Tuesday, 29 December 2009


I said I would leave you alone till New Year, but I've had enough of this chocolate-eating-wine-drinking-not-knowing-what-day-of-the-week-it-is lifestyle so, I'm back! I hope you are ready.

As the old year draws to an end, I thought I'd offer some thoughts about the next one. It's not that easy with a brain full of Christmas pud, but I'll do my best. It seems sensible to talk about something people do at New Year: make resolutions. And then break them. This item in the Guardian yesterday tells us that scientists have discovered that most resolutions will be broken, for a number of reasons that we really don't need scientists to tell us. Like the fact that they were silly resolutions.

So, let's ignore that depressing  message and focus on what we can do. Resolutions should be seen as goals and should be neither too easy nor too difficult. If they are too easy, there's not much point in them. If they're too difficult, ditto, because they will just demoralise you. Vague resolutions are most likely to be broken - "I will do more exercise and drink more water and less wine" is my standard failure.

But failure need not be bad. Blog-reader and hard task-master, Dan Holloway, said on Twitter today that "in the arts it's dangerous to set yourself goals you can achieve" because it's the first step to complacency. That's a tough message; if it works for you, that's great. But maybe I need to define what I mean by goals. I certainly have dreams and aspirations that are way above anything I've achieved so far, and I don't actually expect ever to reach them. That feels fine, keeps me hungry, and breeds the painful dissatisfaction that is part of being a "Type A" personality. It's part of me that I don't want to change, though I wouldn't wish it on everyone. 

But dreams and aspirations are not goals and they're not resolutions. I believe the best way to look at goals is to follow the well-known "SMART" doctrine. This states that goals should be "specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time-based". [For an excellent description of how to set and work towards goals like this, do go to the Project Smart website at www.projectsmart.co.uk and click on the link on the right, for 8 Strategies for Achieving Smart Goals.] These are the sort of goals that we do need to achieve, otherwise we may spiral into powerlessness.

Based on that, I have a resolution / goal and I'll tell you what it is in a minute. Hold yourselves back.

First, because it's relevant, I want to remind you of a recent post I did about a book called Booklife. That book is partly about setting realistic goals for writers, and how to achieve them while maintaining a life. It's being published later this year in the UK, but if you go to the booklifenow website you'll find extracts. For a taster, and because it's also relevant to what I've been wittering about, try this page here.

Having been someone who always juggled several projects / ideas / crazinesses without planning or stopping to breathe and re-evaluate my life, and therefore someone who regularly panicked about lack of direction or achievement or having too much to do and not knowing what to do first, I have become much better at stopping regularly to re-set goals and evaluate progress. And it feels good. So, I look back at goals I've set for myself [and some do include dreams and aspirations as well, and are therefore sometimes not achieved] and re-set them. Each time, I find that I have achieved some, which feels good, [sorry, Dan - first step to complacency!]; that I have changed ny mind about some, which feels sensible and controlled; and that some are still waiting for me to achieve them, which feels motivating. But those that are SMART will mostly be ticked off by the appointed deadline.

I had one SMART goal which I failed to achieve: I should have written 20,000 words of my WIP by Christmas, and I'd only done 10,000, a significant failure. Was there a good reason? Yes and no. The rather scarily spectacular success of Pen2Publication was the reason, and it was a good one. But I also know that, to be honest, I could have written that extra 10,000 words easily and still spent the same time on Pen2Publication. This is where my new goal / resolution comes in...

On the basis that an important motivation to stick to a goal is to tell other people about it, I will now go public with my new resolution [and then invite you to go public with yours]:
GOAL: I will write my word target each day before writing anything else, including emails. My word target will be a very modest 1,500 words on every weekday unless I am travelling to or doing a talk. I will do this until the first draft of the WIP is finished.
How is it SMART? It's:

Specific - it's not vague, such as "I will put writing higher up my list of priorities", even though that was my initial thinking and aim behind it.
Measurable - my success or failure will be objective.
Agreed-upon - because I've told you and I insist that you agree that this is a good goal for me!
Realistic - because I have not said I can't read my emails, which would be an unrealistic rule for me, judging by past attempts, just that I can't write any / reply to any. I could have said I couldn't put the internet on, but I might need the internet for research while writing [my normal method] so I know I'd be likely to disobey. Besides, reading my emails is my drug and I am not trying to give up!
Time-based - because this is for a set amount of time, not the rest of my life. However, I do hope that it will kick me into a new and life-long habit - but that hope is not part of the goal. It's an aspiration.

You may wonder why I'll still have the same amount of time left for other work if I've written 1,500 words first. The thing is that I fritter time on emails etc early in the day, and don't get going till I have the deadline of tea-time approaching. If I can use the frittering time for writing, by putting writing first with its own specific deadline, everything else, the easier and mechanical stuff, will still get done.

I have some other goals that I won't bore you with - income targets, other writing tasks, development of certain areas, but this is the one I am most in control of. If I can't do this one thing, the most important part of my writing life, then I will despise myself and you are welcome to despise me, too - though the occasional failure through exceptional circs, such as illness, will be acceptable. Please! If I have to miss a day or two, I will just make up the missing word count the next day.

Over to you. In a comment below, you are each allowed to tell us about one SMART writing-related goal.

I'll blog again on Jan 1st, with a post requested by blog-reader Catherine Suttle, who wants to hear how it felt when I got an agent / publisher the first time, as an inspirational start to the year. A kind of "how was it for you?" And how it happened, how I cracked it. Agh - I may have to admit that I broke several of my own rules. On the other hand, "Do as I do, not as I say"... And I didn't send any toffees to unsuspecting agents, thank goodness. [By the way, an agent friend just received a tea-bag with a submission. NOOOOOOO.]

And on Jan 1st I will also ask you for topics you'd like me to blog about in the coming year. Please don't add them to the comments here - wait till Jan 1st.

Meanwhile, let's spend the last two days of 2009 preparing to acheive our SMART goals in 2010. Happy end of 2009, everyone!


Unknown said...

I need to find an agent who can help me achieve my goals by guiding me with good professional advice. So I am working on that (as well as manuscript of next novel).

Marshall Buckley said...

Ha ha, I don't do goals or resolutions or such things.

In my day job (I do IT - no, stick with me, I promise not to bore you too much), I'm hopeless at planning - which is a bit of a disadvantage when part of my role is Project Manager. I'm much more of a reactive person, not proactive (makes me a good problem solver). But let's not get into that...

With my writing, I don't set hard goals. I set soft targets - to finish each book in a certain time, but I don't stress if I miss the target. I don't have a words-per-day goal - sometimes the writing doesn't come, and if it's one of those days, it's not worth forcing it.

So, my resolution (sorry, Nicola, sorry, Dan) is much more vague: simply to stick at it. Get published. Write more, and better.

But, hey, whatever works, right?

Lauri said...

I think it's important to have some goals that are so high they keep you jumping and some that you reach and move on to your new ones, much as you've said.

I also have a big issue with email. I cannot stop checking it. I'm so sure there is fantastic news waiting for me in there since most of my fantastic news writing-wise has appeared in my inbox like magic.

So this will be my SMART resolution (I intend to make a few more before Thursday) -
I will only check and attend to emails in the morning and after I knock off at 5:30 pm.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good points. I've tweeted this one.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Harry Markov said...

Believe it or not I have the very same goal as you. The Internet is my biggest problem, when trying to write and since I do not want to type up a whole novel from notebooks I am sending myself in the corner in order get that 1,5 K done every day.

For further flexibility I also will do a weekly goal that must be hit and will allow me flexibility, when I lose a day here or there for whatever reason [usually lazy ass syndrome]

I have grander goals aka 2 short stories per week and 3 novels in the coming year, but so far I will focus on the smaller picture.

PS: Are you saying we should be old crabbits in order to not grow complacent and be in constant dissatisfaction. I sense brain washing on your behalf. Back to the wine and chocolates with you.

Jemi Fraser said...

Sounds like you've set a very achievable goal for yourself - good luck with it!!

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I sincerely hope your friend received the kind of tea-bag that is appropriate to a British cafe and not the kind that is appropriate to an American frathouse.

Kristin Pedroja said...

Thanks for this, Nicola.

I will stick with my weekly word count total along with limiting the email/twitter/facebook time-suckage labyrinth. This will, in turn, make my more specific writing goals possible.

Rebecca Knight said...

I have a short-term goal that I'm working on now, and am setting more SMARTy goals for 2010 :).

My current goal is to do 10 pages of revisions per weeknight, and finish all revisions by 1/30/10. (I'm so close, but haven't been finished yet. The specificity of this goal will definitely help!)

Elizabeth West said...

Ooh, this is timely. I'm finished revising and editing and am now querying a book, as well as being stuck with the next one.

To get out of stuckityness and back into my exhausting routine (which was disrupted before Thanksgiving - I'm in the US - by gallbladder surgery), I plan to give myself a limit on Internet use. My problem is not with email, but my chat room.

When I was writing the book, I set a limit of 45 minutes to an hour that I could check email, view websites I followed and look up anything unrelated to the book. After that, I had to get to work. I could only go back to surfing after I'd worked at least two hours. I often found myself working way past that.

Now that I've begun a blog, I'll have to really bust to make sure I post regularly. Working on the next one should give me lots of material for that. It's a rather weird subject. :)

That's my SMART goal. If I allow the indulgence, then the craving goes away. Much like with chocolate! (Mmm, Lindor balls...)

HelenMWalters said...

Elizabeth - I love the idea of stuckityness, and I empathise with the whole gallbladder thing as I had mine removed two weeks ago.

This time last year I was very discouraged with my writing and had convinced myself that I would never have any fiction published. As a result of this, the only resolution I made was to start enjoying my writing again. This has resulted in my best writing year ever including sales of some short fiction.

So this year I feel more hopeful and able to set some more challenging goals.

Firstly I intend to finally start sending my novel out to agents. I still have some editing work to do, but once that's done I will start sending it out.

I will also continue to write two short stories a month and send them out, and pitch and write as many non-fiction pieces as the remaining time allows.

Taming of internet use may well help in achieving these goals.

Lorel Clayton said...

Word goal resolutions are the best. I've made mine a moderate 500 words/day, but often accomplish more. I started that goal last year and have finished two manuscripts already, and I'm several chapters into a third. I intend to keep it as a lifelong goal--as well as getting published, but I still haven't firmed up the details on that one.

Douglas Bruton said...

I set my goals very high each year... but also vague... I wanted to write 365 flash fiction pieces last year and to 'hit high' with stories in competitions. The first I almost managed... a computer catastrophe in the summer set me back mentally and physically, but I still topped the 300... only problem now I am recovered from the wipe out of my hard drive is that more than 50% of the flashes written before June have been irrevocably lost.

Did well enough in comps financially for this to be my best year yet. So resolutions mostly achieved.

This year: absolutely no collaborations and no writing groups (for me), frequent back ups of work completed, get novel finished by February, get next two novels drafted out, hit even higher with comps for stories. There, both vague and the bar set high.

Good luck with everyone's goals for 2010.

Administrator said...

It's all very well telling us, Nicola, but how do we check up on you! I think you need a wordcount counter on the front of your blog...:)

Me? Well, i quickly realized, a few years ago, that resolving to 'get published' each year was utterly pointless. It's far more complex than that.

So... I resolve to stop allowing writing disappointments affect the rest of my life. I'd like to compartmentalize my writing somehow so that during a period of rejections i'm not living my life as if i've got permanent PMT.

Miriam Drori said...

I've also had enough of resolving to get published. That's not just up to me, so as a resolution it doesn't make sense.

I also can't resolve to write a certain number of words per day because that depends on what I'm working on at that time.

So, my resolution is to write a list of tasks to complete each day and stick to it, or have a good reason why I didn't. It will include washing, cleaning and cooking. And writing.

Akasha Savage. said...

I have just set myself up a fresh new blog dedicated to me sharing the progress of my WIP with my blogger followers. I have allowed myself a daily word count of 1,000 words, I have yet to see if this is realistic or not, as I also work and have a family to 'look' after...but I figured if I go 'public' with my writing progress, I may actually get my novel finished this year!

Anne Lyle said...

I intend to revise and finish my current WiP (a novel) this year. It's achievable because I have an 80k draft alreadly written and I'm currently doing an online course called How to Revise Your Novel, so I have a lesson schedule and assignments to keep me focused.

I'm hoping to be finished and ready to submit around midsummer (the course ends in April), but since I don't know exactly how much rewriting I'm going to need to do, I'm loath to set a fixed deadline at the moment.

* said...

I like your SMART goal. I'm tempted to do the same, except have a lower daily word count for which I fully place accountability with my four young children who keep me nearly constantly busy and occupied.

Great post, per usual!!

David John Griffin said...

I really like the SMART "system"; it certainly brings resolutions more in line with reality, as it were; reigning in unreachable goals.

Fixing cars comes to mind: "I'll just be an hour fixing it" one might say; three hours later it's still not done.

Because of this excellent post Nicola, I've readjusted one of my new year resolutions: instead of finishing my WIP this time next year, I'm now going to aim for (and be happy with) half of the first draft novel finished. So any more will be a bonus!

Another resolution, which was to totally finish a final editing of an even older novel (my first) than my 25 year old second (if you see what I mean), I'll still keep as a firm resolution. I wait to see if there's success on that one!

A Happy New Year to one and all.


JaneF said...

I hadn't actually thought of making writing resolutions, so thanks for the push! I think I need it.

An agent said she'd look at my full ms if I could bring the word count down to 130 000 words (from 170 000). Naively, I thought this might take about a month. Six months later... The word count is now under 130 000 but I can't stop messing with it. So, I think my resolution should be to STOP and just send it off. By 10 January. Maybe.

Nicola Morgan said...

Samantha - ah, good point!! You will have to trust me...

Well done, everyone and best of luck with your goals. A number of you seem to have the same problem as me with limiting internet time. I do think it's unlikely that none of you are quite as bad as I am, though. I have to be seen to be believed.

Marshal - yep, whatever works. We should never be persuaded to do something that doesn't work for us, just because it works for someone else.

Lauri - ooh, yes, and that reminds me that I ought also to have a "knocking off" time. It tends not to happen now that my kids have left home, but I think I'll try that, and spend evenings doing social stuff (including internet) but also do more reading.

Harry - I agree that constant dissatisfaction doesn't sound like a good thing, but it's like blood in the veins for some of us. We can't help it! (No, I don't recommend it if it's not your personality-type).

Anyway, good luck all of you. I wish you huge success, both with goals and dreams.

Julie said...

Cor!! You're such a better blogger than I'll ever be and you sound just as busy...just with different things!

I've written manuscript for a children's book and have been looking for some good advice and came across your BLOG via www.moiramunro.com. I've also got a copy of the Children's Writers and Illustrator's Yearbook 2010 winging its way to me this week. Thing is, I think EVERY parent believes they know what makes a good book for a child...so I might have a lot of competition. However, your BLOG is VERY interesting and packed full of helpful topics I will keep trawling through. Happy New Year and I am now following you. JewelsDeJour (First-time Parent). xx

Dan Holloway said...

Ha ha! Nicola, I am a huge fan of smart targets. Goals are rather the same as opening paragraphs - what they need is specificity. I am also a great believer in breaking specific goals down into small, manageable milestones.

My 10 for 10 post over at Year Zero, er, specifically urged setting specific, realisable goals.

To clarify, the use of the word goal has a rather mundane explanation - I needed to fit into my 140 characters :)

It's funny you see me as a hard task master - and pleasing in a way. I am always being taken to task for pointing out the dangers of demanding perfection, which people take to mean I'm soft and sloppy, which any of my former students will tell you isn't true.

I think my point was that I see too little ambition in the arts, and that whilst "wanting to make a living" is fine, and is something I would LOVE, 1. it is actually virtually impossible and 2. too few people seem prepared to say they want their works to be remembered; they want to engage with the canon not be in awe of it; they want to do something new, to be at the forefront of what's happening in the cultural world; they want to make a difference.

These are NOT good goals. But they are great aspirations. And we should be less embarrassed about having them. The worst that can heappen is that we fail. And I know I'd rather fail trying to dent the literary canon than succeed in being stocked in my local Waterstone's.

Catherine Hughes said...

Happy New Year,Nicola!

I've posted my one NYR on my own blog but just wanted to point out that I already have the 'Booklife' book (though have not yet read it, having been shanghaied by Clare Dunkle's brilliant Hollow Kingdoms trilogy. So it is already available from Amazon.

As far as writing goes, I have a WIP to revise and edit, an agent to find, and a new idea just begging to be written up. So I do resolve to dedicate as much time as I possibly can to those things.

I think I may start tomorrow on a JanNoWriMo kinda thing so as to write up the new ideas as efficiently as possible. We shall see how I feel about that in the morning!

Nee Coleman said...

Thanks for this, the links and your words make me feel more hopeful. There are so many things I've wanted to do with my life, but haven't yet accomplished because they overwhelm me. The most important thing I want to do is finish my book and get it published. I've made some progress, but I'm still an extremely slow writer. Adding to the confusion are my other interests and obligations. I'm also in a band and need to practice guitar every day, and I like to draw, paint, write poetry, sew, and do other various crafts. I want to sell some things I make too. I'm also interested in languages- I speak German and Spanish, and am learning Finnish and Norwegian, so I need to practice those almost every day. I feel guilty because I don't have a job, but I do go to college. When I did have a job it felt like I had no time for anything else. When I graduate next semester, I'll have to get another job. After writing all this out, it's no wonder I feel overwhelmed. I think I need to prioritize what is most important and make sure I work on that primarily.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

My first SMART goal is... I will revise my business plan by Monday.