This article title might be “Planning a Strategy” or “Focusing Your Efforts” or, for those of us who tend to think in terms of war rooms and need aggressive outlooks to start the day, your “Attack Plan.” The title is insignificant.
Really, call it by whatever name works for you. (The basis for that reasoning is the creative nature of writing.) A writer must always respect the muse—the gift of writing—and give it its due. So whatever you personally find to be a constructive trigger is “the right way” to approach this vitally important endeavor.
What does matter is that we start at the core and work our way outward. By core, I don’t mean the core of the project, though, as you’ll see, the same principle applies, I mean your core, as a human being, because that truly is where the base point of beginning for everything about you, including every work you ever produce, forms.
So the first question in developing your plan is in understanding why you need one. And the first question in dissecting that is in asking one question: Why is writing vitally important to you?
No clue? Well, that presents a challenge, but don’t worry. Recognition is the hard part. Finding a solution merely requires a little sleuthing. We can sleuth. And you’ll have another chance to answer that question in a little while, so don’t waste energy feeling out of sorts because you got socked with the first question of the New Year and you had to answer, “I don’t know.” You’re in good company. Great company, actually. The company of many, many other writers.
But now recognizing that not knowing is a disadvantage, and disadvantages, particularly fixable ones, in a dynamic industry such as ours are not worthy of being embraced, let’s vote to ditch this one. Exploring is a great place to start.
As I mentioned, I often encounter writers who have not asked themselves that question—Why is writing vitally important to me?—or they have asked and accepted superficial, skin-deep answers. The wise writer will dig deeper, for in our motivation rests our dedication. And we all know writing well requires a supreme amount of dedication.
Feeling compelled to write without knowing why limits the scope and focus of the writer’s thinking, which limits the scope and focus of the writer’s writing. Purpose is essential.
Through purpose, writers touch lives and offer readers opportunities that they would not otherwise have. Opportunities to have open minds, whereas they had been closed. To see something in a new light, or from a new perspective. To gain understanding and insight into other human beings, into situations, into that which before reading your book had been an obscure, unknown entity to the reader. (Remember, what is common to you is often alien, unexplored, or not fully understood as significant to others.)
Through purpose, the writer also grants him or herself the ability to feel fulfillment from what s/he writes. If you have no idea what you hope to achieve, how will you know if you have achieved it? How will you know whether or not you’ve conveyed a constructive means in your work to depict that achievement? How will your readers know it?
Let’s explore what happens when you, the writer, lack that fulfillment. We all know that writing requires an enormous amount of self-discipline. You must choose to get up and get to the computer, the typewriter, or the pad and write. No one is standing over your shoulder forcing you. Starting a book is easy. It’s finishing it that’s the hard part. So what inspires you to finish?
Some will say, “I have to see what happens.” Others, “I just want to finish the blasted thing.” Still others find a myriad of responses somewhere in between, some resonating of being unable to sell anything but a finished product, some at needing to put closure to this project before beginning another with greater financial or artistic opportunities. But these responses too are skin deep.
When you get down to the core, what makes a writer finish a book is discipline. And like all other life skills, discipline must be respected, and honing it requires understanding it. In that understanding is the seed for purpose in your writing.
Purpose gives the writer the motivation to adopt discipline. Discipline maintained feeds the writer gains (in the form of seeing the book develop and the pages mount) and that feeds the writer’s sense of purpose being pursued and fulfilled, which gives the writer a deeper sense of commitment. That commitment builds momentum, which generates its own enthusiasm and energy, and leads to a greater dedication to purpose, completing the circle.
If you were to write out the process simply, it would read something like:
Purpose = motivation = discipline = commitment = momentum = purpose.
That’s why knowing your personal purpose for writing is essential. It drives
what you write. How you write it. Who you have say what you want said, and how you choose to show it. The same principle applies to each writing project, be it book or short story or article.
For the project and for the writer, the human being of the writer, the question remains the same: What do you have to say that you want others to hear? Why?
Despite the professions of some, shall we say, less than generous souls, writers tend to be very human. As human beings, we all want to make a difference. We want to know that our lives mattered. Our work mattered. At the end of our lives, we want to look back and see that we’ve made a difference, served some purpose, and achieved something.
The nature of that “something” varies from person to person. (And we’re grateful for that variety; it expands everyone’s horizons!) It’s our job to find our own personal “it,” to empower it, utilize it so that at the end of our days, when we look back, as everyone inevitably does, we don’t see the one thing no one wants to see: regret.
That’s the value in seeking our purpose. In knowing what we hope to achieve. Now, don’t be misguided into thinking that getting a grasp on your purpose must be some mystical, complex maze. It doesn’t work that way. Norman Vincent Peale put the whole process quite succinctly when he said: you can’t have everything you want, but you can have what you want most. So . . .
* What do you want most?
* What do you want most as a human being?
* What do you want most as a writer?
* What do you want most to convey to the reader in your next book?
Responding to those questions collectively can make clear to you your purpose–and reveal the direction and purpose in your novel. Awareness of these purposes keeps you on track and the work on track, and so your motivation is established and understood, and the momentous process begins.
Again, I ask you: Why is writing vitally important to you?
I offer this advice: Pause here and dig. Deeply.
By now, I hope you’ve explored the questions to you and you can answer this question: What do you want most as a person, as a writer?
If you have explored and you can answer that question, then you now know your purpose—and the goal you must master to feel fulfilled as a writer and a human being.
This kind of “soul” work, while vital, is often uncomfortable. We drag out things
from our innermost recesses and put them under a microscope. We see things we like, but we also see things we don’t like.
Human beings typically prefer not to see uncomfortable things in themselves, and writers get a double-dose of that dislike. As humans and as creative artists.
Because we’re creative artists, an enormous amount of “us” goes into our crafting a cohesive and believable “something out of nothing” book. To be cohesive, we must write with brutal honesty. Even lies (that are convincing) have seeds of truth in them. And to be believable, we’re required to write with authority and conviction. (Nothing wishy-washy creates or maintains the fictional dream.)
Yet when we see our flaws, we run the risk of having them magnify before cast doubt and us on our ability to create our fictional worlds.
This creative-mind challenge can be a major obstacle to writers. It can make them frigid writers, make them afraid to commit to essential novel (or career) decisions, make them afraid to take a creative stand.
That fear and those obstacles have a dastardly impact because writers make decision upon decision in creating a novel. So how can we take this honest look inside and not create the obstacles?
We have to have the courage to ditch the fear.
A helpful way to go about that is to look at what we as writers do NOT have to do:
* We don’t have to become frigid writers, or be afraid to commit, or be afraid to take risks or creative stands. We can choose to avoid these negative things.
* We don’t have to knuckle under and be afraid to explore because we fear what we’ll learn. Some say that all of fiction is about the human condition. Writers are human, too. We can choose to explore our own human condition and trust that what we learn will give us greater insights into ourselves and others.
* We don’t have to reconcile ourselves to never writing the best book possible because we know that to do so, we have to be open from the soul out in our writing to achieve our best. We can choose to take the risks, expose the soul.
* We don’t have to suffer self-condemnation—the worst criticism of all. The kind that cuts so deep a reviewer, an editor, a publishing house, a reader could never reach them. We can acknowledge errors, forgive ourselves, and press on.
We don’t have to do any of those things or make any of those choices. Yet the obstacles are real, and doing nothing leaves writers—all writers—in the middle of what seems to be a dilemma.
This dilemma holds true for all writers, regardless of where they are on the writing or selling ladder: a brand new writer, one with three or four books who is building a base and career, or a well-established Times best-selling author. No writer is exempt from fear or from obstacles.
Now why is that so? And how can we make these unavoidable obstacles less frightening and disruptive?
Understanding is the key. Understanding that, regardless of position or status, as people, we change. What we considered of vital importance at one point in our lives/careers, we now consider just one of the challenges and/or perks or costs of doing business. What we considered trivial at a specific point, as we grow, becomes more important.
Let’s look at an example, using the career of one commercial fiction writer. (Note that the writer’s focus, fears, and challenges change but are always present in some form.)
As a new author: When you’re writing your first novel, your main goal is to write a book, and to write it well. You focus intently on craft and, once it’s written, you give attention to selling the book. To protect your interests, you must study the business and industry.
As the author of four books: You’re building a decent reader base, and you’re moving up the publisher’s list. You’ve learned a lot about what happens to your book inside the publishing house and how the business works. Now, when you write the book, you do so knowing a great deal more about craft and how you work best. You’re studying more advanced writing techniques, and it’s evident to you now that writing is a craft that can never be mastered. Not just by you, but by anyone.
You’ve written books before and you’re developing a pattern, adopting methods of writing that work well for you. You’ve also screened out methods that don’t work for you. You know that writing a book isn’t easy, it’s challenging and it will always be challenging. But writing a book is now a familiar procedure. You know that you can do it because you have done it before–and you have finished other books. There is no doubt in your mind that you can also finish THIS book.
Now your publisher wants to send you on tour. You’ve got to go to book stores in different cities, do radio spots and TV spots and news interviews, and perhaps give short talks here and there along the way. This “interviewing” and “speaking” business is new to you. It’s unfamiliar. You’re trying not to panic, but it’s clear that you have to move outside your comfort zone. You focus serious attention on marketing and doing interviews and on public relations. It’s imperative that you learn to handle this new challenge well.
Now, you’ve written more books, you’ve moved up the publishing ladder, and you’ve made the bestseller list. You’ve hit the TIMES! Here, you’re confronted with still a deeper layer of the proverbial onion that holds an enormous potential for fear and obstacles, and self doubt. (I’ve yet to meet a first-time bestseller who doesn’t doubt it was a mistake.) And once again, you’ve got to tread outside your comfort zone to gain the skills you need to handle yourself comfortably and successfully.
My point is, that with each change in your career status, you change as a person. Hopefully, you’ve become more confident in your craft and business skills. You’ve experienced new things, gained new skills (necessity forces that), and that, too, changes you. Every experience we have alters our perspective as a human being. And you can’t alter the human being without altering the writer inside that human being, too.
So how do you tread through this myriad of “discomfort” zones successfully? The answer is surprisingly simple. Mindset.
A creative mind is adventuresome and constructive. Don’t you love the idea of nothing becoming something? Writers feel that with every book. So extend the experience you gained in respecting your creativity to your career. (“Something good CAN come of this hard look into my deepest self.”)
Use it. Not just in writing the book, but in compiling your career strategy.
Treading into a discomfort zone—which can be anything outside the realm of your current experience–doesn’t have to be a painful act, though sometimes it is. It can be scary but it’s always beneficial in the long run. All it takes is a positive mindset, a marrow-of-your-bones belief that good will come of it. An unshakable awareness that by pulling out those skeletons—those flaws we hate to see–and subjecting them to intense scrutiny, we gain. And we do.
We gain insight and understanding, and (this surprised me) the deep insight can be extremely cathartic.
This is really personal, but let me give you an example of what I mean. I write healing books. Regardless of genre, I write books wherein a character heals internally. That’s my author theme. Healing books.
Do explore and see the common thread all your books have. Every author, whether s/he realizes it or not, has an author theme. Working with yours and not against it assures you of writing your strongest and best work, and (I’ll warn you now), these are the most difficult books for you to write. Bare truth always demands our respect. Your theme is in every book, so take a look and see what every one of your books has in common.
Hint: it’s typically an emotional thread like healing, or redemption, or protecting.
So I write healing books. And in my first marriage, I was a victim of domestic violence. While I talk openly about it (I believe that’s the only way to break the cycle), I only wrote about it passively. In the books, the abuse had already happened and was over.
I did a series of these books—Seascape Series. In none of them did I write about abuse actively happening. I couldn’t. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was hiding from the hurt. The memories. Translation: this was a major “discomfort zone” for me, so I avoided it. I could write about the experience of having abuse in my past with authority and conviction, but not about it happening now, in the present story.
When I discovered this—that I was hiding—I stepped out of my comfort zone and into discomfort. I wrote about active abuse in ALL DUE RESPECT.
Now realize, I’ve been remarried to a wonderful man for nearly 25 years. It took me a long time to figure this out; what I was doing, I mean. And ALL DUE RESPECT was hands down the most difficult book I’ve ever written. I guess I’ve done about 30 or so now, and this one was by far the most challenging. Why?
Because during the writing, I remembered and relived and endured the experiences again. And during the writing, when someone approached me from behind, I did jump out of my skin. I’d catch myself backing up against walls to avoid the “sneak attacks.” All the old stuff I haven’t thought about for years came back, and it hurt.
Yet, I saw things differently. Time and experience had changed the view. And while, for a few weeks after I finished the book, I was still jumpy, I wasn’t terrified to the bone anymore. It—the abuse—had lost its power over me. A power I hadn’t realized it still held.
And then the book came out and the most magnificent thing happened: a reader wrote me a letter saying I’d written the story of her life. If my character—a woman I, the writer, had created out of thin air (and perspective and experience)—could find a way out of the situation without being destroyed, then the reader felt she could, too.
Healing books. She felt she could be healed. Me, too.
So that’s the bonus in pulling out the scope and looking at those rough spots inside us. They’re hard, they sometimes hurt, but they help, too. Readers and you.
Now we see the distinct correlation and value of purpose and fulfillment in our lives, and how that translates to purpose and fulfillment in our work.
I want to reiterate that this exploration inside the writer and the human being can’t be done once and forgotten. With every experience, we grow and change, and we determine whether those changes are constructive or destructive.
No one else gets to make that choice for us. We make it (and too few remember that avoiding making a choice IS making a choice). Far too many writers forget that.
It’s said, that is the base reason for the high rate of alcohol and substance abuse for writers. That, in my humble opinion, is because having a creative mind opens the writer’s soul and we mentally and emotionally experience our stories.
This means we have to have broad shoulders and deal with conflicts and crises. Conflicts are, after all, the spines of our stories and nothing we can dismiss and still have books. Yet, particularly early on, in trying to market our works or get them published, we hear “no” from editors and agents far more often than we hear “yes.”
Rejection is hard for even the heartiest of souls to bear when it comes over and over again and acceptance and/or appreciation is minute or absent in our lives. But if we are centered by our purpose and choose to deal constructively with these challenges–where we feel something “good” can come of them–then we’re afforded the protection of personal fulfillment and feeling we’re making a difference. That makes us far less likely to abuse anything, and far more likely to enjoy renewed determination to achieve our goals. I can’t stress enough the importance of that to all writers.
I’d also like to expose a myth. Some writers, especially early on in their careers, think selling and money will be enough. That gaining fame and fortune equals fulfillment. That isn’t true, and you need to know and believe it. It isn’t enough and it doesn’t fulfill you.
Fame and/or fortune might make your life physically more comfortable, and it might or might not help you emotionally, but neither one will do a thing for you spiritually. If you deem what you’re writing—not editors, reviewers, or readers, but you, the writer—to be destructive, it could harm you spiritually, but neither fame nor fortune will satisfy you. That takes purpose and a sense of fulfilling that purpose, or gaining ground on a path toward fulfillment.
Now why is that?
Again, the answer is amazingly simple, just not something we’ve slowed down and thought about much in the realm of how it relates to our work. So let’s do that now.
As human beings, we know we’re three-dimensional people: physical, emotional, and spiritual. If you think of yourself as a three-legged stool and each of these three aspects as a separate leg, it’ll be easy to visualize what happens if you short yourself on any one of the three. You wobble and topple over. A writer needs balance. Balance facilitates harmony. And harmony facilitates a great environment for creativity.
Understand that I’m not saying your life has to be tootling along and everything going well and there are no bumps in your life’s road. That isn’t going to happen—and hope it doesn’t: What would arouse your passion to write about anything? What I am saying is that you need to seek that balance in dealing with challenges that arise. To do that, ask yourself a simple question: Is this action/reaction constructive? Test it to the physical, the emotional, and to the spiritual sides of yourself. If the action/reaction passes the test, do it. If not, dig deeper for a more constructive solution.
In ALL ABOUT WRITING, I wrote about common sense guides that, when I lectured on them, became referred to by listeners as “keys to success.” For space reasons, I can’t explore them in depth here, but I’ve tried to incorporate the principles, as they pertain to planning, and to give you the tools from them that you might find helpful.
If you have taken the time to develop and write down a plan for your book, a plan for your career, that respects all of your three dimensions, then these plans will respect your creativity (which won’t tolerate be taken for granted).
Having a respected and respectful plan firmly entrenched in your mind makes you consciously aware of what you want and need and hope to achieve. That awareness carries over from you to your work, and over into your life. It aids you in making concrete decisions (to act or react) in ways that are in harmony with you individually, which is one of the strongest reasons possible to make that investment in planning.
Remember: your greatest creative achievements come only when you act in concert with yourself.
We’ve progressed. We have identified our purpose, our reason for writing. We’ve had the courage to explore and dig deeply within ourselves, though it stomped on our “dis-comfort” zones. We’ve discussed how harmony in the human being inspires harmony in the writer. And we’ve explored all of our three-dimensional selves and given equal weight to each aspect: the physical us, the emotional us, and the spiritual us.
All of this exploration identifies what we need to feel we’re meeting our destiny in writing. But how do we translate this need for a plan into a concrete plan? One for our career? And one for our book?
I’m going to share my personal plan so you have an idea of how I try to implement the points discussed in my life and career as a writer. Its basic structure hasn’t much changed over the years, only its content.
Some of what I do might appeal to you. Some of it won’t. Remember, you choose what goes into your plan and how you use it. You choose what things level the three-legs of your individual stool.
Some call this a plan. Some call it a goals list. Some call it an annual strategy report. I call it my dream sheet. The name we hang on it doesn’t much matter. It is what is on your dream sheet that matters immensely. How it helps you focus, elevates your awareness, and reminds you to consider what you most want matters. So call it whatever suits you, but please put your dream sheet down in writing. Writing it all down gives the decisions you’ve made elevated importance.
Here’s the sample:
Each year, typically during the month of November (although with two weddings and a deadline this year, it was in late December), I take some quiet time to reflect on the past year. To look at what I’ve done with my writing—both on craft and on the business–and to choose whether or not these actions were constructive and/or effective.
Each year, I develop a Mission for the New Year. About five years ago, that mission was Aids4writers, “doing good for goodness’ sake.” Due to your requests, I’ve kept the program going, though I just can’t keep up with daily posts these days. Still, this program has become an important part of the fabric of my life. A mission should be important—not to anyone else, because it will effect how they view you, but to you, the human being.
For example, this years’ mission is a revisit of another years’ mission for me. To build the coffers in the Edna Sampson Benevolence Fund. Edna was my mother, a great lover of books and even more of writers. She died in 1997. First Coast Romance Writers started a Benevolence fund to help other writers and named it in her honor. I support it, and this year hope to do more to financially support it. This fund pays dues for writers who are in financial straits and who would otherwise have to drop out of their writing groups. A committee administers the fund. I don’t know where the money goes or who benefits from it; only that its writers who need help. Good for goodness’ sake.
What is your mission this year? Decide, and let it help you develop your dream sheet.
I’ve found that by setting Goals, directing focus on what I’ve done, what I want to do, where I’ve been, where I’m going, where I want to go, and coming up with concrete steps to get there, I feel I have a little more control over my life. I know that many of the goals I’ve set and accomplished, I accomplished only because I focused on them. What are your goals? Focus on what you want, need, and what steps you’re going to take to achieve those goals.
Understand that you won’t reach every goal. One of mine for the past five years was to sell my book–any of them–to the book clubs. I didn’t give up. I carried it over year after year, and at times I sighed over it. But I believed enough to just keep putting it on the list. This year, LADY LIBERTY, sold to Doubleday Book Club, The Mystery Guild Book Club, and Rhapsody Book Club. It finally happened! And when it did–wow!–it really did! Proof that persistence pays. That goals are met on their terms in their time, but you have to give them the opportunity to happen. You have to do your part.
Here are some suggested Dream Sheet topics I use year after year:
* Mission Statement: What is the most important thing to you that you wish to accomplish in the coming year?
* Virtue: Each year, I choose (and often have to repeat!) a specific virtue to work on that I feel will build my character. In 1996, it was Patience. In 1997, Compassion. In 2001, Judgment. Choose a positive influence and focus on it all year. (Warning: you’ll often curse yourself for this. “If only I wasn’t focusing on patience this year, I’d give so-and-so what for doing such and thus.”
Also, be aware that some of these little jewels require more than a year on your list. So you’ll have a “Primary” virtue upon which to focus and a “Secondary” one. At least, I do. (Actually, I could have a string of them a mile long, but I’m human. I can’t do everything at once. So I pick the one I think needs the most attention and focus on it, keeping the second most needy in mind.) This year, that’s Harmony and Grace.
* Writing: often we get so caught up in selling, we forget that we can’t sell that which isn’t written. So what exactly do you want to write next year? Be it a specific book(s) or article(s) or poem(s). Write it down. It makes it more real, helps you to visualize it written more easily.
* Sales: What do you want to sell next year? Make a list, and be open to recognizing opportunities to market these listed projects. (Writing the list gives you focus. You are paying attention to this, and see these opportunities when they arise.)
* Promotion: Published or (as yet) Unpublished, what concrete steps are you taking to get your name out there? Do you produce a personal newsletter, send cards, write articles for organizational newsletters?
* Business: What aspect of the business are you most unfamiliar with? Which facet of the publishing industry would you most benefit from studying intently? Is it publishing itself? How does your industry work? What happens to a book once it arrives at a publisher’s house? What about retail sales? Negotiation tactics? Wholesalers? Distribution? Marketing? Advertising? What about publishing contracts? Pick a topic and invest—in yourself!
* Craft Education: What aspect of your craft are you least comfortable with executing? Theme, character, plotting, description, pacing, style? Choose one, and next year work at developing your skills in that area.
* Reading: Too many writers stop reading. Don’t! It’s a terrible, terrible mistake, because not only do you stop seeing successful authors’ methods, you also get out of touch with what’s being published. So make a commitment to yourself to read. Books like yours, those unlike yours, articles, periodicals–fiction and nonfiction. This deepens your creative well. You know more, you have more to write about. Make a monthly commitment that is realistic for you, and honor it.
* Outreach: What are you doing to reach out to help others? Are you doing critiques? Sponsoring or supporting a benevolence project? Writing a how-to article on something with which you’re extremely familiar that could help others? It’s important to feed the mind and the soul.
Make your goal list as detailed as you like; whatever feels comfortable. The important thing is to think about these things. Choose and decide rather than just drift and feel frustrated because you’re not satisfied with your personal progress.
I have a copy of my dream sheet on the wall near my computer in my office. Another copy in my Daytimer, and a third in my top center desk drawer. For years, I’d tape one to the mirror in the bath, so I’d see it first and last each
day, and review it when brushing my teeth. This constant reinforcement may seem unnecessary. But I credit it with helping me enormously at staying focused on what I want and how I’m going to achieve it. Constructive reinforcement is a good thing. Positive and empowering, and especially in the early years, when writers hear “no” a lot more than they hear “yes,” we need positive empowerment.
So those are the sections of my plan: Mission Statement, Virtue, Writing, Sales, Business, Craft Education, Promotion, Reading, and Outreach. See which of those work for you or bring to mind other sections that would assist you, and draft a plan.
At the end of the year, when you review to see how many of the stated goals you’ve accomplished, I’ll bet you’ll be surprised by how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown. I’m always amazed at the progress, not that I meet every goal. I don’t. But I do meet more of them with a plan than I met without one. And I do enjoy more of my life feeling balanced—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—that I consider a huge blessing. I hope you will, too.