Goal setting: a conundrum

I have an Excel spreadsheet for my writing goals.  It is mildly OCD.  I’ve posted screenshots of it and links to it before but I won’t bore you with the specifics again.  I’m more interested in the general today.

How do you manage your goals?

See, I have a dropdeadline coming up.  To meet that deadline, I gave myself a rough-draft deadline somewhat before so I can rest a day or two, get some feedback, and then revise before sending.

I know how to manage my hard deadlines: I meet them.

But soft deadlines, like the ones I set for myself, are… well, by definition, softer.  And squishier. 

Here’s my question: If you set shorter-term, softer goals for yourself, when you exceed those goals, do you reset your next-session soft goal to reflect the forward motion?  Or do you allow yourself that overachievement as breathing room relaxation?

Here’s my worry: Some people say “Oh, I easily achieve my goals and then I’m so inspired I just keep going!  Would you like to see the needlepoint wall hanging I completed of my plot notes with the romance arc depicted in gold thread?”  I am not one of those people.  When I meet my goal, I take a break and eat brownies.  I’m afraid that if I constantly push my goalline, I’ll flame out.

But maybe I’m being too easy on myself.  Maybe I could do more if I just pushed a little harder.  Or a lot harder.

So I’m curious, how do you manage your goals?  How much do you ask of yourself?  How much is too much?

How to publish a romance novel

I’ve only been asked this question a couple times, but I thought I’d get my thoughts down now.  I’ll update and add as needed.   (Disclaimer: There are as many paths to publication as there are writers. YMMV.)

How to Publish a Romance Novel

Step 1: Write a story. 
And if you want to sell a romance, you should probably write a romance.  You’d think they’d make Step 1 easier, since you’re just starting out.  Honestly, I think Step 1 was/is/will ever be the hardest step.

Damn it, already we’re ahead of ourselves, because how do you write a book?  (Disclaimer: In the following section, “you” means “this is how I did it.”)

Step 0: How to write a book

0.1 Read.  Read a lot.  You will need a lot of words in your well in order to pump them back out onto your blank pages.  Read books similar to what you want to write—romance, in this case—and read books vastly dissimilar to what you want to write.  Learn to recognize the flow of prose, the snap of dialogue, the variations of pacing, the expected —and excitingly unexpected—twists and turns of plot, the evolution of character.

0.2 Write.  Write a lot.  You are a writer when you write.  And you have to write your WIP (Work In Progress).  If you want to be published in romance fiction, writing rambling blog posts doesn’t count, nor does writing clever emails or tweets, not even retweeted tweets.  Sadly.

0.3 Revise.  Revise a lot.  You can never revise enough.  Eventually though, you will not be able to revise anymore.  You should probably revise again anyway, but you and I both know you won’t.  I didn’t.  So prepare for rejection.  Probably a lot of rejection.

Common questions:

— Do I need critique partners?

Not necessarily, though I found a critique group to be very helpful.  I tend to get very wrapped up in my own head, and it was nice to have someone to pull me out when I needed a hand.  I also learned a lot from watching them (and hopefully helping them) improve their stories.  But the wrong people can damage your confidence (or inspire unjustified confidence) and ruin your voice.  In the end, whether you have writing friends or not, you will need to learn to trust your writing instincts.

Along the same lines as critique groups, some people wonder whether they should join professional writing organizations.  Again, not necessarily.  But I can unequivocally say, I would not be published without the Romance Writers of America, the national organization for romance writers and my local chapter in Portland Oregon.  I had to put in the effort to convert what I learned from RWA to words on the page, but the group helped me hone my craft and gave me a professional template to follow.

— Should I enter writing contests?

I sold my manuscript off the 2007 Rose City Romance Writers Golden Rose contest, so I have a soft spot in my head… I mean, heart for writing contests.  However, many of my judges over the years hated me (me personally, you understand) and gave me terrible scores.  If I’d listened to them…  Writing contests can give you useful feedback and—when won in sufficient quantities—a certain amount of buzz.  But ultimately, selling comes down to you and one other person: the editor.  (Well, it also comes down to the editorial board, marketing, accounting, the fickle fates, and probably a bunch of other obscure forces utterly outside our realm of influence, but you know what I mean.)

— Does the story have to be complete before I submit it?

If you have no official writing credits to your name and unless you have some amazing hook no one else can claim (like you actually HAVE a werewolf lover, and even then, that’s probably only a hook for a non-fiction book) you will probably need to finish your story before you try to sell it.  Editors and agents want to know if you can pull this off.  Really, YOU should want to know if you can pull this off.  Writing a story with a beginning, a middle and an end is a good way to do that.

— Does the story have to be perfect?

No.  It just has to be compelling.  Trust me, compelling is MUCH harder than perfect.  But at least compelling is attainable; perfection isn’t.

Step 2: Submit your story

Before you submit to anyone, revise again.  Did you?  Probably not.  Okay fine.  But before you submit to anyone, do your agent/publisher research.  You’ve actually done some of your research already if you’ve done Step 0.1 which was read.  You know which stories are popular and who is representing and publishing what kind of story.  Make a list of those publishers or agents you want to submit to.  Make sure they are legit (review Preditors & Editors online for starters); there are a lot of scammers out there, ready to take advantage of eager new writers.  Cyber stalk them in lurker mode to learn what you can about their likes, pet peeves, needs and wants, favorite tropes, preferred brand of chocolate, etc.  Wield this information ruthlessly but don’t bother trying to bribe them (this from personal experience) with anything except an awesome story.

How to submit

— Gird your loins with steel, padlocked with titanium.  If you’re imagining a kind of chastity belt—i.e. no one can touch you—you’re probably getting the picture.  Submission is a fairly accurate word for the process—there’s a terrible vulnerability that goes with it.  The girding protects at least a little piece of you.

— Craft your query/cover letter to exquisite perfection.  Yes, this time perfection does matter.  Go online and read all the free writing tips on crafting a query/cover letter.  Make absolutely sure you have the right person’s name on it (again, this from personal experience) before you send it out. 

— Follow directions.  These days, most editors and agents post submission guidelines on their websites.  Some want the first five pages; some request the first three chapters.  Some just want a letter.  Follow these guidelines.  Consider it a test; what they are testing is whether you can follow directions.

— Send out small flights (maybe five to eight) queries at a time and consider your response.  If you get nothing, you may want to spiff up the content.  Or maybe not; maybe your query rocks and you just haven’t found the right person yet.

Common questions:

— Do I need an agent?

Not necessarily.  I know many writers and authors who go it alone.  I personally had better luck attracting the interest of editors than agents.  But ultimately, I knew I wanted an agent, someone who could be my heavy when need demanded, someone who had access to the people I didn’t, someone to be a team partner in this crazy publishing life.

— How do I know if an agent is right for me?

You probably won’t until it’s too late.  Long-time authors will tell you that it’s not unusual to change agents over the course of a career.  Needs change.  Take the opportunity at conferences to chat with agents.  Read their blogs.  At least you’ll have a sense of whether their business philosophy and personality compliments yours.

— Should I epublish first to catch the attention of New York?  Should I publish straight to Amazon and forget New York?

There are many different publication options for writers these days.  Only you can decide what you want from your writing career—a small press, epublishing with Amazon and Smashwords, a big New York house, eternal self-aggrandizing wankery, etc.  Talk to other writers about their experiences and take their advice the same way you took the advice of your critique partners: with gratitude and a grain of salt.

Step 2½: Learn the business of writing

Get the story done first because the business doesn’t matter if you don’t have a story.  But since you’re researching editors and agents in Step 2, you might as well be learning about the business of publishing.  Professional writing organizations, publishing outlets, agent blogs, reader/author blogs, all these can offer insights into the business side.  Some writers don’t bother with the business side of things.  I think that must be nice.  I don’t want to care about the business of writing—I’d rather lose myself in storyworld—but as an author I’m a small business owner and so I feel I need to have a working knowledge of (among other things):

— Contracts
— Promotion and marketing
— Business planning

Common questions:

— When and how should I start building my “author brand”?

There’s a lot of disagreement about the promotion and marketing of writers/authors and their stories/books.  About whether it works.  Who it works for.  When it should start.  What it should include.  Sadly, I don’t think anybody has definitive answers.

Most people agree that a solid website is imperative.  After that, opinion splinters.  To blog or not to blog.  Social networking via Facebook and Twitter and whatever the next thing will be.  Whatever you do, it can’t get in the way of the writing.  The writing comes first, last and always.  But I think every single person who knows about your book is potentially a bunch more people who know about your book.  And that can only be a good thing.  As long as it’s a good book.  See why the writing comes first?

— Why should I care about the business?  I don’t even care if anyone ever reads my book.  I just want to write.

That does make your writing career vastly simpler.

Step 3: Write another story

Like the military, the publishing world has a lot of scrambling and a lot of waiting.  Don’t waste the waiting time.  Write the next story.  If you’re doing it right, each story is better than the one before it.  Not easier, necessarily, because you’re probably pushing yourself, trying things you haven’t tried before, expanding your abilities, but better.  Yay, you!

Step 4: Keep revising and submitting

Chances are you will be rejected at some point in your publishing career.  Multi-published authors say they still face rejection—on proposals and in reviews—so you might as well get used to it.  Rejection hurts because you care about the outcome, but it hurts way less when you have something else in the pipeline. 

Step 5: Repeat Steps 3 and 4

Some lucky bastards get their first efforts published and go on to lead lives of six-figure advances and cascades of five-star reviews.  If you knew beyond a doubt that you will not be that person, would you still write?  If you are secretly rolling your eyes at me and thinking “I WILL be that person,” obviously your imagination has gotten the better of you.  Which means you’re probably a writer.  Welcome to the club.

Common questions:

— How do I stay motivated in the face of rejection or—worse yet—silence?

Every creative person is motivated by different forces.  I am motivated (I think; I’m not very good at introspection—my motivations tend to be murkier than my characters’) by the impulse to share my stories.  Only I know these stories and if I don’t tell them, they will go forever untold.  So I persevered until I got the chance to share.  Find your motivation and you’ll have something to back you up in the bad times. 

Also, supportive friends with chocolate are good.

— When should I give up?

When people ask how long it took for me to sell, I say—short answer—”More than ten years, about a hundred rejections, and nearly a million final draft words.”  So definitely don’t give up before then. 

At one of the first RWA meetings I ever attended, a long-time member announced she was quitting writing.  She said, “It’s too hard.”  We all cried.  Not entirely from grief.  From relief.  You mean we can quit?  Yes, any time writing gets too hard, you can quit.  And you can start again if you want.  Or you can stay quit.  If you can quit, you probably should.  Writing IS too hard.  If something else makes you happy, do that instead.  Unless it’s writing poetry.  Poetry is probably harder than novel writing, although at least it’s shorter.

If only novel writing—and especially novel writing with the intent of sharing your stories with a wide audience—makes you happy, then write, revise, submit, and hold onto the dream.  That’s the secret handshake.

Deadline approaches

I’m pleased to announce that my self-imposed 30 days bucket o’ cookie dough free has ended.  Got my new 8 lb. bucket today to power me through my last week of revisions.  I find that removing any confusion about what my bedtime snack will be reduces anxiety and increases creativity.

Or maybe that’s just the sugar rush.

Regardless, I now have everything I need to dive into these final intensive days.

1. Chocolate

2. A printed-off blank calendar page so I can check off days as I go.  (As if I can’t count the number of days left in a week.)

3. My open WIP document plus a copied document with all the required changes so that I can delete each revision as I complete it because crossing things off makes me feel productive. 

I’m going down.

On The Far Side

I was never a contest slut.  A contest slut is someone who enters every contest, foolishly hopeful this time one will fall in love with her.  No, I was a contest courtesan.  That’s someone who enters contests with a cold-eyed practicality and intent to profit.

Since I sold my first novel off a writing contest, it’s probably no wonder I have a soft spot in my hard heart for writing contests.

If you were thinking of becoming a contest courtesan, you might want to check out the 2009 On The Far Side contest.  Hosted by the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal special interest chapter of the Romance Writers of America, OTFS carters to the wildest side of romance: Vampires, dragons, shapeshifters, demons (yay!), faeries, witches, aliens… uh, alien vampires…  You get the drift.

The contest meets my courtesan criteria, with solid final round judges and good specificity in the categories (special interest chapter contests have the advantage here because you can refine exactly what you’re aiming).

Categories are:
Futuristic: Hard SF/SF/General Futuristic
Paranormal: Dark/Light/General
Time Travel: Time Travel/Steampunk/Historical with Paranormal Elements
Fantasy: Dark/Urban/General
Erotic (with FF&P elements)
Romantic Elements (with FF&P elements)
Young Adult (with FF&P elements)

Final round judges:
Erotic: Kelli Kwiatkowski, Ellora’s Cave
Romantic Elements: Lucy Carson, Friedrich Agency
Futuristic: Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency
Paranormal: Leah Hultenschmidt, Dorchester
Time Travel: Colleen Lindsay, Fineprint Literary
Fantasy: Deb Werksman, Sourcebooks
Young Adult: Michelle Grajkowski, 3 Seas Literary

Deadline is August 29. Learn more at http://www.romance-ffp.com/OTFS.cfm  And good luck.

While you’re there, check out some of these great FF&P folk.  If you write in these genres, I think you’d be happy here among them.

Danica Avet, Unearthly Musings blogger

C.J. Ellisson, marketing expert

Lisa Kessler, Disney expert (you’ll see what I mean)

Liz Pelletier, our web diva

Terry Spear, Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year

Words of wisdom… no, hope… no… okay, just words

(I know I just posted a couple days ago that I was recommiting to these posts as morning pages. But kind of this is my morning.)

I recently received a note from a fellow writer who asked: “I… was just wondering how long it has taken you to get to the level you are currently at?  I know you have to pay your dues and all that but just curious because it’s so easy to get discouraged with the market being what it is these days.”

You wanted to know how long it took me to get here.   Hmm…  (Revving engines…)

I always HATED that saying “The ones who make it are the ones who don’t give up.”  I railed against it, posted long diatribes, because it’s a specious argument.  While it’s true that you can’t give up if you want to make it, you won’t necessarily make it just because you don’t give up.

The wayside is littered with the corpses of those who didn’t make it, who kept stumbling along and failed anyway.  That’s not even counting the ones who fell right off the starting blocks and rotted there.

I know this sounds dishearting, but bear with me because here’s what I recently figured out:

“The ones who make it are the ones who don’t give up.” 

I know, isn’t that crazy?  Just because I hated that saying for not being all the way True (with a capital T) doesn’t stop it from being mostly true (lower case t) in the working sense of the word. 

If you want to make it, you can’t give up.  Even though you have no promises, certainly no guarantees, sometimes not even a smidgen of hope.  Obviously, the path is not for the faint of heart.

I talked to a friend whose husband had sent out his story and been rejected.  Once.  And he gave up.  I tried to not look skeptical, but I did tell her that rejection is endemic, not just until you sell, but after you sell too.  For the rest of your writing life.

“The ones who make it are the ones who don’t give up.”

Ever.  You can’t give up ever.  From now until forever.  And that’s a really long time.  I certainly don’t blame my friend’s husband for stopping.  Why walk that long, ugly path riddled with corpses where you have no promise, no guarantee, no hope?  Because (say it with me):

“The ones who make it are the ones who don’t give up.”

Are you encouraged yet?  I bet yes.  Because I think, if you are a writer, when I described that road to you, you looked around it, you clenched your fists, and through gritted teeth you said, “I won’t give up.”

Here’s another cold, hard truth: Getting published has always been f!ck’n impossible. The chances of us selling a story was always vanishingly small.  So do you care that in “today’s market” there’s another couple zeros after the decimal point of your chances?  No.  You never had a chance.  You still don’t have a chance.  And if you’re a writer, I bet you’re going to take your chance anyway.  Because (shout it this time):

“The ones who make it are the ones who don’t give up.”

Notice how I haven’t come to your actual question yet?  LOL.  Because the answer was my cold, hard truth.  I have over a decade of serious writing, almost a million final-draft words, and nearly triple digit rejections to my name.  Yeah, ouch.

Will your path be that long and rocky (and wordy)?  God, I hope not!  “Paying your dues” is overrated because the balance owed varies.  But if you knew it would be that hard, would you give up now?  No shame if the answer is yes.  But (maybe this time we should get it tramp stamped over our butt cheeks)…

“The ones who make it are the ones who don’t give up.”

I still hate that saying.  And by now probably you do too 🙂  But if it gets you a few steps farther down the path then it served its purpose.

Write on.