In a comment, Shaun Kilgore asked how I developed my five-year writing plan. Since I’m no expert, my initial thought was: Just recommend the books you found helpful.
But it’s not that simple. I believe the old adage: “When the student is willing, a teacher will appear.” What does this mean? Not that some cosmic force suddenly directs teachers our way, but, rather, that we open ourselves up to learning something new. We must first kill the pride that blinds us, and our newfound humility allows us to see what’s always been in front of us in new ways. Our openness allows us to consider points of view that we may have previously dismissed.
Thus, before I can recommend any books to read, or any steps to take, I need to talk a little about my personal history as a writer — particularly my history with writerly goals.
The first real writing goal I ever set was rather simple.
For many years, I had an on-again/off-again relationship with the craft of fiction. In December 2009, just before one of my on-again stints with writing, I mentioned to my wife I was thinking about writing a novel.
She looked at me and said, “You know, just do it, or don’t do it, but stop this back-and-forth, okay?”
Those hard but necessary words gave me my 2010 goal: Don’t quit. And I didn’t. I ended the year with 330,000 words.
Meanwhile, I started following Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, and at year’s end he wrote a blog post on goals. You start with a dream, Dean said, and then you map out the best way you think you’ll be able to achieve that dream.
At the end of 2010, what was my writing dream?
I didn’t have one. After a year of steady writing, I really didn’t know what I wanted from writing. But at the time, instead of admitting that not having a dream to shoot for — instead of saying, you know, that having a dream is necessary for success — I dismissed Dean’s suggestion and told myself that if writing was part of my future, it would happen.
In 2011, my goal was to build upon my success of 2010. Instead of “not quitting,” I had a goal to write 400,000 words. By year’s end, I had missed that goal by 4,000 words, and once again I found myself thinking about the upcoming year. I thought maybe I’d like to be a mystery writer, and I decided to write six novels that year. Six? Yes, six. Hey, I wrote 396,000 words the year before, and if each novel clocked in at 60,000 words, that would give me about 40,000 words buffer. I could do it.
But note: Still didn’t have a dream. Still didn’t have long terms goals. Just a one-year goal.
By year’s end, I was in a heap of writerly trouble. Between January and August, I’d written two novels, and about a dozen short stories (why I switched from novels to short fiction is another story), but between September and December, I only managed to start about six novels, none of which I finished.
At the beginning of 2013, I felt I was really flailing. I didn’t know where I was going. Still, I didn’t sit down and ask: Where do I want to be in five years? I started the year with a one-year goal of writing 52 short stories, but dropped that sometime in February, wrote the first 25,000 words of two novels. It was now the end of May. School was almost out. I was deeply frustrated. So I took the summer off. I was burned out, I said to myself, and I needed a break.
In the fall of 2013, when the kids when back to school, I started writing. I’d told myself all summer I was going to be a mystery writer. I told my wife I was going to be a mystery writer. All I read were mystery novels. And when I finally started writing again, what did I write?
An heroic fantasy novel. And I finished it, too!d
No problem I said to myself. I’ll start writing mystery fiction in 2014. And what happened the first ten weeks of 2014? I started the same damn mystery novel four times. It was now the middle of February, and I was completely desperate.
Dance With Desperation
I don’t know what it is about human nature, but why do we need to hit rock bottom before we begin to change? The fact is, sadly, that we do. Rock bottom meant, for me, opening myself up to all sorts of voices, all sorts of ideas.
The first voice I found was James A. Owen. I’d heard the name before (though I don’t know where) and I knew that he had some interesting insights to creativity (though I don’t know how I knew this). Somewhere on the web (don’t ask; I don’t know), I got a glimpse into one of key ideas:You’ve been preparing for this moment of your creative life for your entire life. Turning the idea around, it means (I think), that we have to embrace who we are, that we can’t seek to be like someone else, and that who we are, we’ve always been.
After James A. Owen, I happened upon a blog post by Bob Mayer, the gist of which is that if we want to be successful fiction writers, we have to create our own niche. How do we do that? We accept that we’re unique, look at our life, our knowledge, our interests — and combine them.
After hearing James A. Owen and Bob Mayer talk about the same thing, I thought: There might be something to that! (Nevermind the fact that I’d taken an online workshop with Holly Lisle who recommends doing the same thing!) I grabbed a pen and paper and made a list of stuff I was interested in. I then threw that list away because I was sure there was nothing on it that qualified me to be a fiction writer.
At the same time, I was able to engage Mr. Mayer in an online conversation about what it takes to be a successful writer. His formula: stick to one genre, write a series or multiple series in that genre, keeping learning the craft of fiction, and stick to Amazon’s pricing system.
That’s very well and good, I thought, except that I don’t know what I want to write.
A few days later, I found Susan Kaye Quinn’s Indie Author Survival Guide. In the early part of the book, she talks about making a five-year plan, and she recommends starting with a mission statement. And bless the woman, because she then provided her own mission statement as an example and explained what she was thinking as she wrote it — and it was exactly what I needed. From her example, I understood what I needed to do.
I dug my list of interests from the trash and looked at it again. Then I got a large 2-foot by 3-foot sheet of drawing paper, sat down at my dining room table, and copied that list onto the drawing paper. I then started brainstorming ideas. I left nothing out. I looked at all my short fiction and said: This is all grist for the mill; everything I’ve ever written I can use to write something new! Opening myself up to any and all possibilities, a vision began to form − and for the first time in my writing life I could say: I’m a fantasy writer.
Not: I would like to be a fantasy write. But I am a fantasy writer.
If all of my interests — both as an adult and of childhood — are like planets looking for a sun to orbit, once I wrote the word “fantasy fiction” on that sheet of paper, everything suddenly aligned. It’s beyond understanding, beyond explanation. It happened, a flash of insight that caused me to literally jump from my chair and begin pacing the house, I was so excited.
I tell this story because the five-year plan I developed followed the discovery of what kind of writer I am. Or to state another way: I could only develop a five-year plan because I knew what kind of writer I was.
The Five-Year Plan
Once I knew what kind of writer I was — and really, I think taking the time to figure out the kind of stories you’re able to write is the most important task you can do as a creative artist; I know I wish I’d figured this earlier — I went on to develop a five-year plan. And I have to say that I relied heavily from Susan Kaye Quinn’s book (mentioned above) and Bob Mayer’s Write It Forward.
1) The Mission Statement. This is about a 200-words summary that includes a.) the kind of writer I am, b.) what I want to do within my fiction, and c.) the attitude I need to have to be the kind of writer I am and and what to be. It also includes any ancillary information that I think might be necessary.
2) My Five-Year Dream. A dream is not a goal. A goal must be S.M.A.R.T. — specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound; a goal must be something we can control. Dreams are beyond our control. When a “dream comes true,” it means that forces outside of our control helped us along the way. For example, in the late 1980′s, Jim Carey wrote a check to himself for $10,000,000 “for acting services rendered” and post-dated it 1995. Even though it’s specific, measurable, and time-bound, it’s not a goal because it requires other people (Hollywood exec’s and movie audiences everywhere) for it to happen. Thus, it’s a dream.
While goals are necessary, dreams are what keep us alive. So, I imagined that luck was on my side, and I said to myself: In my wildest dreams, where do I want to be in five-years? I wrote that down.
Also, my dream included everything in my mission statement. I forced myself to envision where I’d like to be, not just with books and sales, but with craft, with fans, with marketing, with web-presence. The whole kit-and-caboodle.
3) My Strategic Goal. For me, a strategic goal is a half-dream, a half-S.M.A.R.T. goal. It’s a dream because it has a concrete dollar amount, which means that it requires readers to buy my books — something I can’t control. But it’s a goal because, using that dollar amount, I was able to figure out how many sales I would need a month and therefore how many books I would need to write.
Here’s an example:
Suppose you want to your writing to earn you a part-time salary, and for our purpose here, part-time salary is $24,000. That means you need to make $2,000 a month.
If you sell your novels for an average of $4.99, your average royalty will be about $3.50. This means you need to sell about 570 books a month.
Here’s where it gets tricky. How many copies does the average book sell in a month? Here, I think it’s better to low-ball it. Let’s say the average book sells 25 times a month. This means you’ll need 23 books on the market to have a realistic chance of earning $2,000 a month.
In this example, the strategic goal would look something like this: In five years, I will publish 23 novels and will be making $2,000 a month.
Again, I included in my strategic plan every point I listed in my mission statement. I didn’t only focus on money and books.
4) Five-Year Plan. This is pretty simple, really. Since you know you need to 23 novels in five years, this means you need to write four-to-five novels a year. Boom. Five year-plan is finished.
Some goals — learning goals, say — are a little more abstract, and it can be hard to translate the dream to strategic goal, and the strategic goal to a five-year plan. Here, I asked my wife, who’s in a leadership position at her place of work and therefore deals with long-term planning as part of her job, for advice.
She told me that the difference between a strategic goal and a five-year plan is the difference between vision and action. She told me that in every five-year plan she’s ever seen there were vision-points that easily translated to action, and there were vision-points that did not easily translate to action. She told me to see my strategical goal as offering a vision, and to see the five-year plan as the place to list my action plan, and that for the more abstract visions, chart the best course of action I could.
It was at this point I realized something about a five-year plan — something that my wife confirmed.
Five-year plans change. You can’t plan Year Two until you finished Year One because the success and failures in Year One will influence what you do and don’t do in Year Two. My wife told me that, realistically, my five-year plan will be obsolete in three years, but not to worry about it, because in three years I’ll be writing out another five-year plan.
The point of a five-year plan, she said, is to keep you moving toward a target, even though you know the target will move and change. Such is the nature of life.
The key for a solid five-year plan, she told me, is to have S.M.A.R.T. goals. Every action item on the list should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. If you have anything on your five-year plan that doesn’t fit the requirements of a S.M.A.R.T. goal, you need to either a.) change it, or b.) realize it’s a dream or part of your strategic goals.
5) One Year Goals. As you’ve probably guessed, you get your first-year goals by dividing your five-year goals. To write 23 novels in five years means you need to write four-to-five novels a year, and therefore need to average a novel every two-to-three months. Once you know this, you can figure out how many words you need to write a day to hit those goals. You do this with all of your five-year goals, creating one-year action plans for each goal.
6) The One-Sheet. The last thing I did was condense my one-year goals to one page and print it out so I could see it on a regular basis. It’s no good, I realized, in keeping your immediate-year goals sitting somewhere on your computer. If you can’t see your goals, what good does it do you? In fact, having your goals in front of you on a real sheet of paper does more than you can imagine. Before I printed out my one-sheet, I was feeling overwhelmed by how much I had to do. But as soon as I developed a one sheet and printed it out, I saw that many of the things that were causing me stress could be dealt with rather quickly — and boom, the stress was gone.
Okay … so that’s how I developed my five-year writing plan. It remains to be seen how the next five years go for me, of course. But I hope this helps some of you.