submission/ revision queue until they sell or I run out of suitable markets. 
  • Write 3 new stories and submit them. 
  • Experiment with storytelling in different genres (like visual narratives and non-fiction)
My main goal for 2013 is to complete a novel. I still want to write a few new short stories and keep my finished stories out on submission, but I think that writing a novel is the next big step I need to take as a writer. Even if this one is a learning novel, it will help me get to the next novel, and the next. 
2013 is my year of the novel, and I’m going to tailor my goals to that end as I go along. What are your goals for the new year? 

Big Ideas and Permissions

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. 
 You can only see as far as your headlights, 
but you can make the whole trip that way.” 
– E. L. Doctorow
I’m slowly growing more comfortable with the idea of stepping into a novel without a detailed outline. I’ve tried making an outline using the feminine journey in the back of 45 Master Characters, but I always get hung up. Why? Because I haven’t spent enough time with my characters and their story to know who they are.

I’ve got three novel ideas, and I keep switching back and forth between them, unable to commit to pursuing just one. NaNoWriMo is about to start, and the days between me and the 10,000 word goal by November 15th are steadily disappearing. I’m kind of in novel freak out mode.

I have two wonderful writing friends to thank for pulling me out of my pre-novel funk.

Alisa Alering sent me a wonderful article by Bruce Holland Rogers about deciding on your Big Picture: why you are writing this novel. Each of my novel ideas has a different practical and creative purpose in my writerly big picture. One is a YA, one is literary/ experimental, one has a good feeling of forward motion. The YA would be writing for a great audience that I am eager to connect with, and would give me the satisfaction of finishing a story that I’ve been writing on and off for years. The literary one might never see the light of day, but it would give me the opportunity to unlock some stories and language I’ve been keeping stowed away. And the one with a good feeling of forward motion feels like one I could finish, that would prove to myself that I can write a novel, and would have enough of a structure to not melt into disparate parts after draft zero is done.

So what is most important to me in this first novel attempt?

My guideposts

With these in mind, my choice of which novel to write is much easier. I’m going to write the one with the sense of forward momentum, the short story idea my thesis advisor asked me about three years after it was workshopped in her class, about a body-modified raven and a lost girl searching for something that others are trying to hide.

The second writer push that happened this week was that Ashley Cowger gave me permission to write a crappy first draft. I’m constantly trying to persuade myself that it is ok to just write, get that first draft on paper, because I know I’m going to revise the story twenty or more times before I ever submit it anywhere. But the impact of having an accomplished writer whose work ethic and creative work I deeply admire tell me that it’s ok to just follow the story where it wants to go the first time through is amazing. I really feel like a giant weight has been lifted off of my chest.

After all, one of my guideposts is to prove to myself that I can write a novel. It doesn’t have to be the best novel in the world on the first draft, but it does need to be done. And if I’m not judging my writing every step of the way, then done is a goal I can accomplish.

So I’m going to pass this writing gift on to you, one day before the start of NaNoWriMo, in the almost November time when everyone’s itching to write a long story.

It’s okay to write a crappy first draft. 

I’m going to do it. Lots of writers do it. 

You have our permission. 

Now start writing. 

Novel Buddies & Goal Charts

Novel Buddies

My MFA friend, Ashley Cowger, and I have decided to become novel writing buddies this year. She’s written a few novels before, and this is my first one. We’re going to set word goals and hold each other accountable. Not in a threatening way, just in an “I know what your goals are – how’s it coming along?” kind of way.

I’ve always kind of felt like writers go to some remote, secret space when they embark on a novel. So it’s nice to have this mutual word playground. We’re building our own castles, but we can talk to each other while we pat the sand into shape.

Commonplace Book

I still have my lovely notebook for keeping ideas, random journal entries, and bits of inspiration. But I wanted to get a notebook specific to my novel project. And I needed for it to be light, so that I would actually carry it around with me. I can’t really take my laptop to work and write on my novel during my lunch break (I tried – too stressful). But I want this novel to be a part of my life for the time I’m working on it. I want to fall into the story and then write my way out.

So I did some browsing and found a great little journal :

It was super cheap ($3), has tight binding, good paper quality, and is small – not quite as wide as the tip of my forefinger. I can throw it in the back pocket of my purse and have it with me if inspiration strikes.

Here is my prediction: novels are like people. The more time you spend just hanging around, just being with them, the better you get to know them. Listening to their story before you tell yours is how you make a friend.

Taking this commonplace book with me reminds me to listen:

Researching, bringing words and themes from different sources together

Goal Charts
Here’s our goal: 10,000 words by November 15th. I started out with a daily word goal of 150. I kept it up for two days.

Goal chart for the novel project’s first deadline

But even though I stopped writing words on paper, I didn’t stop writing. I’ve been twisting the story this way and that in my head, trying to find the angles that catch the most light. At one point I became so frustrated that I swore off this novel idea, started working on something else, and that’s when the lightbulbs started going off.

All of those little X marks where I didn’t write, they still kept my mind tethered to the story. And they made me honestly evaluate how I’ve been spending my time.

My daily word goal is up to 210. I’m getting a really good feel for how not terrifying writing a novel can be, at least, drafting a novel. And while I can’t allow myself too many reverie breaks, I feel more centered and motivated now that I know my novel a little better.

Organization: Submission Board

When I have writer’s block, I organize. 
Sometimes it’s furniture, sometimes wall decorations, but often my organizing has to do with my writing. Organizing helps me stay up to date on my projects, reminds me of goals I’ve set, and unearths old stories I once thought were rubbish but now think are quite ok.
My latest organization project is a submission board. 
Submission Zone, still in progress

Separating the Creative Self from the Business Self

I’ve been having a lot of writing anxiety lately – just completely unable to get a first draft done. Today I remembered the advice to separate the creative writer from the business writer. The creative writer writes the stories; the business writer sells them.

I’ve had my submission sheets taped to the wall behind my laptop for the past few weeks, and today I decided to move them – to create two different spaces. One for the creative writer and one for the business writer.

I’m making my desk space, where I create, free of clutter and surrounded by inspiration and encouragement. On the other side of the room is a small bookcase. Inside the bookcase are short story journals that I love to read (both SFF and literary) as well as my rejectomancy and acceptance boxes. Above the bookcase are my submission boards.

I have a few genre stories on submission at the moment, and I’m gearing up for a big submission push once the literary journals open back up in the fall.

Since I’m submitting to both genre and literary magazines, I needed to make two separate systems.

My Genre Submission Board

Genre magazines usually do not allow simultaneous submissions. They have a faster turnaround (some as fast as two days) and usually ask that you do not submit to the magazine again for a certain period of time after being rejected (usually a week or two).

So I need to make sure that I don’t submit multiple stories to one magazine at the same time and also respect the magazine’s guidelines for waiting to submit again.

My SFF submission board is organized by the name of the magazine. I put the names of the stories I’m submitting on post it notes and move them around the board.

There are more genre magazines than I could fit on a wall, but for the purpose of this board I’m sticking with journals that are SFWA qualifying markets (Pro markets), pay at least a token amount, or have an aesthetic similar to my own. I’ve narrowed my initial submissions to magazines that I love to read and where I think my stories would fit.

If I’ve been rejected from a magazine that has a courtesy period, then I put a different colored post it with the date rejected or the date when I can submit again.

I can also use the post its to mark when a magazine is closed to submissions, so I don’t waste time wondering if a story is a good fit.

Submission Board for SFF Stories

This tactic is working really well for me so far. I can see where my stories are at a glance, and it also reminds me of all of the magazines where I’d love to be published. This makes me consider which of my stories might be a good fit for those markets, and encourages me to send them out.

My Literary Submission Board

The submission board for literary stories is a bit different.

Literary magazines usually encourage simultaneous submissions, as the turnaround time can take up to a year. Like genre magazines, multiple submissions to the same magazine are not allowed.

With my literary stories, I need to make sure that I’ve got each story out at several different journals for consideration at any given time. This way they have the best chance of finding the right reader at the right market.

My literary submission board is organized based on the stories that I currently have on submission.

Each sticky note has the name of a journal, with a little “E” or “P” at the bottom to designate whether I submitted electronically or through the post, and therefore where I should be on a lookout for a response.

I’ve also got several journal sticky notes that have a star in the corner, to indicate that the last time I submitted to the magazine I received a “please send us more” or similar encouragement.

I like to think of these submission boards as the volume control. If there aren’t any bars beneath a story title, then it’s too quiet. I need to find some new markets for the story and send it out.

Submission Board for Lit Stories

My submission board is pretty cheap – just printed pieces of paper and post it notes. But one day I might upgrade to a dry erase board or cork board.

I prefer to keep my own submission board low tech, but I bet this would work really well on Kanbanpad or in a simple spreadsheet.

I’m hoping that these submission boards and the separated spaces will help me push through my block. From my desk I can look over my shoulder and see by the colors on my submission board that my stories are out in the world, doing their work. Then I can turn back to my computer and be the creative self who worries about the story at hand.