Sunday, August 15, 2010

Clarity Through Goals: Building Your Castle

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Ever get ‘the look’ when you tell people you’re a writer? I’ve spent half my life in Los Angeles and the other half smack in the middle of the country. When you tell people you’re a writer in L.A., they respond as though you told them you were a banker – c’est normal. In the great Heartland, however, telling people you’re a writer will get you myriad bizarre responses ranging from quizzical looks to an intense session of 20 questions about how the heck you support yourself by your arts and crafts. Oops! Looks like Johnny is dreaming again!

Dream your heart out, my dears! Dream it out loud! Dream in brilliant, vibrant color! Dream with the sound turned up! Dream with all your senses until you’re totally exhausted, spent and satisfied!

Then plan.

As a writer, you have an abundance of imagination. It’s your gift. But when it comes time to consider how you can turn your gift into a source of income, suddenly your heart starts racing, you don’t know which way to go and some good old self doubt creeps its way into your consciousness. Or, you’re totally confident you can make a go of it as a writer but have no idea where to start. Either way, you need direction. Let your dreams reveal your end point; let your imagination direct you there.

Diana Scharf Hunt said, “Goals are dreams with deadlines.” Becoming a successful author takes a great deal of planning, it doesn’t just happen. And it doesn’t happen at all if you don’t set deadlines for yourself. Here’s where your imagination is your best asset (aside from your writing, of course).

Imagine you’re living your dream – you’re a successful writer. What does your professional and artistic success look like? What do YOU look like? Are you happy? Feeling good? Do you have your office/creative space just the way you’ve always wanted it? Do you have all the techno goodies you’ve ever wanted to help you connect faster (in my dream land, there’s always someone there to hook it all up and bottom line the user’s manual for me). How widely published are you? Are you writing for magazines in print and online along with your books? Are you invited to speak around the country and are you paid well? Have you been a guest on Ellen, Jay Leno or The Today Show? Have you had numerous radio interviews? Do hundreds or thousands of people show up at your events? Now’s your chance to dream big so don’t hold back! What does it all look like? What does it feel like? Be clear about what you want. This is your big picture goal – the level of success you want to achieve from all your hard work. Anything is possible.

Now, work back. Let your big picture goal be your starting point. Sounds backwards, doesn’t it? We’ve been trained to start at beginning, but sometimes to know how a thing works, you have to start at the end point and work your way to the beginning. Imagine what steps you took that got yourself to your big picture goal. These steps will become the many mini-goals you’ll achieve on your way to the big picture goal. If you’re getting multiple book deals, you no doubt have a good agent. If you don’t have an agent or don’t feel you have one that’s working in your best interest, finding the right agent will one day become a goal. If you’re publishing regularly in magazines, you’ve developed good connections with various editors from these magazines, which will become another goal. If you’re speaking around the country, you have a fabulous publicist or speaking agent who is keeping you on the road – yet another goal. The prospect of achieving these goals is totally doable but it all boils down to your work, your craft and you as an author. It starts with the work you produce (or on this side of the looking glass, ends with the work.)

This exercise is meant to help you gain clarity in your writer's life. Many writers have a clear picture of where they want to be as the already thriving author but have considerable difficulty choosing their path. I’ve run into many green writers who want to publish across several genres or break out with their Great American Novel without really honing their craft (see lit agent Nathan Bransford’s take on this). If you see yourself as a modern day Mark Twain or the next Candace Bushnell yet have a great idea for a children’s book, choose the path with more…path! If the majority of your work (and heart) lies within a certain genre, that’s where you need to be. Many writers, once they’re well established, get a chance to break out and do something different – publish a collection of short stories or narrative nonfiction, but it won’t happen when the publisher is trying to develop a devout audience for their shiny new author. Likewise, if you feel you have the next best novel since To Kill A Mockingbird but have yet to develop a readership other than your parents and a few close friends, it’s time to connect your work to others beyond your inner circle by publishing in journals, magazines and newspapers, be they physical or online. Even a blog with a strong following is a great step in the right direction! (Note, the editor of To Kill a Mockingbird took months off her editing job to solely edit Harper Lee’s one and only classic. What does this tell you?)

So where do you want to go as a writer? How successful do you want to be? You know the answer – you visualized it. Writing isn’t a dream; it really is something you do in the real world. And to achieve real world success, you’ve got to set your course by setting goals as your landmarks. You’ve imagined your castle – now it’s time to build your foundation.

And the next time somebody asks you the what do you do question, don’t be afraid to confidently tell them you’re a writer, damn it! Sadly, not everyone has accessed their imagination. But you have! And bravo to you, my dears!

Your Exercise This Week: Spend several days dreaming of your ideal author’s life. Be clear about what you want down to the thread count of your sheets! This is YOUR life. YOUR career. Make it what you want. Write it out, if it helps – make this your next short story! Then, work backward. How did you get there? What steps did you take? If you find yourself guessing or are unsure of how to take that step in the right direction, start surfing Amazon’s great selection of How to Get Published books or head to your local bookseller or library. Like I said in earlier posts, writing is 1/3rd writing, 1/3rd researching and 1/3rd connecting. Start researching and asking questions.

Next, start setting goals with firm deadlines. If you have yet to finish your first draft, commit to an end date and mark it on your calendar. If you’re finished with your first draft, commit to getting the right people to read your work so you can consider their feedback. Set a date on the calendar of when you’ll have sent at least 5 copies of your manuscript or nonfiction proposal to readers you trust will give you useful feedback. And don’t forget to give them a kindly deadline of when you need the feedback. Do you already have your work polished and ready to go? It’s time to start seeking the right agent for your work. While it’s nearly impossible to set a date of when you’ll be acquired by an agent, you can set a date of when you’ll have sent out your first run of submissions. Most importantly, let people know you’ve set these goals. Ask them to check in on your progress from time to time to help you stay on track and keep you motivated.

Whether it’s finishing your book, finding an agent or securing a great publicist, you’ve announced that you’re going to make it happen. Now you're accountable for your own progress or lack thereof. So get started and make it happen!

Have a fantastic week, writers! Dream and Plan!

Later on Monday...Q&A with The Lit Coach.
The above print is "Morning" by Maxfield Parrish.

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