Techniques to get you writing, Part 2: working with goals

Read Part 1: The Psychology of Failure here.

If, like me, you are relatively green when it comes to writing novels, you’ll find that your brain is not yet willing to work with you through the hard times, and has to be coaxed, cajoled and occasionally threatened into cooperating.

As Thomas Edison said, “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, and never a truer word was spoken.  All the good ideas in the world will go nowhere if you don’t have the perseverance to keep going until the end.

Procrastination usually sets in around the point where the momentum from your brilliant idea slows down, and you find yourself having to think about what you are writing.  This is the point where “inspiration” becomes “perspiration” and, if you don’t recognise this and work to overcome it, can result in yet another unfinished manuscript.

You look at the paltry 16k words on the page and the great, looming gulf of words still to be written, and suddenly the fear is there in an overwhelming tidal wave.  Suddenly cleaning out that cupboard under the stairs really seems to be vital to your health and happiness.

Hello, procrastination.

As I said in the previous post in this series, avoidance behaviours arise when we fear that we aren’t going to reach a desired goal or outcome.  You can do it.  Say it with me: you CAN do it.

Not convinced?  No, neither am I.  I’ve been faced with these kinds of frightening goals before; a research project to complete, a training manual to be compiled, an entire syllabus to be converted to an interactive electronic format.  Blind faith doesn’t work for me; I need to refocus, and remove the fear before I can work forward.

So I learned to work with my brain by creating smaller goals that lead me steadily towards the larger goal.  It’s a little like looking at the night sky; you don’t see all the stars at once; you look at the constellations, or the planets, or the bright evening star; small parts that add up to a whole.

Here are my views on how to work with goals; how to create good ones and how to recognise bad ones.

Jane sets some goals.

Writer Jane has decided she’s going to set herself some goals this year, so she can make solid progress with her writing career.  This year she decides to:

1.  Outline and write a new novel;

2.  Edit last years novel;

3.  Submit 3 short stories to magazines;

4.  Write 3 new short stories.

Sound familiar?  I see a lot of these type of lists; writers deciding to take action this year and actually get something done.  More often than not, when they do a progress update mid-year, very little has been done to reach these goals.

These are not effective goals.  They are worthy goals, but they aren’t effective.  So how do you take this list and make it into something that will keep you writing?

Effective vs ineffective goals, and how to tell the difference.

There are three guidelines to keep in mind when setting goals.

A.  Effective goals have a defined outcome.  Ineffective goals have an ambiguous outcome.

Lose five kilos vs lose weight.

B.  Effective goals have end dates.  Ineffective goals are open ended.

Lose five kilos by May vs lose five kilos.

C.  Effective goals have milestones.  Ineffective goals do not.

Join the gym, walk every day, reduce meal portions by 1/3, remove junk food from the house vs eat better and exercise more.

Developing goals.

Lets look at the first item on Jane’s list.

1.  Outline and write a new novel

Well first off, this isn’t one goal; it’s two.  Lets split it up, keeping in mind guideline A.  So our goal becomes:

1a: write the outline for a new novel

1b: write the first draft of the new novel

Note that we’ve changed write a novel to write a first draft, to make the end result clear.

Now we have two defined outcomes, but that still doesn’t help us achieve them.  It’s easy to put something off when the timeline is open ended.  So following Guideline B, let’s set some dates for our outcomes, assuming we’re starting at the new year.

1a: write the outline for a new novel – March 31

1b: write the first draft of the new novel – July 31

There, that looks achievable.  Or does it?  For a goal like this, it’s all too easy to let life get in the way, and suddenly it’s February 28 and you haven’t even started.  Your three month timeline becomes one month and panic sets in.  Cue procrastination!

So we follow guideline C, and develop milestones for each goal.  We might break the timeline into weeks.  3 months is twelve weeks.  So our milestones might look a little like this:

Wk 1: Brainstorm idea

Wk 2: Basic plotline

Wk 3-4: Develop characters

Wk 5-7: World building (for those of us in the fantasy/science fiction field!)

Wk 8: Write calendar of events

Wk 9: Brainstorm scenes

Wk 10-12: Organise scenes into outline

For the first draft goal, you might make your milestones scenes written, or chapters written, or pages written, or word counts (more on word counts next week).

Goals for pantsers.

This approach works fine for a plotter, but I can hear the pantsers having kittens in the background, because they don’t plan their novels out beforehand.

That’s fine.  You don’t need to know where your story is going to set realistic and achievable milestones.  You may skip the outlining step, but you can still set yourself the task of writing four scenes per week, or a chapter, or a number of pages.

A trick for pantsers is to set a new milestone at the end of each day.  For example, you might have just written a scene where Julia finally tells Anthony that she was the one who drowned his guinea pig in grade 4, and Anthony, in a huff, packs his bags and heads for Sydney, leaving her with mounting bills and two neurotic Siberian huskies to care for.  At the end of your writing session, make a note; either in your notepad or your document.  “Tomorrow Julia has to deal with debt collectors and hairballs.”   That’s your milestone for the next day.

Balance productivity and achievability.

2000 words a day might look great on a timeline, but if that’s going to be a hard slog for you, you will quickly find yourself making excuses not to write.  One scene a day is perfectly reasonable; one paragraph a day is fine if that’s all you can achieve.  Make it a goal you can reach, and if you pass it, congratulate yourself and keep going.  Confidence does wonders for productivity.

If you find that you are consistently and easily achieving your milestones, then you can fine-tune.  Make it six scenes a week, or two chapters, or twenty pages.  Bring your end date forward.  Finishing early is a huge boost to your confidence.  Aim as high as you can reach, or if you’re the competitive type, aim just a little bit higher.

However, be very wary of setting difficult or unrealistic goals in the beginning.  That’s called setting yourself up to fail.  Not only is it bad for progress, it’s awful for the psyche, and you’ll find yourself, more often than not, completely blocked and searching desperately for an activity to take your mind off your perceived failure.

Always remember:

It is better to overshoot a small goal than fail to reach a large one.

Record and track your goals.

Don’t fret too much about how long it takes you to write a scene or a chapter.  They’re going to be of varied lengths anyway.  The point is to be able to say, at the end of the week, “I wrote four scenes; I have achieved my goal”.  Tick it off your list or your calendar or put it in your writing journal.

You need to be able to check your milestones at the end of the day, the week or the month, and see if you are still on track.  If you aren’t, then you need to reassess.  The act of resetting a goal can sometimes be enough to get you back to a project when you have been stuck.

This all sounds like work!

It sounds like work because it is work, but so is writing a novel.  Goals and milestones might take you a while to get used to, but there are benefits in terms of your overall productivity.  And productivity is a positive outcome that feeds our psyche and makes it easier to go on.

Have a look at your current project.  Do you have an end date?  Do you have a defined outcome?  Have you broken your goal down into milestones, and applied them to a timeline?

Give it a try.  As with any technique, you need a certain amount of willpower to sit down and work on the individual milestones.  I can’t help you with that; I can only give you some tools to try.

Read Part 3: Using wordcounts to gain momentum here.

12 thoughts on “Techniques to get you writing, Part 2: working with goals

  1. Pingback: Formulating your workshop goals | Not Enough Words

  2. Pingback: Techniques to get you writing, Part 1: The psychology of failure « Not Enough Words

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  5. Ah, yes, how true that is.

    I’m guilty of going with vague generalities for goals and have been for a while.

    I recently started a new project, got 9K in without noticing then stopped and sat back and decided, no, this time I’m going to do it properly. With plotting and what not.

    I’ve also taken up writing short stories as well in the last few months – 10 to date and a couple more in rewrite/editing stage. I think that has helped as it is much easier setting goals with them, given their short lengths, and that experience has helped with the goal setting and plotting for the longer novel.

  6. I will be coming back to re-visit this post repeatedly, I’m sure. Putting your suggestions to good use will go a long way to help me get out of this creative rut I seem to have gotten myself stuck in. Thanks for sharing this!

  7. I couldn’t agree more. The cajoling turns into shoving (hard to do to yourself, I tell you!) I’m currently in the 99% perspiration dept with a short story I am finishing and I have to say, that’s exactly right. I’m thinking too much. And it’s led to procrastinating, me trolling blogs. LOL!

    These techniques help tons! : )

  8. Booo! Planning! Icky! We Pantsers just sit down in the lotus position in the middle of the floor, say “Oooohm” a few times, and the book is done. No outlines or milestones required!

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